Top 10 tips for productive, creative, fun writing

Writing unchained
Well whaddaya know: It’s only been three months since I wrote and posted the first chapter of the happy at work book and now the whole book is done (minus one chapter which is almost done).

I’m having trouble believing it myself: Not only did I write a book in three months, I’ve also taken a holiday in that time, worked on other projects and done a serious amount of blogging. This means I actually wrote the book in twenty writing days, writing only before lunch.

So how’d I do it? Well the answer is obvious isn’t it? Clear goals, hard work, perseverance, sticking to it, eliminating distractions and writing no matter what, right?

Wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I tried that. Didn’t work. So I tried the exact opposite and that worked.

Here are my top 10 tips for fun, creative and productive writing, which can be applied to blogging, writing a book, an article, a report at work, a thesis, a term paper or any other major writing project.

1: Go out and write

On writing days (ie. days where I feel like writing and have nothing else to do before lunch) I get up whenever I wake up (typically around 7:30 or 8) then make my way down to a local café with free wifi. I set up my laptop, order coffee and breakfast and start writing.

My desk at Café Mojo
My desk at MJ Coffee
Getting out of the house means I’m not distracted by all of the other stuff I could/should do at home (from washing the dishes to finally fixing that loose door handle). Also the café has noise, music, people coming in and out and while this may not work for everyone, it’s a nice level of distraction for me, and actually allows me to concentrate better than I do in a quiet office.

2: Leave the laptop charger at home

This may be the most important tip. This way the battery life of my computer sets an upper limit to how long I can write. I can’t sit there all day – I have 3 1/2 hours at the most. This means I spend zero time surfing the web, checking up on news, etc…

Also, I could never write for a whole day. I have about 2-3 good writing hours in me per day before the creativity, productivity and qualityof my writing starts to plummet.

3: Decide on the structure first

I start by lining up all the chapters, so I know what sections the book has and which order they will come in. I don’t write the chapters in that order, and I also change this outline as I write.

But I do know where each chapter will fit, and approximately what it will contain. This saves me from moving a lot of text around and it also makes it easier to write the chapters without always having to refer to something that’s coming later in the book, something I find sloppy and indicative of a messy structure.

4: Write what you want to write

Every morning, I work on the chapter that interests me the most that day. Because I have the overall structure in mind, I don’t need to tackle the chapters in sequence. If I feel like writing about why happiness at work is important to you and me I do that. If the question what is happiness at work is on my mind, I write about that.

This helps make the writing process fun and less of a chore.

There’s a corollary: If you don’t want to write, don’t. Writing is rarely fun, productive or good when you’re not in the mood. Instead of forcing yourself to write, consider if there’s something you can do to change that (like going out to write) or if maybe it’s just time for a day off from writing.

5: Work on it in your head before writing

One reason the writing can go so fast is that I know what I want to say. I have spent a lot of time thinking, taking notes, talking to people and gathering stories and business cases about happiness at work.

Writing while at the same time finding out what to say takes a lot more time. So find out what to write first. Talk it over with other people. Then write it.

6: Work on two chapters in parallel

I always write on two chapters at the same time. Well not at the exact same time, but on the same day. One of these is almost finished and just needs a rewrite and some polish. The other one I’m just starting on, and this is where most of the actual writing happens.

The good thing about this approach is that I don’t aim to finish a chapter the same day I start it – I can fill out most of it, but leave open questions or difficult sections to another day.

This also means that each writing session contains both “original” writing and re-writes, so the process is more varied. Spending a whole morning just re-writing chapters is way too boring.

And finally this eliminates the practice of writing the whole thing and then doing reviews and rewrites – which only serves to make reviewing intensely unpleasant.

7: Write alone

Even if you’re working on a project together with someone else, do the actual writing alone. Two (or more) people sitting at a computer arguing over each sentence is not a good use of people’s time.

If you’re collaborating with others then:

  1. Decide on a structure for the whole project
  2. Decide who does what
  3. Do the actual writing alone
  4. Then get together and compare notes

Never, ever do the actual writing together :o)

8: Get feedback as you go

Because I post chapters straight to the blog, people are reading what I write right away, not in some distant future where the book may have been published and people may have bought it. This gives the process an immediate pay-off that motivates me.

Also I get great feedback in the comments. I have already gone back to previous chapters and updated them, based on the comments people leave. Also, I get encouragement. I’m a sucker for praise, and the fact that people leave encouraging comments motivates me a lot.

9: No deadlines or goals

I have had no specific targets or goals. I did not set out to write half the book in 8 mornings – that would’ve been serious hubris. I have no deadline, no goal to write so many words per day.

I could never write to a specific deadline, because writing is a creative process. I can do it when I’m in the mood. Trying to write when I’m not, is a frustrating exercise in futility.

But having no deadlines does not mean I’m slacking – I’m actually looking forward to getting up in the morning to write. This attitude is the basis for good writing. To me, good writing can never be a chore. To quote The Laziest Man in North America: “If it feels like work, you’re not doing it right.”

The sci-fi author Lois McMaster Bujold tried this approach and to her great surprise found that she wrote more than twice as fast as when she was writing to a deadline. She also had a lot more fun.

10: Make it fast

While I have no fixed deadline I did decide to write the book quickly. I could’ve given myself half a year to write, but I prefer to immerse myself in the project for a short period of time as opposed to having it on the backburner for monhts on end.

This keeps the structure, content, tone and feel of the book consistent in my mind and makes the process easier and ultimately more efficient.

