It was 2014. I was working as a doctor-in-training, and a Professor who I had worked with for several years, approached me about writing an editorial. He’d been asked to contribute the article as a companion piece for a paper about gene therapy in HIV infection*, but was snowed under with work. If I wrote the editorial I would be the lead author, the catch was the deadline was short: less than two weeks.
I enjoy a challenge. I prepared to write the editorial. I read the research paper on which we were focussing and related background material. After a few days, I had a first draft and a few days later a final draft that I copyedited and sent to the Professor for review prior to submission.
Shortly after the editorial was submitted, I was at home working on the manuscript of my first novel. I could barely write a paragraph. I was completely blocked. In a moment of clarity, I realised that out there was another writer: furiously constructing sentences, selecting words, reordering paragraphs. They were being productive and decisive in their creative writing in the same way I had been in my non-creative writing.
That made me question: What was it about my non-fiction writing that fostered productivity? What was different about my creative process? I began to wonder what my sensible day job could teach me about making art.
In the years since I have discovered a few hacks that help my writing, whether it be academic or creative:
- Don’t get too emotional.
I could highlight this point over and over. The stark realisation I have come to is that I am far too emotional about my creative process, whereas I am almost devoid of emotion regarding my non-fiction work: it’s just a job that needs to get done. A task that requires ideas and information to be communicated as clearly and concisely as possible.
Why is my creative writing so emotionally charged? Obviously, it has a meaning to me that non-creative writing hasn’t. When I write poetry or fiction, even if it’s not autobiographical there are pieces of me in it. Kernels. An idea, a moment, a thought, an interaction. I find these piths are the most resonant parts of my writing. Even if the writing is not about me it is of me. Therefore, it follows that when the words aren’t flowing, when there are mistakes and parts that clang, the writing is not just a page of words that needs tinkering with, but something that reflects badly on me.
When my writing is not functioning, my internal monologue sounds like this: This sentence is not working, therefore this paragraph is terrible therefore this piece is a disaster, therefore as a writer, I am a failure. This can be a lot to take.
However, just by recognising how debilitating and destructive these emotions are to my creative process has allowed me to have control over them. Now I have retrained my inner voices to say: Don’t get too emotional about this or Pretend you are doing this for your non-creative job. Surprisingly (or not) this has helped.
- Sketch out the main points quickly.
When I’m writing non-creatively, the first thing I do is to sketch out the structure. I put in the title, subheadings and the first sentences of the paragraphs. This helps me to think about the limits of the piece and the points to cover.
I have started doing this in my creative writing, especially in short and long-form fiction. I outline key parts and scenes before I write them. Before, I used to write with no over-arching plan. This was not a great approach. I got lost in the forest of my plotlines and couldn’t find my way out.
This technique has an added bonus of helping to balance a work. I can keep track of the word counts of sections so that the beginning and middle and end are proportional. I used to think such an approach would be “over-analysing” the creative process, but in fact I’ve found the opposite. The more time I spend on thinking and planning a piece, the easier the words flow when it’s time to sit and write.
- Write in the moment.
Too often I worried about the quality of the final piece while I was just getting out the first draft. Of course, the first draft isn’t going to be publishable. Writing is a process. The best authors write and re-write. I suspect they focus on each phase, each draft, with a particular and distinct intent and I’m trying to do this too.
Whether it be non-fiction or fiction, after the initial planning phase comes the first draft. Here, I try and get the ideas down. I don’t worry about finer plot details, repetitive words or spelling errors. I try to capture the ideas and tie them to the page before they evade me.
In the second draft, I focus on at logic and order. I ensure the point of view and tenses are consistent. I consolidate the structure. This is the technical read: if the first draft was about the creative, right side of my brain, the second draft is led by the left.
The third draft is about finesse; about the writing itself. It’s about words: finding the best ones, deleting those that are inadequate or repeated and creating rhythm.
