Lessons About the Writing Process From an Author of 400 Books (Part One)

IMG_0001I am fascinated by this article about Andrew Offutt, who wrote at least 400 books before he died in 2013. The majority of these were sexually-explicit pulp fiction, written under 17 pseudonyms.

I’m not advocating for this genre. But I do invite you to play along with me for a moment: Can we distill some lessons from Offutt’s prodigious output that will benefit our own work?

The Process

Offutt’s son, Chris, recalls his dad’s writing process:

Dad’s writing process was simple — he’d get an idea, brainstorm a few notes, then write the first chapter. Next he’d develop an outline from one to 10 pages. He followed the outline carefully, relying on it to dictate the narrative. He composed his first drafts longhand, wearing rubber thimbles on finger and thumb. Writing with a felt-tip pen, he produced 20 to 40 pages in a sitting. Upon completion of a full draft, he transcribed the material to his typewriter, revising as he went.

His goal was a minimum of a book a month. To achieve that, he refined his methods further, inventing a way that enabled him to maintain a supply of raw material with a minimum of effort. He created batches in advance — phrases, sentences, descriptions and entire scenes on hundreds of pages organized in three-ring binders. Tabbed index dividers separated the sections into topics.

Dad was like Henry Ford applying principles of assembly-line production with pre-made parts. The methodical technique proved highly efficient. Surrounded by his tabulated notebooks, he could quickly find the appropriate section and transcribe lines directly into his manuscript. Afterward, he blacked them out to prevent plagiarizing himself. Ford hired a team of workers to manufacture a Model-T in hours. Working alone, Dad could write a book in three days [italics added].

Applying Assembly Line Principles to a Creative Act

Do those paragraphs describe a literary hack — or a master of productivity? The answer is not so simple.

Consider the painter Chuck Close, who works by deconstructing his huge images into small grids that he completes one at a time. The parallels between this respected artist and Offutt are clear.

What we can take from them is the process of dividing large projects into smaller parts that can be created independently. Offutt actually created many of those parts prior to producing the first draft of a book.

We can take this idea and run with it. The goal is to save time and effort when creating a book manuscript.

In my next post, I’ll suggest ways to do this.

Are You a “Content Creator”? And Is That Enough?

Content vs SubstanceOne of the maladies of the twenty-first century is the ease with which we use the term content. We talk about content marketing and content management. We also describe ourselves as “content providers” and creators of “information products.” Yet our casual use of this term glosses over some key distinctions and might even undermine our work.

Maria Popova, creator and curator of the venerable Brain Pickingsdescribes content as:

… a term by which no self-respecting writer or artist would refer to what she makes, and yet one forcefully seared on to writing and art by the tyrannical vocabulary of commercial media, that hotbed of professionalized consumerism concerned not with the stewardship of culture but with the profitable commodification of it.

Maria is blunt. And she raises a fair question: What is content, anyway? Here we can easily go astray. There are so many questions to ask, such as:

  • If you write a book, are you creating content? Or is that something you do only when creating text, images, video, or audio to appear online?
  • What if you take text and images from your book and adapt them to appear on your website? Have you taken one thing and turned it into something else?
  • Is the New York Times a “content provider”? How about Shakespeare or other great authors, if you read their work online?

In an interview with James Altucher, Maria contrasts “substantive writing” with content. She riffs on the cliché that “content is king,” contrasting “substantive writing” with listicles and clickbait:

… content is not king. Content is currency. Substantive writing is king in the sense of that it really nourishes and inspires us and just makes us feel a little more alive.

In response, James points out that list-based articles on the Internet sometimes do convey useful ideas and information. Maria concedes this point, citing her wonderful post on Umberto Eco and lists as the “origin of culture.”

One path out of confusion is to remember the difference between what’s ephemeral and what lasts. Let’s distinguish text and images that are forgotten within minutes of publication from the human creations that turn into classics. If you’re creating a list that people will still be reading 100 years from today, then you’re probably creating literature—defined by Ezra Pound in the ABC of Reading as “news that stays news.”

When we raise our creativity to this level, then we can put aside the whole debate about content versus substance. Our ancestors will simply know that we created something remarkable.

Change That Lasts — Helping Readers Adopt New Habits

fitnessjog When people succeed with the behavior change that we recommend, everybody wins. Our readers get to create new outcomes in their lives. Our personal credibility improves as well, and we’re more likely to gain customers and clients for life.

