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How Creative People Work

I asked a bunch of writers, journalists, and other creatives how they manage their creative systems.

Recently, I’ve been doing two things that have really helped my writing:

1. For the past year, I’ve been using a spreadsheet to track my writing, input, and a few other factors. I’ve found it really illuminating to see how streaks of writing daily can benefit me, when I really need to take a break to recharge, how reading/watching in new genres has helped me break out of ruts, and how exercise, unfortunately, is very highly correlated with me writing more, and drinking alcohol is not. This is not about productivity as much as finding a balance that lets me enjoy the act of creating, and make it special and distinct from my other work.

Here’s the spreadsheet I use, which is a version of something I saw from writer Leigh Stein (if you haven’t read her excellent satirical novel “Self Care” yet, buy it here!). Feel free to make a copy and give it a try yourself, or adjust the columns, or create something totally new.

2. Since October, I’ve been using a simple word count template (created by author Hannah Orenstein) to track the progress on my novel draft on Instagram. This works for me because as a short piece writer, I was used to creating, submitting, and publishing on a much faster pace, and I missed the engagement with other people as I went. So now I get people weighing in, cheering me on, and giving me little bits of encouragement to keep going. Follow me on IG here to see them, and if you DM me there I’ll share the template with you!

These two systems work for me. What hasn’t worked for me? Trello, A paper journal. My Notes app. Voice dictation. Many other things. But as you’ll see below, those tools DO work for a lot of other writers! I asked people to share their creative working systems as well as something they wanted to shout out this year. Check them out, and see if any of them might be something to try in 2021:

Excellent writer and extremely funny person Cara Michelle Smith said:
For humor and satire pieces, I handwrite ideas as bullet points in a journal. Most ideas are half-baked bullet points, like “what would michael bay’s funeral look like — fireworks??” or “other rom com stereotypes.” When I *fully* adapt an idea (which I count as having a written piece that got accepted by a publication), I’ll highlight that bullet point with my trusty orange highlighter, which tells me that idea is DONE. That’s my very rudimentary way to track creative output: making sure that the number of orange streaks in my journal is growing proportionally with the number of ideas I’m adding, and that I’m not just messing around, writing a bunch of nonsense ideas, and then never doing any more work on them.

It’s also hugely comforting to know that, when the creative well feels dry, I can always open up that journal and find a bunch of ideas I’ve yet to fully adapt!

I love the highlighting elements! I highlight in my spreadsheet as well: green when I submit or get an acceptance, red for a rejection. Follow Cara on Twitter here, and check out the McSweeney’s piece we cowrote together at the top of December: “The Catholic Church is Modernizing!”

Writer of articles, musicals, newsletters, and so much more Kara Cutruzzula said:
After trying apps, paper planners, and intricate Google Calendar systems (so many colors…), a few years ago I finally realized that, for me, basic is best. I use the Notes app on my Mac and iPhone for my ongoing to-do list and to capture all of my creative projects. Everything goes in there, from recurring daily tasks to links to Google Docs for each project. If I start working on something at 12:47pm, I’ll write “12:47-” next to the item, and then write down the time I finish. Over the years, this has made me realize exactly how much time (or how little) I’m investing into each project.

I’ve never thought about the time element…that’s very interesting! Kara writes an excellent daily newsletter on productivity and creativity called Brass Ring Daily, and this year she published a motivational journal called “Do It For Yourself!” Grab it here.

Extremely evocative writer (of both comedy AND horror, what a feat!) Alex Gonzalez said:
I have a disgusting pile of word docs and final draft files sitting on my desktop. Whichever one I was thinking about in the shower is the one I’ll work on that day. For my bigger pieces, like my second horror novel, I send my agent the new document every 10k words just so I can have it sitting in some sort of cloud.

I guess I “track” my output by how many people I have reading it. I try not to sit on something for too long. I send it out into the world and get eyes on it and then I can move on, and when they email me back and say it sucks, I can work it back into my schedule. It’s like a roundelay of revisions.

Love that he works on whatever grabs his attention that day, and also that he has his agent to help checkpoint along the way. I also like to send my agent check-ins so I feel accountable to her. Follow Alex on Twitter here, and check out his latest piece here.