- Dot the i’s and cross the t’s, but do it last.
I’m a terrible speller at the best of times, and when I type quickly I make lots of typos. If I spent too long fixing all of this in the first three drafts my productivity would be close to zero. Of course, everyone is different and with any luck you will be far superior at spelling, grammar and touch typing than I am. I find it helpful to not worry about these aspects during the first three drafts and then set aside a large chunk of time to do a careful copyedit. I mean, copyediting is tedious and painful; I would rather do it once near the end than in association with every draft.
I’m pretty sure this annoys the hell out of my writers group and it’s possible that they thought I was only semi-literate for our first few meetings. However, I think I have convinced them that sometimes it’s alright to focus on the ideas and the “big picture” at the expense of a few errors. If I haven’t persuaded them, they are at least very tolerant of me.
- Send it out for feedback.
I’ve published sixteen peer-reviewed articles in the medical literature. A major difference between these and my creative pursuits is that medical articles generally involve a number of co-authors. Even if I am the first author, and responsible for the majority of writing, after I am satisfied with my article the next step is to distribute it to my co-authors for review. Each co-author then sends back edits and comments which have to be taken into consideration. Only after all of these updates have been addressed is the manuscript ready for submission.
Essentially, in my academic writing, I have anywhere between 6-8 (or sometimes more) beta-readers and/or editors. What a privilege that I don’t have to pay these people for their time! I have come to realise how important this process is for my medical writing. I receive feedback on aspects including the title, structure, they also help catch those pesky spelling and grammatical errors.
I realised last year that my creative process was far too isolated. While I workshop portions in my writers group every month, usually this is only five pages. Recently I got to the stage with my novel manuscript that I felt I really needed help with it. All of it. Professional help. I arranged to work with a fantastic editor from the Freelance Editors’ Network who read the whole novel cover-to-cover and spent just under a month writing a structural edit report. This has been a worthwhile investment, as I now have a roadmap for how to finish my novel.
Writing can be a lonely business. I find adding social elements like writers group and working with editors a good way to stay motivated. It also brings my writing out from my private world into a more public space. The work becomes a tangible thing, it crystallises in the process of me handing it over. It is realised; no longer a creature of my imagination. The discussions regarding my work bypass the introspective circuits that can perpetuate in a writer’s mind. Sharing my creative work with beta-readers and editors helps me to ensure that it can stand independently and stops me from feeling like I’m talking, and writing, to myself.
- Submit without fear
These days when I’m writing for the medical literature I’m less worried about if it’s going to be published. I’ve had enough experience to know if the experiments, cases or review are original, and the writing is polished, it will be published somewhere. Sure, it’s probably not going to be Nature or Science, but there will be a journal that will take it.
What I normally do is write a wish-list of six or seven journals I would like to publish in, ranked from most desired to less so, and then I work my way down. Sometimes I get accepted into my top-ranking journal but more commonly it’s number two or three. Out of seventeen papers only one that I’ve written hasn’t been published and that was because there were some issues with the experimental work.
How I would love to get to such a stage with my creative pieces! Of course, in creative writing there is less of a beaten track to publication. Emerging writers have to take chances, enter competitions and call-outs, submit to agents and publishers. I’m trying to approach this in the same way I do academic writing: to not take the rejection personally, to learn from constructive feedback and to have faith that if the content and writing is good enough, it will eventually find a home.
The creative process is to a large degree, mysterious and undoubtedly every writer is slightly different and has specific road-blocks and potholes to navigate. I suspect though that our struggles are not ultimately unique and hope that in sharing some of these insights that have helped me to write in a more productive way they help others.
I would be interested in hearing any tips or tricks you have in overcoming creative writer’s block or improving productivity. I love hearing tales of writers who spend their days waitressing, bartending, or farming and would be particularly intrigued by anyone else who takes lessons from their day job and uses them in their literary world.
*and for those that are interested the article about gene therapy in HIV infection is here