In an earlier post, I outlined the problems we face as writers who create books and other materials to promote behavior change. This post is about a solution.

Three Paths to Behavior Change

The most exciting discovery I’ve made in the last five years is the work of B.J. Fogg — psychologist, researcher, and founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. He pioneered the Tiny Habits program, which is based on the idea that three things lead to long-term change in human behavior:

  1. Experiencing an epiphany, or life-altering insight that resonates on a deep emotional level
  2. Changing your environment
  3. Taking” baby steps”—making small changes in behavior (almost absurdly small, in fact) that cascade over time into larger, enduring change

As authors, too many of us rely on #1. That’s unrealistic, says Fogg. Not only are epiphanies rare — they’re almost impossible to predict, create, or control. Our books might be good, but they’re not that good.

Though Fogg has a lot to say about #2 above, I’ll focus on #3. It has wide applications and is fun to boot.

The Nature of a Tiny Habit

Tiny Habits meet three criteria. They are behaviors that:

  • You do at least once a day
  • Take less than 30 seconds
  • Require little effort

These criteria are based on two unflattering observations about human beings. First, we resist change. Two, we’re lazy. We like to avoid discomfort and effort — especially when they relate to large-scale changes in our behavior.

BJ’s solution is to plan behavior changes that require almost no time, no effort, no ability, no motivation, and no friction. For example:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.
  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my spouse.
  • After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.
  • After I pee, I will do one push up.

The joy of this process is that Tiny Habits naturally expand into bigger changes. When you successfully floss one tooth, for example, you’re more likely to floss other teeth. Over time, your new behavior can make your dentist very happy.

Easy? Not!

When designing Tiny Habits, people often start with behaviors that are vaguely defined and too ambitious. It takes serious editing to specify habits that are truly tiny.

Notice also the structure of the three examples listed above. Tiny Habits work when they’re triggered by a habit that’s already part of your daily routine (“After I….”) Pairing the new behavior with an old one takes practice.

Rewards are also key to forming Tiny Habits. These can be as simple as saying YES to yourself after doing your new behavior. Getting this part of the program to work takes practice as well.

Fortunately, Fogg offers a free e-mail course that will guide you through the intricacies of Tiny Habits. It’s all based on three words: Simplicity changes behavior.

Deconstructing Our Ideas Into Tiny Habits

Let’s take the big ideas that we champion and translate them into Tiny Habits.

When we recommend a goal, outcome, policy, procedure, or “best practice,” let’s help our audiences deconstruct it into a series of small behavior changes.

Let’s give examples of those changes. And let’s suggest ways to experiment with triggers, behaviors, and rewards until people emerge with change that lasts.

If we can’t do this, then it’s time to take another look at our our content. And if we can help our audiences design for behavior change, then we have a potent sign that our stuff actually works.

Let’s Face It—Readers Resist Behavior Change

stemarie_nativeyouthAlmost all of the books I’ve worked on shared a singular purpose—to help people change their behavior. Though I was usually excited about these projects, I seldom escaped the nagging fear that the published product would have zero impact on readers’ lives.

Behavior change is the core rationale for business, self-help, popular psychology, and “how-to” books of every stripe. These are often written by idea entrepreneurs with a mission to change the world (or at least a corner of it), to create a legacy, and to make a pile of money in the process.

Alas, those hopes are easily dashed on the shores of sheer inertia. We’re pitted against readers who seldom have a clue about bridging the gap between theory and practice, between intention and action.

At War With Ourselves

People stubbornly resist behavior change. Even after exposure to grand and sweeping ideas, we find ourselves sinking back into the same old safe and familiar patterns. This is often true no matter how mediocre or painful the results. Books come and go, but problems persist.

To understand this, remember that the part of us which processes ideas and information from a book is the conscious mind. And this is a pitiful player against the mighty unconscious mind — including the force of habit — that actually runs our lives.

We like to think that we are free agents, making conscious choices that take us in sure, incremental steps toward greater happiness. In reality, we act like automatons. Most of the time, we simply repeat stimulus-response chains that were forged decades ago. We’re robots just running our programming, and the whole drama plays out below the threshold of conscious awareness.

Helping Readers Design for Behavior Change

This problem will persist until we explicitly address it. And that requires some ego-deflation. Let’s begin by admitting that our precious, sparkling ideas — even those that seem so obviously powerful and right to us — are seldom enough to make most readers lift a little finger.

