What is your process for writing, and what tools do you use to help your productivity and creativity?
January 14, 2011 10:09 AM   Subscribe

What is your process for writing, and what tools do you use to help your productivity and creativity?

This question is intentionally very open-ended because I'm interested in seeing what it throws up, especially things that I wouldn't even have known to ask about.

You can discuss whatever kind of writing you do, and interpret "process" and "tools" in any way that you like.

I write well in a variety of forms, but I could probably be far more organized and productive, and there are certainly many people who seem to write much faster than I do. So ultimately I'm looking for insights that I could apply, whether it might be in terms of workflow, particular software, or other factors that people have found especially helpful to their own writing productivity.
posted by philipy to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I leave myself enough time so that by the deadline day, I'm on draft five, and over the last four drafts I've gone from editing with a chainsaw to tweaking single words (which is paraphrasing a book I can't remember right now, but if you're a copywriter in the UK you might recognise it). I make sure I get to draft five by the deadline day because if I don't and something goes to the client that's not really bloody good, my ability to pay my mortgage might suddenly disappear.

I write a synopsis for everything and make sure there's a core idea that's clear and simple.

I treat every project (I write educational resources and plan online learning interactives) as taking students on a journey to thinking this from thinking that instead. So I write first to create a structure and then re-draft to make the journey clear and fun. This includes being tough enough to put up with every project getting reviewed, sometimes harshly. I use every project as a chance to learn and get sharper at what I do.

I have a strict routine each day that treats going downstairs into a study just like commuting to work. I kick start the day with tons of caffeine. I keep going until I've finished a 'stage' in the journey that I'm taking students on (which might be the student materials, interactive design brief and lesson plan for a particular lesson) and then plan out the next one, so I've got an easy way to get going the next time I write, which might be after lunch, the next day or after the weekend.

I attend to all the other aspects of running a business first thing in the morning so they don't distract me for the rest of the day.

I use word 2011 on a macbook. I use a large second screen for the document and keep the macbook screen for internet and email. I work in silence and set boundaries for interruptions.

I go for a lunchtime walk with the dog, or whenever I get stuck and can't get an idea to work. This, or going to the gym/swim/running, are the main things that seem to help my creativity flow. But after 15 years I still don't have a way to switch this on when required, so I've learned to just get on writing when the ideas aren't flowing properly. With perseverance you can turn a crap idea into a great piece of work, but you still need to start writing.

I've learned that editors and project managers always want great ideas, but they don't need perfect ones. They do, however, want writers who deliver on time, every single time, work that is exactly to the agreed specification. I get as much work from being flexible and reliable as I do from being purely creative. In commercial terms, no-one wants mercurial talent. They want someone who delivers the goods.

I didn't follow any of those drafting rules when writing this.
posted by dowcrag at 10:32 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

FYI: I'm an indie comics artist/writer.

Creativity: I alternate between absorbing as much miscellaneous information as possible--reading a lot, researching with no end goal, interviewing people I know about their lives--and giving myself plenty of mental space to let that information percolate. Long bus commutes and road trips, luxurious postcoital dozes, and meeting for worship are where most of my creative ideas are conceived, so when I need to get an idea I especially try to make myself available for those activities. I also keep a notebook handy to jot down interesting things I hear and observe, and I have a folder on my desktop full of visually striking images that get me excited, which I add to almost every time I'm browsing online.

Productivity: Rituals help. Sometimes I lay out all my tools, and then I tell myself, "I'm going to fix a cup of tea/smoke a cigarette/take a shower and then I'll get to work." One of my most valuable weapons against my own laziness is a sense of competitiveness--often the easiest time for me to work is after attending shows or looking at books by people who do work similar to mine but not as good. I get indignant, and then I start drawing. And having some structured time is important. I'm most productive when I know I only have a couple of hours before I have to go do a different thing.
posted by milk white peacock at 10:35 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Me: non-fiction. I post on a whiteboard all the projects and when they are due. I have a template for SEO writing, and free-form the biography articles. During my day job as a road warrior, I carry a voice recorder to capture every single thing I think of on anything that may be of use later, a word, a description, a nuance, a witty retort. Later, this goes onto a word document for me to populate for future articles.

I ask myself a few questions: If I were reading this what would I want to know? Who is my audience? What vernacular/tense/person would be best? How many words? How much am I going to make? ;-)

After self-medicating with a drug of choice (for concentration purposes) and turn on music appropriate to the genre, I free-form it then check my notes for accuracy. These are some sites I have used over the years:

Writer Magazine
Writer's Forum
Facts & Figures
Library of Congress
Research Tools
posted by ~Sushma~ at 10:39 AM on January 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

FYI: I'm currently writing a script for a short suspense drama, so I will base my reply on my experiences with that.

