With 28 published books Joanna Penn is prolific by most standards. Her print books, however, are just the beginning – those 17 novels and nine non-fiction books by three author names are the foundation for 110 e-book and audio products; that’s dwarfed further by her 1,300 blog posts, 360 podcasts, 500 videos, a handful of short stories, and a side-line writing sweet romance with her Mum. All of this has been achieved in 10 years – the time researchers reckon it takes to master a skill. So how does this New York Times bestselling author manage it?
Above Joanna Penn’s desk is a sign that says: “Create a body of work I’m proud of.” This goal drives her approach to writing – a deliberate focus on mastery which involves both increasing her output and improving her craft.
Penn launched her website, The Creative Penn, in 2008 and the following year she started a podcast of the same name. Everything she writes, produces and records is about becoming a better writer and she’s held accountable by sharing her writing journey with hundreds of thousands of fans.
Accountability and credibility
“The accountability of saying on the podcast, ‘I’m writing this,’ helps. I cannot have a blog and a podcast about writing if I am not actively producing books. If I can’t say that I’m working on a book every week, then I feel that I’m losing my credibility in the author space.”
“I cannot have a blog and a podcast about writing if I am not actively producing books.” – Joanna Penn
Penn is on a mission for others to learn from her experience and over the last decade has shared her advice on what keeps her productive. She has three secrets to her success that writers can apply to their own writing practice, right now:
- Start with why – have a reason for writing
- Set long-term goals – have targets to aim for
- Schedule time to write – and stick to it
We’re going to dig into Penn’s advice on these three areas and share her personal productivity hacks and stories from her writing life. But before we do that let’s delve into her backstory.
Nowadays, Penn might be the happiest writer around – her laugher rings throughout her podcasts and videos – but once upon a time she was deeply miserable. And that misery was what got her writing.
Joanna Penn’s driving reason to write
“I was in a miserable job,” Penn told me, “I hated my job and I desperately wanted to leave but I didn’t want to end up doing something else I hated. That negative reason was really driving me to write.”
Penn loved writing. She loved it enough to get up at 5am every day before work to write; loved it enough to keep writing until she had completed a novel; kept writing until she finished and published four novels. That drive gave her the idea to make a career of writing. She explains:
“I loved writing and then I thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna make this a career.’ I always knew that I wasn’t going to write a book and suddenly be a millionaire but I hated my job. Writing got me out of a negative situation.”
Feel the pain
She believes that feeling miserable forced her to evaluate what matters and to prioritise what made her happy. Her advice to others who tell her they want to write? Feel the pain!
“When people say, ‘Oh I never have any time.’ I ask: ‘How much do you want this?’ If you really want this, you will make the time. If you have no other reason to write a novel than you just want to. That’s not enough. You’re just not in enough pain. You have to have a driving reason.”
And that brings us to her first piece of writing advice: find your why.
1 Start with why – have a reason for writing
Most people, says Penn, don’t have a strong enough reason to write. She tells people to: “really come up with your why. Start with what’s your why and dig into that and that will carry you through the difficult times.”
That’s exactly what she did. Penn’s ‘why’ started with her desire to leave her horrible job, and over the last decade her why evolved as she built a body of work and a business from her writing.
“My first definition of success,” she said, “was to leave my job. And I did that in 2011. The second goal was earning six figures and I hit that in 2014. Then the next one was hire my husband out of his job, which I did in 2015. So now, it’s very interesting, I’m looking at quality of the rest of my life. So, I think the definition of success at this point is really creating a body of work that I’m proud of.”
2 Set long-term goals – have targets to aim for
Penn describes herself as a “goal junkie”. Each year she shares her annual goals on her blog and podcast and reviews how the previous year stacked up.
Having written goals and sharing them publicly are proven accountability tactics. Research shows that people who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them; and those who share their goals with a friend have even more success.
Penn describes her approach:
“I do goals for everything. It helps me because I don’t log my words every day, I don’t even log the hours I work. I measure my life by what I create, so my goals are: ‘I will finish two novels this year and two screenplays and two non-fiction books.’ They’re bigger goals around those bigger projects. It’s a form of accountability. By writing all this stuff down on the blog, I’ve really tracked my journey, so that people can see it and then I’m far more likely to achieve it.”
