Things I’ve Learned from Writing Over a Million Words in 5 Years
I believe that words are the tools of all creation. Everything that exists in the world around you today started with somebody putting an idea down on paper and words were the building blocks of that idea. Between two self published books, several hundred blog posts on my personal sites, 89 articles on Medium, and dozens of moleskine notebooks, my word count over the last 5 years has surpassed a million words. Here’s what I’ve learned in that time.
1. ON STARTING
Give Yourself a Warm Up
Everything starts with putting pen to paper and fingers to the keyboard. The easiest way to do this is just to write whatever comes to mind without trying to write something specific. It’s a bit like the warm up before the game.
Momentum and Achievable Goals
If you’ve never been somebody who has developed a daily writing habit, and you try to start writing 1000 words a day, you’re going to set yourself up to fail. That would be a bit like going to the gym and trying to bench press 200 lbs when you’ve never lifted weights. You might manage it once, but it’s unlikely you’ll have what it takes to come back the next day.
This is why recommend starting with a very achievable goal that’s easy to stick with.
- You could start with one sentence a day
- You could start with one paragraph a day
- You could start with a half a page.
The point here is to develop momentum. With momentum you cultivate a habit. With habit you cultivate a part of your identity.
Before I started consistently writing 1000 words a day, I just made myself write daily. As I worked my way up in word count, it wasn’t long before I was blowing past 1000 words effortlessly.
Progress Not Perfection
The only reason people have writer’s block is because they’re excessively concerned about the quality of their writing. Don’t concern yourself too much with the quality because that will come with practice. Your only goal as you build your writing habit is to fill the page, and hit your word count.
Anne Lammott talks about a shitty first draft. I say embrace a shitty first sentence.
Even after writing close to a million words, I’m content with the work if I manage to churn out one good sentence.
Tools, Hacks, and Apps
In my article on how writing 1000 words a day changed my life, I mentioned a concept of activation energy which you need to understand not just for writing, but for any behavior you want to change. The idea is fairly simple.
Reduce the number of steps for the behavior you want to have.Increase the number of steps for the behavior you want to get rid of.
In the case of writing, there are a few simple tools that I’ve found to be incredibly effective in becoming a more prolific writer.
- Self Control: This app allows you to block distracting web sites. So if you’re in a 30 minute writing session and that need for a pointless Facebook check in strikes, you won’t be able to give into it.
- Mac Journal: There are a number of distraction free writing tools. This is my favorite one because it gives me nothing more than a black screen and green text. You become like NEO in the matrix, capable of shaping and shifting reality through your words. (Well, not really, but you get the point).
- Timeful: I have my writing time scheduled every single morning. And timeful is an app created by Dan Ariely that actually learns your schedule and makes suggestions.
2. UNLEASHING CREATIVITY
At a certain point you’ll want to evolve from being a mechanic to being an artist. This is where unleashing creativity in your work becomes really important. It’s also how the most unmistakable parts of your work will start to reveal themselves.
Plant Seeds and Embrace Half Bake Ideas
I rarely start with a perfect idea of what I plan to write about.
- Sentences become seeds for paragraphs.
- Paragraphs become seeds for pages.
- Pages become seeds for chapters.
- Chapters become the seeds of a book.
- If you have the inkling of an idea, jot it down.
- If you have nothing more than a sentence, jot it down
- If you have nothing more than a title, jot it down.
*While writing this I suddenly had an idea in my head for a book called “The Million Word Journey.” I have no idea where that would lead, but now I have it on record here.
Often you won’t know what to do with any of these ideas in the moment. Keep a spark file of these half baked ideas. Give them enough time to bake and the dots will connect in ways you could have never planned or predicted.
In school, we were taught all about five paragraph essays with an outline. We’re taught that our entire approach has be be linear. And this is probably one of the major causes of writer’s block.
Your process doesn’t have to be linear. Your structure does. And you can always go back and give something a structure after it’s been written.
Here’s a snapshot of what this post looked like when it was nothing but a mind map in a moleskine notebook.
As you’ll see there’s no way I could have known that this was going to be the final output. I have another version of this post in my journaling software but I decided instead to start from scratch.
Consumption and Inputs
Your input determines your outlook. Your outlook determines your output. Your output determines your future — Zig Ziglar
The art you consume will have a profound impact on the art you create. Consume good art and you’ll create good art. Consume shit and you’ll produce it.
There are two analogies worth considering here. The first is food. If you eat stuff that’s terrible for you, the output will be terrible in terms of the way you look, feel, look and in the results of your life.
The second is biodiversity. The more species there are in an ecosystem the richer the ecosystem. (I can’t take credit for that. Robert Greene told me this in an interview about his book, Mastery).
Now that you understand that, you’re probably wondering what you should consume? As much as I like vanilla ice cream, if that was all I had for dessert I’d eventually hate it. They key is diversity.
As entrepreneurs and content creators many of us are really guilty of reading primarily, business, self help and marketing books. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. But it’s when I started reading essay collections like the ones by David Sedaris and Tim Kreiger , I started to tap into a different voice.
The books we read leave their traces in our writing.
So I read a lot of books and read different types of books. One part of my daily routine is to spend 30 minutes in the morning reading before I ever put pen to paper.
Fill your ears with the music of good sentences, and when you finally approach the page yourself, that music will carry you. — Dani Shapiro
Music has influenced my life since the day my dad handed me a walkman and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I played it so many times that it the tape stopped working.
For those of you who have no idea about the pre-facebook, pre-iphone era, we used to have these things called Walkmen and cassette tapes. They required batteries. And if you played them too much they sounded like shit….. such a tragic time and such a wonderful one.
Listening to music teaches you to hear the sound of the sentences you write. It gives you an ability to develop rhythm in your writing. It’s a bit like adding a tinge of a spice to a dish to give it more flavor.