We’re called upon to add a crucial missing ingredient to our content, which is an explicit design for behavior change. I use that word design on purpose. For one thing, it’s a term that’s emerged in connection with some exciting recent research on behavior change. In addition, it reminds us that behavior change calls for planning as well as implementation and feedback. Most of us will experiment, falter, fail, adjust, and tweak our efforts until we experience a change that lasts.

In my next post, I’ll suggest a way to help your audience to do just that.

How Not to be a Self-Centered Jerk—What David Foster Wallace Teaches Us About How People Change

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

200px-David_Foster_WallaceSo begins David Foster Wallace’s timeless commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. His point: The things that seem the most obvious and self-evident are the hardest to think about. Why? Because they are as invisible to us as water is to fish.

If we want to avoid being self-centered jerks, however, these are precisely the things most worth thinking about.

I doubt that Wallace set out to write a “self-help” speech. Yet that’s exactly what he did—if by self-help we mean the effort to change our beliefs and behaviors in ways that reduce suffering. Wallace’s speech illuminates what we do when creating books for this purpose.

Three beliefs worth questioning

One of our primary challenges is to question three unconscious beliefs that are wired into us. For example:

  • I am the center of the universe.
  • Everything that happens is ultimately about me.
  • Everything that happens should satisfy my wants and needs first of all.

As Wallace said:

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

In a line of reasoning that the Buddha would approve, Wallace argues that this natural lens of self-centeredness leads us to needless and near constant suffering.

Self-centered thinking takes us to hell

In a speech at a prestigious liberal arts college, Wallace could have wandered off into an abstract and purely academic discussion. He didn’t.

Instead, he reveals a homely secret to the robed and newly graduated students seated before him: Much of adult life involves dealing with petty frustrations such as traffic jams, crowded parking lots, and long checkout lines at the grocery store.

In situations such as these, one thing that can send us directly to an internal hell is the quality of our thinking:

What happens, for instance, if I regress to my default belief that I am the center of the universe? Then the primary fact about the traffic jam or crowded parking lot or long line is that it inconveniences me. This leads inevitably to anger that everyone else is in my way. And that is both an injustice and a tragedy.

Metacognition opens the keys to heaven

In any moment, however, we have another option. We can stand back from our habitual internal monologue, examine it, and even choose different thoughts. This is the essence of metacognition—thinking about our thinking.

Wallace explains how to use metacognition during a traffic jam:

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

What “learning how to think” really means

The punch line of Wallace’s speech is that metacognition is the whole point of a liberal education:

… learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

When we do exercise this kind of choice, every little frustration becomes a chance to drop a dose of compassion into our collective consciousness.

After all, it’s not all about me. You and I are in this together. And if we choose, we can be a little kinder to each other.

Wallace’s commencement speech has been published as This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Shane Parrish over at Farnam Street has some excellent posts about Wallace’s speech, including:

Writers Are Liars—And That’s a Good Thing

4101603579_eb62d6d022Writing is about discovering structure. We take streams of events, ideas, and information. Then we present them so that they have a beginning, middle, and end.

The problem is—they actually don’t.

Life, as someone said, is just one damn thing after another. Writers are paid to impose an artificial order on experience.

In other words, writers are liars.

But this is OK. In fact, it is a function of art.

Are you old enough to remember a 1978 movie called “The Tree of Wooden Clogs”? I sat through all 3 hours of it in a theater and walked away saying: This is not art. It’s life.

This film chronicled the mundane events of the characters’ lives, minute by minute. We see them grooming, cleaning, cooking, eating meals, washing dishes, and doing the hundred other things that make up the days of our life.

It was excruciating.

When I go to a theater, I don’t want life. I want the boring parts taken out. I want an extract of life.

More specifically, I want to see what happens when a character—someone I care about—faces a problem that matters (the beginning). I want to see what he does next (the middle). And I want to find out whether the problem is ever resolved (the end).

I have the same basic desire when it comes to bodies of ideas and information. I want a writer to explain a:

  • Problem that matters to me (the beginning)
  • Solution to the problem (the middle)
  • Plan of action for  integrating it into my own life (the end)

Again, our daily lives are not nearly this neat. People experience problem after problem that they never resolve. They run across tons of potential solutions and fail to recognize them. And the tragedy is that they often fail to realize they even have a particular problem in the first place.