I set aside plenty of time during the day so that I can feel completely relaxed and stress free while trying to write. I find if my mind is constantly thinking of other external factors going on in my life (school, work, what I have to do later.. etc) it can be a complete mind-block. I also quite enjoy listening to music through headphones, to keep myself concentrated, fully engaged, and focused.
posted by Bron-Y-Aur at 10:45 AM on January 14, 2011

Best answer: I do the exact opposite of dowcrag, above. (Oh my God, synopses! A routine! I'm so jealous, but I would never.)

I make things as chaotic as possible, as messy as possible, and as tardy as possible. Then I put on music as loud as possible. This is how I write best--surrounded in filth and noise. (To live with others, I just keep a small dirty corner and I have some very good Bose headphones to approximate the cloud of filth and sound required.)

I have used one tool that Sushma does, above--having index cards posted on the Big Wall of Projects and their deadlines is IMMENSELY helpful. (You put them up under a card that says TO DO then move them to DONE, which, yay, fun.)

The only thing I have learned in ten years as a professional writer (haha, hard to believe) is that the SECOND you think of something, off you go write it down. You do not wait. This is the only way I just finished a book--you write it when you're supposed to, no matter if you're at dinner with friends or mid-sex or whatever. If you have to type it into your phone or call your own voicemail, that is fine. But you have to use it. That's how the brain works, it sends you things when you're distracted or in a movie or "otherwise engaged," and you have to take advantage of it. I will get out of bed at 3 a.m. or whenever if a "thing" pops up related to something I'm working on and start writing.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:47 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mod note: added extra paragraph in the interests of avoiding chatfilter.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:21 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I write for a living. I schedule my writing time, and obey that schedule. It's all well and good to say "I need to write more." It's a different thing entirely, and much more useful, to say "I will write every day from 6 to 7PM." (Or whatever time slot best fits your schedule.)

I do a lot of topical writing, so I get most of my ideas from skimming the web and noting my reactions to stuff. Whenever I have a reaction (whether it's "Wow I gotta forward that link" or "Wow that guy is such an idiot, and here are 3 reasons why") I note the topic down and throw that into the hopper for the day.

When I'm not at my computer I'm careful to always keep pen and paper around. I have note pads scattered all over my house, in my purse, and I always have a few scraps of paper in my pocket just in case. You always think, "That's such a great idea, there's no way I could forget it!" But you will forget it.

It's tempting to think that finding that one perfect tool - be it the right writing program or a new laptop - will make the difference. Trust me, it doesn't. The only thing that gets the job done is your butt in the seat.
posted by ErikaB at 11:35 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I write first thing in the day. As soon as breakfast and shower are done, I'm in front of the keyboard. Even if I only write for 15 minutes a day (which can happen when I'm teaching all day), I'm still making progress,. More importantly, I'm keeping myself fresh on my work; if I take off for a day, I can manage to come back more-or-less on pace, but anything longer and it takes a while to get myself back up to speed.

When I'm writing, I have a printed list of all the quotes I've found on a particular topic, and they are usually sorted into some kind of order. Most of my writing is pretty easy, at that point; I type in the next relevant quote, add my explanation/intro to the quote, and then move to the next one. At the end of the section, I go back and edit to tighten up the language, make sure transitions are clear, etc. I'll probably do 2 or 3 editing passes for each section before the paper is done.
posted by philosophygeek at 12:28 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I write for work every day. For instance, in the last two days, I've written a newsrelease, a set of remarks for our General Manager for an MLK event, a communciations plan, copy for a humorous presentation gift for one of our project managers and started a roughing out ideas for a flyer and poster copy for some testing we are doing in one of our stations on new functionality for our Ticket Vending Machines.

Obviously, I'm not turning out great art. I mostly shoot for clear and useful. If I can add some style, that's great--I save that for things like the remarks on Dr. King. I just write straight through to get a rough draft done and then go back and re-read and edit several times, often setting one project aside to "simmer" for a bit and coming back to it with fresh eyes.

I am a rotten speller so I keep a dictionary handy--I find it more useful than an online one. I cannibalize from past pieces or existing pieces when possible and I education myself as well as possible on my subject so I know more than I need to know and then can winnow down into something concise and readable. I keep various style guides handy as well like Chicago Manual of Style, AP Guide, Wired Style, etc. And I keep our own in-house style guide handy because I can't seem to remember if we say faregate or fare gate, etc. For a speech, I always read the copy out loud to myself or someone else.

Then I remember the rule, "Done is beautiful," and I close it up and move onto the next project.
posted by agatha_magatha at 2:46 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for sharing your habits and tools, I think I'll be trying quite a few of them out and seeing how they work out for me.

Some of the points I esp noted from the answers...

have a strict routine each day

[set myself up to have an] easy way to get going the next time I write

just get on writing when the ideas aren't flowing properly

capture every single thing I think of on anything that may be of use later

always keep pen and paper around... note pads scattered all over my house

index cards posted on the Big Wall of Projects

listening to music through headphones, to keep myself concentrated

write straight through to get a rough draft done and then go back and re-read and edit several times, often setting one project aside to "simmer" for a bit and coming back to it with fresh eyes

posted by philipy at 9:41 AM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

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