In his hugely popular podcast The Writer Files, Kelton Reid studies the habits, habitats, and brains of a wide spectrum of renowned writers to learn their secrets of writing productivity and creativity. Having now interviewed over 70 top authors like Douglas Coupland, Joanna Penn and Austin Kleon, we asked Kelton to reveal to us what secrets he’s learned along the way.
Writing productivity patterns and trends from top authors
There’s something entirely organic about every writer’s workflow and productivity that is hard to pinpoint, unless you’re using some kind of AI, or big data breakdown to compare and contrast them all. But I have noted similarities between the prolific and commercially successful authors who I’ve interviewed (and wrote about recently).
I’ve often compared productive writers to pro athletes who understand that a season is comprised of ups-and-downs, fluctuations in stats, but that ultimately it’s the end product that requires showing up every day, performing the ritual, and giving it a swing.
A few things that stand out among them are: preparation, place, deadlines, daily word counts or scheduling, an ability to minimize distractions, and drive and determination.
Prolific writers often refer to the “prepping the desk” phase as giving oneself enough input and incubation to solidify the ideas they want to write about. Whether this means reading, exercising, listening to a podcast, or simply taking a long walk, differs by author of course.
Most writers require their ideal writing space to be productive. It could be a dedicated office space, an improvised space carved out in a hotel room, a favorite coffee shop, or a seat on the train, but what matters is the ritual of getting there and getting clacking.
As far as deadlines, daily word counts or scheduling, they seem to all three be important tools to highly productive writers. Deadlines force one to be held accountable, and that seems to carry a great psychological weight. Though often set by outside forces, they seem to be equally effective when self-imposed.
Word counts or scheduling (blocking out time on the calendar) are also crucial to moving the cursor, regardless of outcome. Great authors often use one or the other to almost gamify the act of sitting and creating daily.
Bestselling author Austin Kleon of Steal Like an Artist (who I’ve interviewed twice for The Writer Files) writes about his “30-day challenge” hack for creating something every day that he likely stole from Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to young comedian’s on the secret to writing a lot of jokes.
“Many of the writers I’ve interviewed talk about going offline to be productive, literally turning off their access to the internet by way of habit, enabling an app for blocking it, or by using a dedicated computer with no access.”
Daniel Pink (multiple NY Times bestselling author of the forthcoming When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, whom I’ve also interviewed twice now) talked with me about preparation, scheduling, setting daily word counts, and avoiding distraction. Many of the writers I’ve interviewed talk about going offline to be productive, literally turning off their access to the internet by way of habit, enabling an app for blocking it, or by using a dedicated computer with no access.
Determination and drive both seem baked into almost all prolific author’s mentalities. It’s as if they’ve decided that they can do nothing else to make a living and they will succeed regardless of circumstance. I’m a huge fan of studying the greats to learn their secrets of success — but beware — it can be a rabbit hole of productivity loss because there’s so much on the subject and so many great writers to study (just glance at a single Paris Review author interview for instance).
One of my favorite pieces on the writer’s productivity is by Maria Popova simply titled, The Daily Routines of Great Writers.
Getting into ‘flow states’ for writing
Flow state is something that comes if given the space to allow it. Distractions, interruptions, and procrastination are destined to occur in any writer’s day, but carving out the time, space, and finding the best tools to battle the entropy are crucial. You can’t win that battle without all of the above.
Though I’ve had bouts of the “midnight disease” in years past, where I would get into a flow state only late at night when the city was quiet, I’ve written about my habits and rituals more recently here and I think it depends on what I’m writing. Again I come back to Stephen King,“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” – Stephen King
I am most productive in the quiet of my own office, during specific optimized chunks of time dedicated to getting words onto the page. Once I’ve gotten all of my notes synthesized and into an outline of some kind, I find that if I use a Pomodoro timer in 25 minute increments (5 minutes for breaks), I can do some pretty productive sprints, given the amount of coffee on hand.
Why is the writing process so hard?
Because it’s just like any other creative endeavour. It’s easy to have an the idea for the next great bestselling novel, but it’s damn hard work to sit there day-after-day, alone with your thoughts, hammering it out.
It trains multiple parts of your brain, and neuroscience has proven that professional writers are much like athletes in that way:
“The inner workings of the professionally trained writers in the bunch, the scientists argue, showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, like music or sports.” – Carl Zimmer, New York Times
I think most writers say that it doesn’t get any easier, but that the challenges change to feel more rewarding. Many say they like the feeling of “having written” more than they like sitting and actually writing, and it’s much like exercise in that way. The benefits come over time.
The best writing advice when someone has writers block
Listen to Austin Kleon’s two-part interview on The Writer Files. We had such a long talk and he has priceless advice on creativity, writer’s block, and something he calls “productive procrastination.” There are transcripts for that one so readers can enjoy it without having to put on headphones.
Runner-up would be my discussion with neuroscientist Michael Grybko on the subject: The Best of ‘The Writer’s Brain’ Part Four: Writer’s Block. Take New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink:
“When I’m working on a book or it’s at that stage where I’ve done enough research, where I feel like I’ve more or less mastered a lot of the material and can move on to executing it, I actually think of it as bricklaying where I’ll come to my office, show up in my office at a certain time, like say 9:00. I’ll set myself a word count for the day. Let’s say 500 words. I will then turn off my phone, turn off my email, and then I will do nothing, truly nothing, until I hit my word count. If I hit my word count at 11:00 in the morning, hallelujah. If it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and I still haven’t hit my word count, I’m not going anywhere.”
If I hit my word count at 11:00 in the morning, hallelujah. If it’s 2:00 in the afternoon and I still haven’t hit my word count, I’m not going anywhere.” – Daniel Pink, New York Times best selling author
The best writing advice I’ve ever heard was from Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway said: “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” Full disclosure: I did not interview him for the podcast!
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.” – Ernest Hemingway
Writing routines, rituals, personalities and preferences
Though I’ve gone through periods in my youth where I was an undisciplined hack and a binge writer, I think experience and practice have helped me to develop rituals and routines specific to productivity.
I’ve had success working in coffee shops on tight deadlines, and studies do show that working in public spaces motivates one to be more productive (not necessarily more intelligent however). I find coffee shops are great for research, busy work, or first drafts.
I love to put on headphones while I’m writing, and my favorite thing to do presently it to put on a combination of sounds in a productivity app.
“experience and practice have helped me to develop rituals and routines specific to productivity.”
I use a binaural beta frequency combined with the sound of a fountain and a coffee shop background noise, like a busy restaurant hum. Something about the combination cuts out nearby chatter and helps my concentration immensely. Movie soundtracks by Hans Zimmer or Trent Reznor are a close second for writing.