The ultimate value writing in any genre is getting a clear grasp of complications, developments, and resolutions. Events and ideas gain some order and organization. For a moment, life stops being one damn thing after another. Of course, it’s a lie. But it’s a useful and compassionate lie.

A Beginner’s Guide to Oxymorons

imageAn oxymoron is a figure of speech that combines contradictory ideas. Oxymorons are often funny. They’re also micro-creative acts.

Oxymorons can also be a sign that we’re using clichés or not thinking clearly.

Al Fahden self-published a quirky and useful book about creativity called Innovation on Demand. In it, he offers the most extensive list of oxymorons I’ve ever seen, including:

  • Tremendously Small
  • Real Potential
  • And/Or
  • Initial Conclusion
  • Planned Serendipity
  • Working Vacations
  • Essentially Agree
  • Civil War
  • Talk Shows
  • Airline Food
  • First Annual
  • Old News
  • Casual Sex
  • Rolling Stop
  • Iowa City
  • Truth in Advertising
  • War Games

All right: some of those are not technically oxymorons. But you get the idea.

I met Al years ago. For a while he had a bookstore on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. It housed hundreds of copies of a single book—Innovation on Demand—all shelved under various categories—business, psychology, sociology, and so on.

No kidding. His point: It’s an interdisciplinary book. That was a wise oxymoron.

Peter Winick on What it Really Means to Lead People With Your Ideas

Peter-Bio-PhotoIf you make a living by writing, speaking, consulting, or training—in short, through leading people with your ideas—then John Butman and Peter Winick are two people who merit your attention. I’ve posted about John here, so let’s turn to Peter.

Peter runs a business called Thought Leadership Leverage that enables “thought leaders, authors and gurus to monetize their content through books, keynote speaking, the creation of training services and products and consulting and assessment tools.” In short, he’s about helping people make money and make a difference with their ideas.

I don’t envy Peter. He probably spends his days with people who suffer from guru-itis. This is a syndrome marked by intelligence, a burning desire to get published, a large ego, and an allergy toward crap-detecting one’s cherished ideas.

Working with gurus can be inspiring and exasperating at the same time. At any given moment, you might want to hug them or throw something at them. Peter offers more enlightened responses. Check out the following examples of his blog posts.

Does Your Content Enlighten, Guide, and Inspire?

Powerful content changes the way people think, believe, behave and act. It transforms mediocre groups into highly productive and engaged teams. It can, and does, alter the very fabric of global organizations, and in a few instances powerful content goes on to change the world.

Leverage 101: Using Academic Research to Strengthen a Thought Leader’s Message

Chances are you’re not the only person interested in leadership skills or productivity or whatever your specialty is—there are volumes of academic research, research done by people with lots of fancy letters after their name, that you can use to strengthen your content.

Does Your Work Sustain Behavior Change?

All good content leads to an observable behavior change. Your work may teach me to present better, be a better listener, be more innovative, generate more leads, close sales faster or manage more effectively. I can observe if it’s working or not based on how people behave after engaging with your body of work…. in the aggregate those small improvements correlate directly to a business result.

Controversy and Conflict: If Thought Leaders Aren’t Pissing Someone Off, They’re Doing It Wrong

The world is flooded with content today and most of it is just not good. In fact there’s a ton of thoughtless nonsense out there every day for people to waste their time with. It’s honorable to have a point of view, to stick with your guns, and be ok with offending some folks on occasion.

Why You Need to Create a Manifesto Now

You need to clearly and concisely articulate the heart and soul of your content, the essence of your platform. And most importantly, you need to be sure your manifesto doesn’t suck. Data is good but this is not a document that has an appendix or a table or a bibliography. It needs to explain to people why your work matters, why they need to embrace it, and why it’s urgent to their needs.

Writing a Manifesto – 5 Questions to Answer

What’s the problem that your work is trying to solve? The world does not need another leadership model, management model or sales model. It does however need thoughtful and impactful content that solves problems for individuals, teams, and organizations.

Why Writing a Book is Really Hard—And Something You Can Do About It

typewriterAs a young freelance writer and editor, I was a huge fan of process. I believed that there was a correct and friction-free method for writing—and my job was simply to discover it.

Now, after decades of searching, I’ve given up.

