The Writer Files is a weekly podcast that explores writing, productivity, creativity, and neuroscience. Host Kelton Reid studies the habits, habitats, and brains of a wide spectrum of renowned writers to learn their secrets. He interviewed Bec Evans, co-founder of Prolifiko in March 2018 – read the transcript here.
In part one of the podcast Kelton and Bec discuss:
- how simple psychology, persuasive technology and a dash of neuroscience can help writers understand their process
- why small behaviour and habit changes can have such a big impact
- what your ideal writing routine says about your productivity type
- the pros andcons of daily versus binge writing
- why writers can’t wait for inspiration, and the psychology of good writing.
In part two they talk about how there’s never been a one size fits all productivity track for writers, and explore:
- tricks and tools for beating procrastination
- why you need to build a practical, manageable system to support your craft
- the number one thing that separates good writers from great writers
- what a regular writing habit does to your brain
- and one critical piece of advice writers cannot ignore.
The Writer Files: What’s Your Writing Productivity Type?
Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files and this is another special edition of the show. I have a fantastic guest joining me today, writer Bec Evans, co-founder of Prolifiko. Thanks for coming on today to geek out with me and chat about the writing life and productivity.
Bec Evans: I’m excited to talk to you about it.
Kelton Reid: So let’s talk a little bit about some of the work that you’ve done with writers and across the span of your career, I understand that you used to run a centre for writers.
Bec Evans: My career has always been around writers from a first job in bookshop to a career in publishing, and as you said, running a writer’s centre. And it was Ted Hughes who was the poet-laureate in England. He was married to Sylvia Plath, and he had this grand old house in Yorkshire, and we used to run writing courses every week. So, you would have writers come each week across a whole range of different writing styles, from poetry, script writing, to novels and non-fiction. It was fascinating working closely with writers and seeing where they struggled and what blocks they came across.
And that’s what got me started on Prolifiko. What I found was that when writers get stuck, it’s not really around their ability or their ideas, it’s often around their psychology. I was fascinated by how writers become productive, how they build successful writing routines that helps them start and finish their writing projects. For the past few years, I’ve been working on Prolifiko with the team to research and look into how technology can help writers.
Kelton Reid: I love that. I definitely love that idea of technology helping writers. As you mentioned psychology is absolutely a huge, huge part of the writing process, and obviously neuroscience. So maybe, talk a little bit about this fantastic idea, Prolifiko is a digital coach to help writers to beat writer’s block and to kind of help them find a routine.
Bec Evans: It’s exactly that. So, it focuses on helping writers coach themselves and understand their own psychology, because we’re all super busy and people often feel they can’t find the time to write. And what it helps them do is break down that big scary writing goal into small practical steps, schedule the time, and build a system of accountability with nudges, and helps them see their progress. It keeps them feeling positive about their writing, and that keeps them motivated and keeps them going. That’s the crux of what habits are all about.
Kelton Reid: I love that the science of behaviour change and habits is what you’re talking about, and that methodology you’ve developed is designed to make it less scary?
Bec Evans: It is. People get really freaked out and scared by writing. So many people have the dream to write, but when they start to make progress on it, they really struggle.
So I think writer’s block exists and it exists for experienced writers as well who get knocked off track. And Prolifiko is all about simple psychology and persuasive technology. People often call us Fitbit for writers, and over the years we’ve been testing all sorts of little systems and little approaches to see what’s most effective and that’s what we’re working on at the moment. Putting it all together in one platform, which will be an intelligent writing coach.
Kelton Reid: That’s cool. So, it’s kind of the best of all worlds for writers because especially for writers who, as you mentioned, don’t have benefactors or grants or endless amounts of time to sit in cafes and write, something like this probably can get them on track relatively quickly, I would imagine, as opposed to necessarily having to go to a writers’ workshop, or physically take the time to kind of connect with a community. I love the idea of being able to just access something that would light a fire under you quickly.
