Most writers and intrigued by the idea that they might be more productive. Some writers want to become prolific. Some writers, such as Shakespeare, were able to churn out two or more major works every year; others, such as Charles Dickens or Walter Scott, astonish us by the sheer quantity of their work.
I was surprised to discover recently that my writing notebook lists plans for 23 books. Clearly some of these projects are little more than a title and an outline. So the problem is not having ideas, it’s more a question of having the time, the discipline and the confidence to see them through to completion as published works. In short, I am now trying to increase my productivity by researching some of the recurring ideas typically adopted by successful writers.
While doing some research recently on translations of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I cam across the impressive productivity of JackLindsay, who produced 170 creative and non-fiction works during his long career.
But do you have to be a genius to be so prolific? Or is it more a case of responding efficiently and effectively to commercial deadlines?
1. The Necessity of Discipline.
“Rule your mind or it will rule you.” — Horace
Simply waiting for inspiration to drive your creative output is a highly risky strategy. Even the great romantic writers employed discipline. While it is essential to experience those fleeting moments of exuberant fancy and whimsical speculation, it is equally important to write them up in such a way that they will make sense at a later date. Your notebook is an essential tool for catching and capturing your creative flow.
2. The Benefits of Routine.
“I began to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours, a fixed salary, and very little original thinking to do.” — Roald Dahl
Design and create your routine rather than following someone else’s plan. Some writers find that they work best early morning; others burn the midnight oil. Some writers need the silence of the monastery or the peace of the nunnery, while others prefer the bustle of a café or the rhythm of a train or bus journey. Some writers work for thirty minutes, others for three hours. My advise therefore is to experiment with different routines and note down which combination of space and time produces the best results.
3. Maps, structures, outlines
“Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.” — Winston Churchill
Often there is a romantic sense that knowing your future direction at the outset will cramp your creativity; that writing becomes mechanical when it is strictly planned. On the other hand it is quite common to start projects with great enthusiasm but then to experience writer’s block in the more complex middle phases. Even worse, you may find that your work is fruitless because not matter how hard you try there is a lack of a suitable conclusion for your creative efforts. Radical uncertainty of this kind frequently leads to anxiety and paralysis. Moreover, there repeated experience of failure to complete leads to a weakening of your willpower and motivation in the medium term. By finishing projects your confidence grows and develops, allowing you to undertake more creative risks with a reduce chance of blockage or failure.
4. Speed Drafting
“Never look back unless you are planning to go that way.” — Henry David Thoreau
Having capture your key ideas and imposed a provisional structure it is now time to work in more detail. This means fleshing out your ideas and feelings. At this stage it is essential to write quickly and to avoid agonising over precise words and phrases. Don’t worry about writing the most astonishing and eye-catching first sentence; first paragraphs are often better written at the end of your writing phase.
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Writing typically moves from fleeting moments of inspiration to the discipline of the draft: the process of revisioning. This process requires critical insights more than creative flow. It is also often best accomplished several day or weeks after your speed drafting. This period allows time for critical thoughts to develop and for your to be more objective. The revision stage often involves contraction as well as amplification of your ideas. So be prepared for cutting down, chopping up, and repositioning your thoughts.
6. Taming the Dragons of Destruction.
“Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” — T. S. Eliot
It is very important that we learn to apply critical perception to our creative works. However, for many writers the negative thoughts can crowd out the ability to write confidently. The inner voice that questions your skills and ability, that constantly interrogates your sense of having a worthwhile and unique vision is the viral plague that constantly affects the tribe of writers. With experience writers learn that each of the key stages outlined above requires different degrees of critical and creative insight, and they learn to enjoy the unique character of each of the different stages. Accordingly, switch of destructive and negative thoughts. Keep reminding yourself that others will want to read your work, and that your work has value because it is the product of your unique perspective on the world.
7. Learning from others.
“Learning never exhausts the mind.” — Leonardo da Vinci
Great writers are also great readers. By studying the work of others we improve our writing skills. By becoming critical readers we sharpen our creative tools. Also, the creative work of others can allow the writer to contemplate re-tellings and re-visioning of the body of experience. Remember that the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays were derived from printed sources written by others. He also learned the craft of writing by collaborating, by being a member of writing community. Nor did he confine himself to the writer’s room. For writing is also a big, bold, bracing encounter with life itself, and that’s not be had by staring at a blank screen. Finding the most sustainable balance between real writing and real life might be your biggest strategic decision.
“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” — Paul J. Meyer