Write Quickly by Mining Your Commonplace Book

I 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.

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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?

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

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.

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

Consider that Andrew Offutt’s notebooks of “raw material” were a commonplace book — a centralized, personally curated, and continuously maintained collection of information. And, one use of a commonplace book is to store material that’s later shaped into original creative works.

But could Offutt’s process actually apply to “real” art — something other than pulp fiction?

Well, consider the painter Chuck Close, who works by deconstructing his huge images into small grids that he completes one at a time:

I push little pieces of paint up against each another. And I work essentially from the top down, left to right. And I slowly build these paintings—construct them the way that somebody might make a quilt or crochet or knit.

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.

  1. Look for the fundamental units of your published work

Fiction writers often structure their manuscripts as a series of individual scenes that are connected by transitions. Let’s apply this notion to nonfiction books and think of chapters as a series of “articles” that are connected by transitions.

By article I mean a single, coherent section within a chapter. In nonfiction books, these are often marked by a heading that appears in bold or italic type. Each article develops a single point about the topic of the chapter as a whole.

In addition to articles, your work might include interactive elements, such as exercises for readers to do. These are also fundamental units of your work.

  1. Collect those units into a commonplace book

Now review your published work—blog posts, white papers, books, and so on. Do you have final drafts of those in Microsoft Word or another text editor? If so, great. Do the following:

  • Make copies of those drafts.
  • Divide them into individual units.
  • Save each unit as a separate document with a descriptive title—key words that you’ll be sure to remember.

Throw all those documents into a single folder, searchable database, notes app, or some other iteration of a commonplace book.

  1. Add new units

After collecting your existing units, you’ll probably have ideas for new units. Start writing those now. Tackle them in any order that appeals to you. Then add add them to your collection.

  1. Create new work by combining and revising units

Whenever you want to create a new project (presentation, blog post, article, or book), you never have to start from scratch. Instead, go to your collection of units and look for what you can use. Assemble the first draft of your new projects by copying units, pasting them in a logical sequence, and adding transitions.

I am not saying that this process will lead to a finished draft of your next project. However, it will lead to a rough draft that you can revise into something that really sings.