Humor writer and ENGINEER (so you know he’s organized!) as well as an evergreen contender for nicest person you’ll ever meet, Irving Ruan, said:
Pretty much any writing and creative projects that I’m working on gets tracked in this application called Notion (available for Desktop and Mobile). For example, I organize my project spaces depending on what category a given project falls under: screenwriting, humor pieces, personal essays, copywriting, and so forth. Depending on the category, each project space’s primary goal is to track the status of every project (very similar to the Kanban method), e.g. “Not Started,” “In Progress,” “Waiting For Response,” and “Done,” etc. I also leverage Kanban for anything that I’m applying to, like writing residencies and fellowships.

I’ve talked to many people over the years who use card-tracking methods — a lot of people like it to see where everything is in terms of writing-submitting-waiting for an answer-publication. Follow Irving on Twitter so you can catch all his great New Yorker pieces.

Writer, editor of the humor site Points in Case, and one of my Satire and Humor Festival co-founders James Folta said:
I’m not the most granular tracker of my work, but I have two things that help me keep track of the state of things: index cards and a spreadsheet. I use index cards for larger projects in progress: each project gets an index card, on which I outline the project, break down all the steps it’ll need, and note which days I worked on the project. And to keep track of what writing is going where, I use a big spreadsheet. Whenever a piece is finished and goes out, I note it in my “Submissions & Pitches” spreadsheet, along with the date I send it out, the date I hear back, any meeting or pitch dates, the date something runs, and any notes. Between these two systems, I can see what’s gone where, and what has gotten and what needs my attention.

Follow James on Twitter here so you can catch his excellent, one-of-a-kind writing (here’s one of my favorites from him) and any upcoming humor classes! The fest is on hiatus now because of *waves hands at world* but we’ll see what we get up to when the world opens up.

The incredibly prolific and hilarious writer Mike Sacks (also: my neighbor!) goes low tech for a good reason:
I like to keep the tracking system of what I’m working on as simple as possible. Writing is hard enough, and complicated enough. I don’t need to muck it up by having anything too complicated that I have to decipher. Shit, that’s why I got into writing: so I wouldn’t have to have spreadsheets, which is all just white noise to me anyway. I have two folders on my main screen. One says “Finished Projects.” The other: “In Progress Pieces.” Within each of these folders are Word files that list the names of individual projects. That’s it. When a project is finished, I put it from Progress to Finished. I’d recommend something simple like this. Spend your time making your writing and ideas as nuanced as possible, and not the tracking system.

Mike has a new book out called “Slouchers,” that I’m reading now and laughing my damn head off. It’s perfectly executed and designed. Check out the ingenious concept and grab a copy here.

Author and World’s Sweetheart (better than just America’s, especially these days!) Mia Mercado said:
I use a combination of my phone calendar and a digital sticky note on my desktop. In my calendar, I set a reminder the day before a project is due that says something subtle and professional like “THIS THING IS DUE TOMORROW — DO IT OR TEACHER WILL BE MAD.” If there’s a link or google doc related to the project, I’ll include that in the notes of that calendar event. The sticky note (I use the preloaded Stickies app on my Mac) gives me a more comprehensive look at stuff I’m working on and has two categories: urgent and ongoing. I list a due date if there is one and then a lil project description like “collab piece with Carlos.” I’m a Virgo, can you tell?

Mia published her first book, “Weird But Normal” this year, and it’s charming and hilarious and hits on some really profound themes as well. Grab the book here!

Author, very funny writer, and writing professor who I would love to have, Shannon Reed, said:
My system is not very different from what I imagine an 19th-century estate owner would have used — lots of writing, lots of lists. I have a master To Do list, handwritten on yellow legal pads, which I update as needed (sometimes once a week, sometimes every day). I list absolutely everything on it, from writing deadlines to grading (I’m a professor as well as a writer) to stuff around the house that I need to get done. Every night, before I power down the laptop (I don’t write at night), I look over the list, and mark those items that I need to get done the next day. I also use this pad as my repository for anything I jot down — phone numbers, order numbers, sites I want to look at more closely, etc. — and (this is key) I don’t throw out the To Do Lists after I write a new one so I can search for things I wrote down, forgot about and now need. I also keep separate, also handwritten, journals (yes, they’re Moleskines, I know, I know) with writing ideas, submissions (date, venue, title), freelance income and so on. These live sprawled out across my desk/dining room table. It works for me because the act of writing helps me remember better, and I like how the notebooks look so I’ll use them. (I might be more the spoilt daughter of an estate owner, come to think of it…). My other noteworthy system (such as it is) is that I either respond to emails immediately (especially if it involves getting me paid) or I star the email and then spend an hour first thing the next day responding to those. But emails do not go unanswered, if an answer is needed, for more than 24 hours.