“By writing all this stuff down on the blog, I’ve really tracked my journey, so that people can see it and then I’m far more likely to achieve it.” – Joanna Penn
The importance of stretch goals
When setting a goal, it’s important that it’s specific and measurable so you know when it has been achieved. For example, Penn focusses on completed books and projects. But a good goal also needs to stretch you, to be slightly beyond your reach so you’re not certain you can achieve it, as Penn says:
“I never meet all my goals! To be honest, if you set goals that you meet all the time, they’re not really good enough, because if you meet your goals every time, then they’re more like a to-do list. And, when I don’t hit my goals, I either set them again for next year, or I understand why I didn’t meet them and change.”
“If you meet your goals every time, then they’re more like a to-do list!” – Joanna Penn
Her goals for 2018 are a combination of output and improving her craft, in particular, a focus on storytelling. She’s investing in her skills now so she can continue to tell stories for the rest of her life.
“I would like to be an award-winning author, but that to me is not a goal. The only way I can work towards that goal is to become a better story teller. So, in terms of working towards that goal, it’s about scheduling courses and improving my craft, and writing more stories and entering them into awards.
“There’s a productivity balance between making a living writing and expanding your craft. So, for example, I spent a month writing a screenplay, I’m going go to a screenwriting course, I’ll draft that, edit that, and I’ll probably write another one this year. I may never make any money from that at all, but I’m investing in my craft because I will become a better story teller and that will impact my next book.”
>>Read more: How to set the perfect writing goal
3 Schedule time to write – and stick to it
“The only way to write the books is to schedule the time.” – Joanna Penn
So, how does Penn find the time to make it all happen? She has a short, very practical response, as she explains:
“To be honest, the answer to ‘How do I balance things?’ is scheduling. My main goals are a certain number of books under each author name, and the only way to write the books is to schedule the time.”
She takes a very active approach to blocking time to write – looking across a year, a month and each day.
Schedule everything – including breaks
“Well, I schedule time for everything! What I tend to do is I look at the month, and even the whole year, and I apportion time to each of my projects. I have a recurring first draft writing slot between 7 and 9.30 every morning, and generally that writing slot is for J.F. Penn, so is for my fiction. My creative writing time is the morning for me. For Joanna Penn, my non-fiction writing, I can pretty much do that anytime. Generally, I do all my interviews in the afternoon, and even into the evening – I just can’t create in the evening!”
“I schedule time for everything!” – Joanna Penn
Penn’s daily schedule provides clarity on her priorities by putting her creative writing as her primary goal each day. She also has some classic work-life balance goals: Penn blocks time for exercise – she practises yoga every day and is training for a 104 kilometre walk around the Isle of Wight – and sets aside time to learn, and to have a break.
“Time blocking is the most important thing and as I said, I have a recurring time block to do first draft stuff, I have recurring time block for yoga and walking and then I have recurring time blocks for learning. I schedule time to read screenplays or do an online course or I go on a lot of courses.
“I’m scheduling my whole year now. I’m already scheduling breaks, which is very important because I really work too hard. This summer, for the first time since 2009, I’m going take three weeks off the podcast. And then I’m going do it again in December.
“This is huge for me because I’ve become so into the productivity thing it can be very damaging, because you’re like: ‘Okay, achieve every day, every week, every month, every year, go further, make more money. I would like to get to seven figures, but I’m not going kill myself to do that so I’m very much focused on my body of work and being healthy.”
The healthy writer
Being a prolific writer like Penn does not mean compromising your health. Her latest non-fiction book is called The Healthy Writer, and in it she outlines practical tips and inspiring case studies for ensuring an active body and a healthy approach to food.
“Time blocking is the most important thing.” – Joanna Penn
The definition of productivity – healthy, happy and productive
Joanna Penn is a successful, prolific, self-made author entrepreneur, who finds time to stay healthy and happy. There is much we can learn from her, starting with ‘why’ we write, getting clarity on our goals, and setting aside time to make it happen.
Writing is important to Penn – it’s what drives her and her business – but it’s only one part of leading fulfilling well-balanced life, and that’s the goal we should all aim for.