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10 Steps To Greater Writing Productivity
2023-10-05 Invite Champions Weekly
Don’t worry about deadlines. Instead, worry about your time to create.
Productivity is what happens when the creative juices are flowing. Here are ten things about how to excavate your own creative energy and get things done, whether you’re writing a book or building a bookcase. These are practices I’ve developed with the 12 books I have published, and how I advise writers as Publisher of Invite Press. The rules apply to most any creative endeavor.
If this is helpful, please share with your creative friends and colleagues.
1. Know Your Natural Window
When you remove all of the variables, such as fitful sleep, running the kid to practice, giving care to an aging parent, and so on, you will discover that you have a natural creative rhythm. Know yours. (Here is a chart of the natural rhythms of a few famously productive people.)
Before fatherhood, mine was 10 p.m. - 2 a.m. In the last fifteen years, it has been from wake-up until about 2 p.m. Trying to conjure up creativity when you’re outside of your window is an exercise in futility. Respect the window and use it as often as you can.
2. Block That Window
My assistant knows that I have three mornings a week blocked off for what I call “Deep Think” time. One writer I follow calls it her “Morning Pages.” I’ve previously called it “Bible time,” although this is not entirely accurate because I’m not exclusively reading the Bible during this window.
It’s actually a mixture of creative activities from reading sources such as books, articles, sites, and scripture; reflection; and writing. I don’t know what you should call it, but put it on your calendar and respect it. Don’t constantly allow other meetings to take your window, because your productivity will suffer as a result.
“Isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it…The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.” - Isaac Asimov
3. Alert Your Loved Ones
My spouse enjoys processing the parts of her day with me, and I enjoy being with her, listening to her, and participating in her life. How do I value my time with her, and still protect my creative window? Marriages have crashed over such questions.
I’ve learned the best solution is to be proactive about it. Make time for both. Schedule your morning the night before. When you’re ready to work, tell your people that you’re going into your Creative Window. Use the “Do Not Disturb” feature on your phone. Shut the world off so you can focus.
4. Work in Segments
If you shut the world out, the next question becomes, for how long? I’ve seen a pretty consistent pattern in my own life where I can focus for about 55 minutes straight. I can go longer, of course, but the pacing gets screwed up. The best rhythm for me is almost an hour, then stop. Walk around. Get a cup of coffee. Then, with about a 10-minute mental break, I’m ready to dive back in for another hour.
A solid session will yield 1200-1500 words. That’s a win. A really good day is two such sessions. A great day is 3 or even 4. Rarely, I’ll keep blowing through lunch, if the juices are flowing and there are no meetings.
Do that once a week, and you’ve got a book written in 13 weeks.
By 2 p.m. the window is falling down on my creative output for the day. I still have a scar on my middle fingernail from the time when I was two and apparently was looking out a window when it fell and about took my fingertip off. Don’t let that happen to you.
5. Focus on Process Not Result
In a nutshell, here is the Creative Process:
Ideas —> Waiting —> Connections
The more ideas you have, the more good ideas you have. So, the goal is to increase your collection of ideas. This may seem terribly simple, but it’s actually life-changing, because it shifts the emphasis from final output – the stress of deadlines and results – to the process itself.
For example, you’re looking for a new revenue stream. You need creative inspiration! You strain and stress. You Google a bunch. You look through old notes. You feverishly pray. None of these methods work all that well, because you’re focused on the final product. Instead of diving to application, the solution is to forget the result. Start spending more time on the love of the ideas themselves. Shift the focus from the result to the process.
I used to stress about creative deadlines. Creative meetings became the least creative place on earth. Now, I try to spend a little time each morning generating raw creative material. Because of this I have a stack of ideas waiting for the right implementation. Literally, I have hundreds of blog posts and six book proposals on tap.
People have told me I can generate content very quickly. If true, my big secret is the shift from the end to the process, from results to ideas, from deadlines to dreams. From misery to peace. When you go through the front door of the creative process, all the way through, instead of going around to the back and dumpster diving, you will discover a lot of cool content. And you’ll deliver more, too. But the coolest part is that the finished products you make will be secondary to your increased enjoyment of the process itself.