Shannon’s first book, “Why Did I Get a B?” that is full of essays and humor pieces about teaching (could NOT be a better gift for a teacher in your life) came out this year! Order here.

Writer of many excellent things (headlines, satire pieces, great emails) and parent to a very good dog (like…wow), Patty Terhune, said:
It’s so extra but I use either a two-column, three-column, or four-column list (depending on how many projects I have in the oven) that I’ll make on any piece of scrap paper I have lying around. The 2 columns that never change are Day Job to-dos and Writing Project to-dos (this also forces me to have at least 1 active writing project, even if its just brainstorming, at all times). If I have a larger creative project (like pre-pandemic when I was working on a sketch show) or a larger personal project (like deep cleaning my whole apartment), that will get its own column with to-dos. I re-make the list everyday because over the course of the day I always scribble all over it.

Love that Patty balances day job tasks with creative, giving them equal weight! Smash that follow button on Twitter, and check out our co-written piece from this year here.

Journalist Omar Mouallem, fake dean of the very real and highly recommended Pandemic University, said:
When I transitioned from editor to freelance writer, in 2012, I started a pitch spreadsheet to get and stay organized. Over time, it become a more sophisticated colour-coded system to track my pitches and their outlets, as well as every rejection, success, and future opportunity. Most of all, I’ve found that it keeps me optimistic and forward-looking in spite of many rejections. My spreadsheet now has 160 ideas, of which 115 were sent, and the vast majority were successful (eventually). Here’s a template of my spreadsheet that you are free to use. All you have to do is download it, input your stories, and, you know, pitch them!

Journalists are…very sophisticated compared to comedy writers (I write all my day job tasks on a sheet of computer paper every week, give me a Pulitzer). Subscribe to Omar’s newsletter here, and check out PanU’s new class offerings and replays here! Teaching for PanU was a highlight of 2020 for me.

A favorite writer of mine, and editor of the humor pub Slackjaw, Alex Baia said:
Tools and principles I use for my own writing, running Slackjaw, and doing marketing consulting…

Tools

  • Task/Project Tracking Things 3 — Lovely UX, nice balance b/w simplicity and power.
  • Daily planning — I write my day on a physical whiteboard the night before.
  • Personal writing tracking: I write daily time spent writing in a paper journal.
  • Communication (for Slackjaw)Voxer! Everyone knows Slack, but voice messages are often better/more flexible.
  • Beyond that, just the normal boring stuff: iCal, Mac Notes, etc.

Two Principles I Like:

  • The mind is for creating, not memorizing; get everything out of your head and into your planner/calendar/etc. (David Allen)
  • Design a good day, commit to it (whiteboard it), repeat. Lots of good days = making more things!

Love the mix of tech and very simple solutions here! Read Alex’s latest, very good New Yorker piece here: I’ll Have Kids In A Few Years When I’m Successful and Wealthy and My Life Is Finally Perfect, and check out his newsletter (AMAZING — DELIVERED BY A FALCON!) here: hyoom.com/newsletter

Writer, illustrator, and one of the most effervescent people I’ve had the pleasure to meet in the before times, Elly Lonon, said:
For me, it depends on the project. If it’s a big one or involves other people, I like Asana. Then you can assign tasks and deadlines, etc. And you can still see the things you’ve already accomplished. I like having a record of that. Day to day small pieces by myself, I put big deadlines into the reminders app on my mac. (Some day I’m going to get an iPhone that talks to my computer and then I’ll TAKE OVER THE WORLD.) But I also track them in my nerdy bullet journal. (pic attached) If I’m doing a big project, especially if it’s illustrated, I actually draw out a detailed grid where I track each step needed for each page/chapter/whatever. Kinda hardcore, but I DO love a checkmark.

I personally use Asana for my day job so need to keep that *separation* but I do love those checkmarks! Elly and I just wrote a piece together and it was bonkers fun (pub pending!). Check out her site here, and get her book “Amongst the Liberal Elite” here!

My top 2020 writing collaborator (4 pieces!) and all-around angel of a person (an angel with a wicked sense of humor, to be sure) Erica Lies, said:
My “system” (if you can call it that) is pretty basic. Partly b/c the chaos of my brain is hard to tame and partly because my work life involves so many systems and the thought of tracking one more thing makes me want to curl up into a ball. Anyhow: I use a Google Sheet to track my submissions and rejections, an Evernote folder for my research/stray notes/early drafting, and a Note in my iPhone that’s labeled “comedy braindump” where I put all the stray, loose thoughts I have. (And most of my pieces come from that.) I write most of my drafts in Google docs and just file them away later in either “Published,” “archived,” or “graveyard” (a label I stole from Alex Baia, I think).