Movies teach us so many things in one art form. They teach us how to tell stories. They teach us how to create tension and they teach us how to construct vivid imagery. All of these things will help unleash creativity in your writing. Watch good movies and bad movies.
Waterworld is the exception to all rules. It’s just shit. Seriously, don’t watch it.
But other than that all movies are fair game.
Creative Cross Training
First let’s define creative cross training. It’s anything that’s not your primary art form. So if you’re a writer, it’s anything but writing. If you’re a photographer, it’s anything but taking photos. You get the idea. Creative cross training enables us to shape our words into what they’re capable of being when we’re fully expressed.
Below are some simple creative cross training methods.
One of my first attempts at creative cross training was a 30 day project where I taught myself how to draw. I started with this apple and coincidentally ended up with an attempt to draw Steve Jobs. I also documented the whole thing on Instagram just for kicks.
Drawing teaches you to see. But I think it also teaches you about the way a pen moves across a page to create something from nothing. That’s essentially what you’re doing with words as a writer.
Seeing the world through the lens of a camera teaches you to see what matters to you, what catches your eye. It’s about deletion more than it is capturing. It’s about the little details rather than the big picture.
Movement (Surfing, Dancing, Yoga, etc)
If you can understand what it feels like to move yourself, you’ll be able to understand how to use words to move a reader. To add to that any activity that involves movement of this kind shuts down the conscious mind and taps into the subconscious which is where some of our best ideas come from. My best ideas for writing have come from my time in the water and time on a yoga mat.
If you keep writing, eventually it will lead to byproducts.
When you make something you make something else. Just like they say you can not not communicate, you can not not make something else. Everything has a by-product. — Jason Fried, 37 Signals
When I started writing 5 years ago, my only plan was to start a blog that will hopefully help me to get a day job. That ship sailed so far off course and took me to destinations that I could have never planned for or predicted.
- I’ve interviewed over 500 insanely interesting people in the last 5 years.
- I self published a book, became friends with Glenn Beck, and hit the Wall Street Journal Best Seller List
- I put on a two day conference
- I’m speaking to a publishing company about a visually illustrated book.
If you stick to something for long enough, eventually it will have byproducts. If you write enough words, and fall in love with the process, you’ll eventually end up with a book. The mistake we make however is assuming that we know what all our byproducts will be before we start. With each step forward you see things you didn’t see before.
5. THINK LIKE AN ARTIST, NOT A MARKETER
This maybe the most counterintuitive piece of advice in this entire article. In fact it probably makes almost every online marketer who cringe.
I’m not saying ignore all things related to marketing and metrics. If you don’t have some idea of how you measure your progress you’re just spinning your wheels. Metrics have their place. But if you focus on metrics at the cost of the art with the intention of creating click bait, and going viral, you’re going to be setting yourself up for disappointment.
You can’t hide shitty art behind great marketing.
When it doesn’t happen you’ll want to quit. I’ve seen this over and over again with people who get excited about a new online project for a few days and realize that nobody is looking at their work.
An artists makes a commitment to a body of work, and a body of work is something that gets created over the course of a lifetime.
Artists build tribes. Marketers build audiences.
Resist the temptation to go for eyeballs instead of hearts, embrace the limitless power of art that touches hearts and if nothing else at least you’ll have something you’re proud of to show for your time.
I’ve read close to 200 books in the last 5 years and spoken to 100’s of published authors. I wanted to include a few resources that I’ve found incredibly helpful.
- Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
- Mastery by Robert Greene
- Body of Work by Pamela Slim
- Get It Done by Samantha Bennett
- The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit
Writing a million words has taken me on the journey of a lifetime. The places it’s taken me to and the people it’s connected me to could be book in and of itself. Maybe some day it will be. After writing over a million words, I’ll leave you with one simple idea that every prolific writer embraces:
Pen to Paper, fingers to keyboard…
Below I’ve included answers to some of the questions that people on Facebook asked me about the writing process:
What’s your favorite line (not most successful or well received, just yours) that you came up with? And when/why did it occur to you?
That’s a tough one after having written so many words. But this might be my favorite line from my book The Art of Being Unmistkakable
“Art that rewards its creator long after the average person would quit is admired, but rarely encouraged.
How do you keep yourself self-motivated when in the beginning you kind of know that no one is reading what you’ve written?
I think if you’re enjoying what you’ve created, that’s key. If the only reader that benefits from what you’ve written is you, it’s still worth writing.
How do you get inspired to write when you feel uninspired?
The more you write the more inspired you’ll be to write
How do you find/figure out things to write about?
I try to keep a running list of ideas in a notebook. Most of them are half baked as I mentioned above. I’ll also look through things that I’ve highlighted in books and write my responses and opinions about them. Kindle highlights is a great way to do this. Sometimes I”ll also explore ideas that I’ve written about before and see if there’s new light to be shed on them.
How long before you stop thinking every thing you write sucks?
I don’t know that you ever stop thinking that. I still think most of what I write is terrible.
Do you write for yourself or for your readers?
I usually write for myself to start, and then look for what might be worth sharing with readers. All writing involves risk. But the consequences are rarely jail, death or bankruptcy for writing and publishing.
In this episode Pamela Slim returns to the show to discuss her latest book Body of Work. A stable career in any field…unmistakablecreative.com
Dani Shapiro has made her living as a writer for more than 20 years. In this interview we have an in-depth discussion…unmistakablecreative.com
In this interview we speak with James Clear about highly effective methods to create lasting habitsunmistakablecreative.com
I’m the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative Podcast. Every Sunday we share the most unmistakable parts of the internet that we have discovered in The Sunday Quiver. Receive our next issue by signing up here.