Bec Evans: Absolutely, and it’s not just hobby writers. We find professional writers really struggle as well. We’ve done quite a lot of research with academics and writing for them is absolutely essential to their career, but they are so busy with teaching and researching and admin, it’s one of the things perhaps the main thing that gets pushed aside, even though that’s the one thing that their career often gets measured on.
Kelton Reid: I think writers forget just how many different disciplines there are out there and we all probably are just in maybe our little filter bubbles, be it fictionists or online content creators, copywriters. I’ve spoken with quite a few academics, they run up against the same, kind of that wall, where they’re having trouble kicking it into gear.
So, you’ve done some research on the different writing personalities. Do you want talk a little bit about that?
Bec Evans: What we were interested in is how people schedule the time to write and what an ideal writing routine would look like to them. And if you kind of go back to the research on writing productivity, it often talks about the most productive way to write is to write daily, to have a daily habit, often to do it at the same time, the same place, usually in the morning before you’re tired or the rest of the day gets in the way. But the kind of lives that we lead now, that’s almost impossible. What I found with writers, it makes them feel really bad. When you read an article or a blog talking about how to build a daily habit and these are the things that you must do – most times it makes people feel bad that they’re falling short. I believe it’s important that writers feel good about their writing, because that’s what keeps them writing.
So, we always ask people questions and run questionnaires and the one we’re running at the moment gets people to pick what their ideal schedule is. We gave people four options, asking, “With everything going on in your life now, what would your ideal writing routine look like?”
What’s interesting, is that people didn’t pick the daily habit. The top item with over 40% of people picking is what we call a binge writer where you don’t actually write for days, if not weeks, and then have a very hyper-productive period of time. I think that sort of speaks volumes about the world we live in and how distracted it is, and how hard it is to find time for deep work and deep thinking and where we push activities like writing to the edges. Allowing five minutes each day isn’t enough for people to make progress.
Kelton Reid: I just latched on something I read about called hypergraphia. I don’t why the binge writing thing reminded me of that but I think that’s actually a mental disorder.
Bec Evans: With binge writing, if you go back to research on it, it was always considered really bad. There’s a researcher who was working in the ’80s, ’90s, called Dr. Robert Boice, and he studied writing productivity, and he always compared daily regular schedules, people who just write every single day, with people who binge write. And he found that on all measures of success, the daily habit wins.
The only one that the binge writers scored more highly on was depression, because it was very much seen as people rushing to meet deadlines in a panic.
Whereas I think we need to kind of take ownership of binge writing, and say with pride that, “Actually, I’m really busy, but I am preparing myself to have a schedule binge on my writing. I’m going to go away on a writers’ retreat for a weekend for one weekend every single month.” I think you can be productive, but you need to plan it. So it’s not that panicky last-minute deadline-driven form of hypergraphia.
Kelton Reid: I’ve spoken with a lot of writers who say that writers can’t necessarily wait for inspiration. I was just speaking with the creator of Lore who does a spoken word, historical podcast, and he’s writing the script each week and then also the script has been turned into a TV show and a book and it’s like multiple branches of this tree, but it all stems from writing. And he said the busier he got, the more successful he got, the less time he had really to write. And so just sitting down and getting started was the big hurdle and how long does it really take to get started, you know? Productivity experts talk about really only needing two minutes and then once you’ve got a little momentum going for you, the rest kind of falls into place, right?
Bec Evans: I think this applies to all writers, however frequently you write, that when you sit down to write, you write. Scheduling seems to be core to this. People call it time-blocking now. And it could be that you are able to write every single day and you’ve got that in your schedule. It could be that across the week you identify three or four spots at different times of the day within your calendar to write, or you do that more classic binge writing where it might not be for two weeks but then you know you’ve got that time. But for all those writers they need to start writing. There’s no waiting around for the muse. You get going straight away.
Kelton Reid: So many prolific novelists and writers say you can’t wait for inspiration, and then, like your least inspired days often produce equally as good writing as your most inspired times. I always find that idea interesting.