I guess that’s kind of complicated, but it works for my chaotic head!

No more complicated than what any of the rest of us are doing, bud! Erica had a huge pub in The Washington Post this year with…Elly Lonon! Check that out here, and see more of Erica’ work on her site here.

Editor, writer, and very-welcome-addition-to-my-comedy-world-this-year Scarlet Meyer said:
Jokes/idea generation: I use the notes app on my phone/computer and write down every joke/idea the second I have it, no judgement. Later I’ll revisit and pull ideas I want to develop from there. The cool thing about notes is it automatically updates from your phone to your computer so you can go from writing a note on your phone to writing on your computer very fast. I also put to-do lists in the notes app and delete them when they’re completed.

Gmail labels: I have folders for every kind of email I can get. Any time I have a new project I make a folder for it so I can access all the related emails really quickly. Once a project wraps up I put it in a ‘Past Projects’ folder so it’s out of the way but I can access it quickly if I need to.

Rejection tracker: (Not originally mine, I learned this from America’s Sweetheart Lillian Stone) I have a google spreadsheet where I log every opportunity I apply to/the date/the eventual result. It helps keep me on track and is a great post mortem on what works/doesn’t work. It’s also a good kick in the butt when I look and realize when it’s been a while since I applied/submitted something.

Wall calendars: I try to put big things I want to apply to on a physical calendar about a year in advance. There are certain programs where I know they’ll be coming up annually (ex. all the NBC diversity initiatives) so I try to be aware of them in advance so I’m ready to apply when it’s time. This is also good if I have a deadline that’s about two weeks out, having a visual reminder outside of a screen makes it seem more real sometimes.

Scarlet just completed a TRIUMPHANT year as one of the Managing Editors of The Belladonna — follow her on Twitter here, and give her a hire! She is fantastic, and has the dubious distinction of being one of the last new friends I met in person before the pandemic started. Scarlet…what did we do??

I also heard from fellow outgoing Belladonna Managing Editors Lillian Stone and Harmony Cox that they use Google Sheets, and several other people I asked said they didn’t have a system but were eager to see what others did. Well — this way-too-long section is for you! Write back and let me know how you organize your creative work.

**Social anxiety disclaimer** if I didn’t ask you to contribute to this, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you and your work! I focused on people who published books this year and/or who I had discussed this topic with in the past. I’ll be doing more roundups in 2021!

LINK ROUNDUP! GETYA LINKS HERE!

LINKS!
This story was a bright spot in 2020. My sister found one of these orbs in 2018! “The Treasure Hunters of Block Island.”

This fantastic Spotify playlist features crowd-sourced suggestions of the best movie scores to write to: “One Score to Rule Them All.”

This McSweeney’s piece from Allie Rubin is mayyyybbbeee the hardest I laughed all year. It’s so specific, so dated, so dark, and so funny. “Nine Scenes From The Recently Discovered Cut of Flubber Where Flubber Has Bones.”

My beloved friend Rosanna Stevens put out a truly excellent capsule collection of podcasts called “The Antidote” with interviews w/ comedy writers, actors reading pieces, and recommendations. Check them out here — they’re a great resource for writers at any stage!

OPPS/CLASSES!
Roxanne Gay has an opportunity for emerging essay writers that pays $2k each, check it out here!

If you’re in New York state, the New York Foundation for the Arts has fiction as one of their areas for $7k artist grants this year. Apps are due in February!

Ann Friedman (of the “Call Your Girlfriend” podcast and book “Big Friendship”) is going to be supporting two earlier stage writers in her newsletter (over 50k subscribers) next year. Details here.

ABOUT ME: Caitlin Kunkel is a writer, satirist and famed pizza scientist. Her work has been featured in Shouts & Murmurs in The New Yorker, The New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places across the vast internetz. She created the online satire program for The Second City and writes for Live Wire Radio. She co-founded the comedy website The Belladonna in 2017 and the Satire and Humor Festival in 2019.

Her first co-written book, NEW EROTICA FOR FEMINISTS, was published in 2018 by Plume in the US and Sceptre in the UK! Follow her musings on Twitter @KunkelTron.

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Caitlin Kunkel

Caitlin Kunkel

Satirist and pizza scientist. Co-founder of The Belladonna + Satire and Humor Festival. Buy my book “New Erotica for Feminists” here! https://amzn.to/2HnQf8m

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