6. Find Your Heart
One night several years ago, I reviewed my first book, The Wired Church. It is a call for churches to use visual media as a means to communicate the gospel. As I read what I wrote at age 27, the lesson taught by greats like Hemingway knocked me over. Surprisingly, it was personal. I was just a kid with a hyper drive for better communication in the church. The book is spotty, and I wrote some stupid things, but I also put in some raw and honest opinions.
As I looked at my first book again, the 42 year old me told the younger me, “good job,” and then told the me of my Thirties to snap out of it, because ever since, I had been writing scared, looking for validation from phantom experts and trying to act like I knew what I was doing. As writer Jeff Goins says, “the less you care about your audience’s affections, the more your audience will be affected by your work.” That doesn’t mean we don’t care about our audience. On the contrary, we are freer to help them, which as anyone in ministry knows, is something entirely different than trying to win their approval.
No creative achievement ever comes from hiding your heart.
7. Begin With Yesterday
When you begin, start with reading what you wrote on the previous session. It’s an opportunity to do a quick edit before you create, but more importantly it kickstarts the juices. You may think, oh wow that’s bad, and get to work on a second draft. Or, you may think, oh man I’m brilliant! Either outcome may serve as inspiration for what comes next.
8. Create or Edit
Decide going in which you want to do with that particular session. Don’t mix and match.
If you’re in a creative mode, and putting new words to paper, don’t stop to edit yourself. It becomes a form of perfectionism, which is self-inhibiting. Editing and polishing is for later. Just flow, and if you get stuck on a word or phrase, go ahead and write down the crappy one you’re trying to avoid because you don’t think it sounds good enough.
Sometimes the crappy phrase is actually the precise one you should use, like the time I was writing Think Like a Five Year Old and needed a subheading for creative dry spells. I was mad at myself for not thinking of something better, so I just scribbled “I Had It But I Lost It.” I was printing out a draft of the chapter and a friend saw that heading on the top of the printer and said, I love it! I responded, really?!
Maybe your crappy little Whiffleball phrase is actually the Louisville slugger.
9. End Mid-Sentence
The tendency may be to “wrap it up” before you shut down for the day. This is counter-intuitive advice, but don’t. Be like the construction worker who, when the whistle blows, leaves the scoop bucket mid air, hovering over the pile of dirt. That way, when you start the next day you’ll know exactly where to begin. As Hemingway advises, “Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day.”
10. Stay Alert
Just because your session is over for the day doesn’t mean the ideas necessarily stop. In fact, I’ve discovered that the best ideas often come at inconvenient times. They don’t wait around, either. If you think to yourself, aah, that’s the answer—I will write that down when later when I am done with my current thing, then you have just consigned the idea to depart and look for a more affable host. You must capture the idea when it comes.
To that end, I now keep a pen in my pocket at all times. I also send myself emails and have gotten quite adept at opening up Apple’s Notes app to capture an idea. The point is, don’t wait. Excuse yourself for a moment, even if only to record the essence of the idea for later development.
Developing a writing habit is one of the encouragements I offer to every Invite Press author. Our goal is to publish people, not products. Our assumption is that it may take a few books to hone a writer’s style and help him or her find their audience. When possible, when you sign with Invite, we’re in it for the long haul.
One such writer is Talbot Davis, pastor of Good Shepherd church in Charlotte, NC. Several years ago Talbot began a daily morning social media post with some members of his congregation to help them develop the habit of reading the Bible. The posts are a winsome combination of exegesis, biblical commentary, and devotional. We turned some of them into a book series called, Come Alive: Conversations with Scripture. The first was Matthew. We’re now up to six volumes, with the most recent, Ruth Esther Jonah, just dropping last week.
Another writer, Jorge Acevedo, published his first title with us last January: Everybody Needs Some Cave Time. We have five more ideas in the hopper together and a long, enjoyable runway ahead.
Why do we make such an investment in our authors? One of the best selling Christian authors of the 20th century was a church consultant named Lyle Schaller. His name appears on over 100 titles with Abingdon Press. When I worked at Abingdon, I learned that his first three titles performed poorly. How many publishers would have signed off on that fourth title? We bail too quickly, I concluded. Good writing is worth the investment.