The result

The thing is, I’ve started on a book before but had to stop again because I just couldn’t focus on the writing or because I lost steam somehwere along the way. But this time I’ve found a process that works very well for me and this has made writing:

  • Fun – I just can’t wait to write, it’s that much fun
  • Productive – I mean a book in 20 days…
  • Creative – I’m taking some chances and trying a lot of things I haven’t tried before
  • Good – I like what I’m writing, and it’s really high quality for what is essentially a first draft

And the very best thing is coming out of the café with the really, really great feeling that “MAN, this is fun and MAN I’m proud of my work”. That is what writing should feel like!

I don’t know if these tips could work for you. They’re very different from traditional writing tips, which focus mostly on setting goals, concentrating, eliminating distractions and generally sticking to it no matter how unpleasant it gets. Unsurprisingly, I focus more on trying to make the process natural and fun – after all, the book I’m writing is about being happy at work – writing it has to be fun or it just won’t work.

Try some of these tips out on your next writing assignment or project. Be sure to experiment and find out what works for you. Done right, it transforms writing from a chore to something you actively enjoy and look forward to. And that is guaranteed to result in better writing.

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51 thoughts on “Top 10 tips for productive, creative, fun writing”

  1. This is truly amazing!!

    How I wish this could happen for me. I have tried several times with an approach similar to the one you described but without the same succes I am afraid :-(

    Keep up the good work.

    Karen

  2. Hi Alex,

    Just wondering if you’d ever read “Get Weird! 101 Innovative Ways to Make Your Company a Great Place to Work”, and what you thought of it?

    Amy

  3. Karen: Tweak the formula and keep trying. But only when it’s fun.

    Steve: Good to hear it’s not just me. Please let me know how the writing goes without the charger – I’m really curious to see if that particular tips works for anyone else but me!

    Amy: No, haven’t read that one. Is it worth it?

  4. I haven’t yet read “Get Weird” so I can’t tell you if it’s worth it or not – I was hoping you could tell me!

    I’ve become much pickier lately regarding which business books I choose to read. Some have less content and quality then others, so I’m trying to get recommendations rather then just buying by title and purported subject matter.

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  6. Very, very interesting — I am a programmer (software writer), and
    stumbled upon this blog by weird coincidence. This is the way I
    write software. In my line of business it is known as agile programming.
    So I guess you are one of the first agile writers I have met :-). I find the
    same kind of inspiration in “writing briefly” by Paul Graham http://www.paulgraham.com/writing44.html.

  7. Alexander,

    I love this post. I just included it as #1 in my post of Top 10 Top 10 Lists for Writers.

    Great stuff here, and I LOVE the whole Chief Happiness Officer thing.

    Awesome.

    George

  8. From the top 10 pointers listed here, #1 is the hardest thing for me to do. I can’t go out to do my work as a writer because I got easily distracted by noise. I prefer to stay at home alone to write, than to go out because it really makes me feel more comfortable.

  9. I thank you for taking the time to share your helpful hints. I have often thought of writing, I don’t know what subject yet, but I have always had a good imagination and I feel like I have a good perspective on most things in life. I am a mother of 3 girls as well. I want to make sure I use my gifts that I have been giving and by that I will be able to encourage them to dream big also.

    Wish me luck…and I will read your blog and stay in touch.

  10. the tips really help me.i searched for tips but never got any good ones.If you listen these tips can really help you.Now i am more inspired to write one of my own.thank you.

  11. I was searching for tips about writing on google and i found this. But after reading this i was surprised that i was already doing all of this.
    This just comfirms that i was doing it all right, i was worried i wouldnt be a good writer by doing it the way i had in mind.
    Thanks!

  12. I was searching on Google some tips on writing, and these are really good! I also use a laptop, so the charger thing is a good idea for me. Thanks for these great tips!

  13. I LOVE THIS!! Im fourteen and trying to write my first book! Ihave a feeling that this might help, but I guess I’ll just do it at home, rather than at a coffee house, any pointers as to listening to certain music while writing?
    Great work!

  14. Untraditional tips, yet outstanding. I write for websites and article manufacturing companies, but still I feel that I can’t write for myself. However, things have changed a little since the last few days. A few days ago, I met a guy who writes in Hebrew and he offered tips similar to yours. He was of the idea that we need to stop following the norms and just do as we wish.

    I am not sure how to put into words what tips he offered…….

    great article!

  15. The tips given by u r great. It is rather strange to find that you concentrate on your creative writing in a coffee house rather than in a secluded place!Of course some people got such great gifts that sleep while a train moves near by or crackers burst around. Human mind is such a wonderful source that none can penatrate !

  16. nice tips. creativity can come up at any time and at different places. for instance, i usually get creative ideas while driving, although i can write them down while driving :)

  17. im in the military and really dont have time to write but i love writing especially about zombies!!!!!! I have been looking for way’s to motivate my self to write more, but i just cant seem to do this. I looked over the internet for success that other writers have and finally i think i have found out how to motivate myself through these easy and i mean EASY steps. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart =^_^=

    ~~~pv1 andy~~~

  18. Hi,

    its really amazing :), many time i had thinking to write not sure what !!!
    but i loved poems containg short romantic stories in it.
    i will try again as i really got motivated by your ideas…

  19. Well, why should i wait to write a book now, i love this tips, they make it fun than a chore,don’t know yet what um going to write

  20. Hi Alexandar! wish you could provide me with a guideline to help becoz i’ve a project titled creative writers by simply giving me topics of the chapters .With compliments

  21. This can be a very effective method, but only to people who have great self-control. For me, I just CAN’T work without a clear goal and/or deadline. It HAS to be there before I write, otherwise I can’t even start.

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