Bec Evans: It’s so true, particularly if you’re writing something long-form that might take you days or months or even years to write, when you look back at it, you cannot tell the difference in those paragraphs between what was written on a day where every word was like getting blood out of a stone, and those days where you could just sit down and get thousands of words down. You can’t tell that in the reading.
Kelton Reid: You can’t edit a blank page, I think was a Jodi Picoult quote “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” So, going back to Robert Boice and his work, he was a psychologist and he had a very simple methodology. Oliver Burkeman wrote about in it in his great article, What’s the Secret of Good Writing? I’ll link to that article about Robert Boice’s book, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency. But his thing was exactly what you’re talking about, right?
Bec Evans: It is. Boice was so brilliant, his research on psychology, it’s so rigorous, but it’s a simple processes. He compared different writers who had different types of schedules and then monitored and measured them in the same way. He found you need regular sessions that work within your calendar, however that fits, and that they start quite small. And that’s the thing around neuroscience, is not freaking out your amygdala with these big scary goals. Just sit down and be clear about what you’re going to do in that writing session. B.J. Fogg at the Stanford behaviour lab has fascinating research around tiny habits, and that you just start with the smallest simplest thing and then you build up from there. And that’s how habits work. So with writing books, start with the first word, with the first sentence, and build up over time.
Kelton Reid: Austin Kleon who was a guest on this show and he said, “Writing a page each day doesn’t seem like much. Do it for 365 days and you have enough to fill a novel. Do it your whole life, and you have a career.”
And that’s what we’re talking about, getting started and breaking down that infinite blank space into very manageable pieces that from the neuroscience perspective, helps your brain to overcome what I think what you were talking about earlier, which is that kind of avoidance mode. If I can see writers getting into or having issues with, as you mentioned, feeling bad about not getting the words down regularly, or maybe starting something.
NaNoWriMo, for instance, seems like it could produce equally ecstatic feelings but also equally really depressive moments if you fall off.
Bec Evans: Challenges, like NaNoWriMo, are a brilliant way for people to get started, but they don’t work for everybody. I think this is what I’m so interested in, that there’s no one size fits all productivity advice. You’ve got to kind of figure out what works for you, and that’s why I’m a big fan of tracking because you start to see patterns, and then you can make the most of those and turn them to your advantage.
If you go back to the neuroscience of habits, so much of that is around reward, getting that dopamine hit. One tip I’ve used with writers is the thing they use to procrastinate with, if you turn that into a reward after they’ve done a short session. Instead of looking at Twitter or Facebook before your writing session, do a writing session and look at it immediately afterwards. You can do very simple tricks like that, that give you a reward and that feeling of pleasure but it’s not procrastinating anymore.
Kelton Reid: You would probably agree that procrastination tends to be a part of the creative process. Obviously we need productive procrastination, or an incubation phase where we are doing some of the work in the background. I’ve spoken about that with neuroscientist Michael Grybko. We did an episode on writer’s block. We’ve done recently an episode on imposter’s syndrome. It’s hard to wrap your head around as a writer who just wants to get the words down, or get in that flow state, and it’s so hard, especially in our hyper distracted cult of busyness.
Bec Evans: It is hard. I recommend that writers use whatever tools and accountability structures they can to help them. It’s about building a system that works for you, and that starts with understanding your triggers and motivations are. Understanding why you write, understand what you want to get from it, and then how you’re going to approach that in practical, manageable ways, and fit it into your busy life.
I think you don’t necessarily want a habit, you just want a system. You want to draw on all the support you can to make it happen. Whether you’re a professional writer, like an academic, or if you’ve got books commissioned and needing to get off to publishers, or hobbyists who are just starting out and have these burning desires to get their words on the page and their ideas into the world.
Kelton Reid: I’m kind of curious what your take on the oft ridiculed 10,000 hours is?