There’s no such thing as a fail-safe writing process—one that you wind up like a mindless toy and trust to deliver delightful results. What I found is that the writing process differs from project to project, from client to client.

In fact, writing is inherently messy. It resists algorithms. And the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can actually get something done.

The problem—writing as an undecidable task

This insight crystallized after I read a post by Cal Newport on the nature of “undecidable” tasks.

“The standard definition of a task for a knowledge worker is a clear objective that can be divided into a series of concrete next actions,” Cal writes. All you have to do is write a list of those actions, complete them, and savor the results. David Allen, creator of Getting Things Done, describes this process as “cranking widgets” like a factory worker. (You can see hints of this mindset in posts about the morning routines of productive people, such as this and this).

However, there’s a whole other category of tasks, Cal adds:

… those that have a clear objective but cannot be divided into a clear series of concrete next actions. For example: A theoretician trying to solve a proof. A creative director trying to come up with a new ad campaign. A novelist trying to write an award-winning book. A CEO trying to turn around falling revenues. An entrepreneur trying to come up with a new business idea.

Exactly. As Cal observes, these tasks:

… defy systematic deconstruction into a series of concrete next actions. There’s no clear procedure for consistently accomplishing these goals. They don’t reduce, in other words, to widget cranking.

With every book project, in short, you not only get to create a manuscript. You also get to create the process for creating that manuscript. And that process may differ from anything you’ve done before—especially if you’re working with a new coauthor or client.

This is true even though the milestones in a nonfiction book project—proposal, first draft, and revisions—are fairly standard. What’s easy to forget is that your options for reaching those milestones are probably limitless.

The solution—sinking into the creative mystery

As Cal reminds us, there is no easy way to complete undecidable tasks. He recommends that we “throw brain power, experience, creative intuition, and persistence at them, and then hope a solution emerges from some indescribable cognitive alchemy.”

In short, we live with problem of process for a while, let it work on us, and trust that a solution will emerge. This is a delicate blend of intention and letting go, much like the author of Alcoholics Anonymous describes the practice of Step Eleven:

Here we ask God for inspiration, an intuitive thought or a decision. We relax and take it easy. We don’t struggle. We are often surprised how the right answers come after we have tried this for a while.

Writing a Book to Transform Your Content

fall mapleFor idea entrepreneurs, writing a book is one way to gain clarity and credibility. These benefits can help you promote your products and services — and justify higher fees. All this becomes possible when writing a book transforms your content.

By content, I mean far more than the “stuff on a web site.” Content is the sum total of ideas, facts, instructions, and stories that you present to your audiences. Beyond web site visitors, those audiences include clients, colleagues, readers, and people who attend your presentations.

The unique benefit of a book

But why a book? Why not settle for something shorter—a manifesto, mission statement, speech, or article?

Because a book project offers the most sustained and rigorous way to develop your content. Shorter pieces are fine. But by definition they do not cover the full range of messages you want to convey. Writing a book allows you to develop content in the greatest depth across all the topics that interest you.

What content transformation includes

Content transformation is a broad and powerful concept. It includes many activities to enhance clarity and credibility. For example:

  • Creating — discovering and inventing new ideas, facts, “how-to’s,” examples, and anecdotes to offer your audiences. Another term for this is content refreshment.
  • Organizing — dividing your content into major topics and sub-topics that you arrange in logical and intuitive sequence.
  • Updating — revising your content to ensure that it keeps pace with the latest research and best practices in your field.
  • Refining — taking a microscope to your content to see if you can make it more precise, accurate, and useful. I sometimes call this content repair.
  • Testing — writing outlines and drafts that you can circulate to reviewers for feedback.
  • Documenting — finding credible studies and statistics to back up your main points. Doing this will distinguish you from countless other people who want to speak, write, and consult for a living.
  • Banking — creating large “deposits” of content that you can “withdraw” and present in other formats. Examples are presentations, articles, handouts, web pages, videos, slides, and future books.
  • Expanding — getting your message out to more people than you can reach by consulting or presenting.
  • Archiving — developing a legacy of content that can benefit people as long as your book stays in print, which could extend beyond your lifetime.

Notice that the above items are benefits that you can realize in addition to any advances and royalties on a published book.

And most of all…

Transforming your content transforms you. By writing a book, you discover what you know — and what you don’t know. This is the basis of learning and the beginning of wisdom.