Bec Evans: I believe in deliberate practise, and I think the only way to become a better writer is to keep writing. I believe in being prolific, because you don’t actually know which of your ideas, which of your stories, which will turn out well. You have to keep writing, and building that up over time will make you better. You can’t necessarily put a timeframe onto it, but it’s about grit and persistence.
If we go back to the time when I was at the writing centre, famous writers would come and tutor or give talks every week, and very quickly when you’re watching established writers talk, day after day, you can see those patterns. What differentiated them wasn’t necessarily their talent or their ideas, it was their persistence.
Everybody loved hearing that story of, how did you start writing? Or, how did you fit it in? Time and time again, writers would talk about having full-time jobs, getting up early, getting the kids off to school. People squeezed writing into the nooks and crannies, and it was their persistence in doing that that gave them the edge and gave them their breakthrough.
You do hear the lucky stories. People who just turn out a first novel and it’s perfect. From the many thousands of writers I’ve worked with, that doesn’t happen very often!
Kelton Reid: That overnight success is always dubious, because there’s really no such thing. So many writers who’ve been dubbed the overnight success, they laugh in the face of that title, because they’re like, “Yeah, the 10 year overnight success. Try that.” I believe that so many life experiences contribute to our writing that it’s all kind of grist for the mill. I was thinking of another writer, bestselling thriller author Mark Dawson has this great story, about the early parts of his career. From having failures to his prolific output over one year on the train to and from his real job, where he wrote and self-published one million words in a single year, because he found that sweet spot on the train. He said noise cancelling headphones, no internet connection. All he could do is sit there at a table in the café on the train and write.
Bec Evans: It’s such an excellent story – it’s phenomenal – the idea of a million words. He figured out what his time and his space was. What I really like about habits, as humans, that we are habit forming, we quite quickly get to the stage that if you do start writing regularly, it feels really weird when you stop. I imagine that year, he couldn’t get on a train and not write. It would feel wrong. He would feel like he was cheating himself.
It might be hard to establish a habit, but you know you’ve got it when it feels wrong when you’re not doing that. Associating it with times and places, sometimes it can be headphones, music, or particular tricks that people use to trigger that action. We should all seek them out, and hold onto the ones that work for us.
Kelton Reid: You talk about grit and persistence, and I know we’ve chatted about drive and determination. I’m curious with the number of different types of writers that you’ve rubbed elbows with over the years, do you feel like there is a group, or maybe a batch of aspiring writers who maybe are in it for the wrong reason? Maybe there’s something about the romance part of it that draws them to writing, but then they realise that it’s incredibly tedious and somewhat boring, being a writer.
Bec Evans: It’s hard work, and it can be very, very boring, and it can be quite depressing when it’s not going well. I used to be a lot more judgmental about that. I know when I was at the writers’ centre, a writer might come once a year and say, “I can’t write at any other time of the year. I can only write here.” It used to make me feel quite angry. Well, you’re never going to finish a novel if you only write one week of the year! But, I’ve softened and I’ve realised that writing is giving them a pleasure that nothing else is giving them in their life. When you get in that flow, and when it goes well, that is an amazing thing, and I think that’s a gift for anybody.
But you’re right, we used to joke at the centre that types of writers have similar personalities. I always use to say that poets were dreadful at washing up, the kitchen was always a mess, and that theatre writers would always stay up the latest and drink the most, and that the comedy writers, they would get up the latest. The novelists were the most intense. They were the quietest. They worked incredibly hard. When you walked into a week, you could tell what type of writer it was from the atmosphere, or the mess, or the number of empty wine bottles around.
Kelton Reid: That is hilarious. The number of empty wine bottles. Quite the writing life there. Emma Donoghue, who’s been on this show, spoke about how many novelists she meets that don’t plan, or don’t plot or outline. So many young novelists come to her and say, “I’ve finished a third of a book,” but that they have a hard time finishing. Maybe Prolifiko offers something of a remedy for finishing, if you are going to undertake something as daunting as a novel?
Bec Evans: There’s some interesting debates around this, between the planners and the pantsers. I think they’re both as likely to get stuck in the middle. The blocks they both face could be the same.
I know some amazing novelists who don’t plan, they find the story as they write it, and that is their process. But they don’t necessarily procrastinate or get stuck. It’s just that is their writing process for finding the story. You will hear novelists talk about just writing 300, 000 to 400,000 words to be able to get 70,000 to 80,000 for a novel. Because in there, somewhere, is the story.
What planning does have the advantage of, is you have a road map, and if you get stuck at one point, you just move to the next bit. With nonfiction writers, where they have to do book proposals, or screenwriters who do outlines, they can jump around, they don’t write in sequence. They think, “I’m going to go to this scene,” or, “I’m going to go to this chapter.” Having a plan means that whenever you sit down at your desk, you can pick one of them out. I’ve got novelist friends who use index cards and they would literally rummage through and pick one out at random, and that’s the scene they write. Because it’s planned, and they know how to do it.
Kelton Reid: What’s your take on Scrivener?
Bec Evans: Scrivener is like Marmite. You either love it or you hate it. You have so many Scrivener evangelists for whom the planning and the tools within the system is amazing, but personally, I struggle to get into it. I know other people who are the same. I think with tools, you just try them all out, experiment with everything.
Kelton Reid: I feel like we’ve covered this ground before, but turning off the notifications that come at you at a million miles an hour. What’s your feeling about disconnecting.
Bec Evans: I’ve done things like turnoff the wifi. I generally don’t keep my phone with me, because I can find I’m typing, and then suddenly my left hand is kind of moving across my desk to pick up my phone, even though it’s out of sight. You have to switch off notifications. They interrupt.
If you’re on a research day, then it’s fine to be online. You want to kind of explore, and be creative, and go down different avenues and wormholes, but if you need to get the words on the page, if you’re busy and you schedule time and it’s precious, really protect it. Do whatever you can. Switch everything off, put on those headphones, turn off the internet.
Kelton Reid: I have to put my phone out of arm’s reach. That’s my solution. Because otherwise I will pick it up for no reason. Even if it’s off I’ll pick it up and touch it.
Bec Evans: There’s some emerging research on that, that even having your phone within sight will ruin your concentration. I know it’s true for me.
Kelton Reid: This year I’ve had to turn off all breaking news notifications. It’s been an important step for me. This is all so much fun to chat with you, Bec. I’m sure we could talk for days about different productivity hacks. So you are launching Prolifiko here in the spring and I understand you also are working on a non-fiction?
Bec Evans: I am, yes. My background is in innovation, and I’m really fascinated about giving people tricks of the trade that help them turn their ideas into action. It shares the systems and tricks and habits that people who work in startups and in innovation use to build their ideas and get them out into the world.
And for Prolifiko we’ve been working with writers, and testing various methods and tools, and we’re pulling all those prototypes together into the platform. We are busy beta testing it at the moment, and it goes live in April. But it’s not a tool for distraction. We don’t want people to spend ages using it. It should be very simple: go in, set a goal, identify your next step, set yourself a deadline, and get the kind of accountability and nudges you need to stick to it, and then get on with your writing.
That’s the most important piece of advice is do the writing.
Kelton Reid: That’s so important, because as soon as an app promises to make your life easier, you know that you should be weary! Yeah, getting out of the way so that writers can do the most important thing, get those words onto the page.
Prolifiko, the upcoming digital coach to help writers beat writer’s block and find writing routines that work for them. I love it. We’ll be very interested to see how that launch goes for you. Best of luck with the Fitbit for writers.
Bec Evans: Thank you very much. I can’t wait to tell you how it all goes.
Kelton Reid: Thanks so much for joining us for this half of a tour of the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files, please subscribe to the show, and leave us a rating or a review on Apple Podcast to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or just to leave a comment or a question, you can always drop by WriterFiles.fm, and chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid.
Transcript published with permission of Rainmaker Digital, LLC.