How to create “flow” in your writing process
The brilliant psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of “flow” — of being productive, in the moment, and making rapid progress on work that matches well to your skills. Flow creates great writing, but it happens only if you prepare properly.
If you’re writing something longer than 1000 words, it matters how you write it. You’re not going to create fluid, fascinating, persuasive prose writing a sentence at a time, punctuated by checking email, Facebook, returning phone calls, and getting coffee. Your piece will read a lot better if you write it all at once or in large chunks like sections or chapters. But that doesn’t happen by accident.
In this post I’ll describe three stages that lead to fluid writing: preparing ahead, writing in flow, and preserving fluidity as you edit. The key is to realize how your brain is contributing to better writing even when you’re not writing. When you’re preparing, your mind is considering different approaches and ideas. When you’re writing in flow, you’re 100% concentrated on solving the problem of writing. Afterwards, you’ll find yourself thinking of how to improve what you’ve written.
You need a deliberate approach in all three of these stages to maximize the quality of your writing.
Before: do research and acquire your raw materials
Don’t start writing by writing.
That’s so important that I’ll say it again:
Don’t start writing by writing.
If you were gardening, you’d start by reading about the things you’re planting, buying the plants, and getting out your tools, not by digging. You need to do the same thing when writing. You need to get your raw materials together.
Any decent non-fiction piece needs research. You need facts you can find online. It helps to interview experts inside or outside your company. It also helps to read what others have written and take notes.
Block off a few days or weeks for research. Then do it. Create an outline, figure out what holes you need to fill, and acquire the material to fill them: facts, quotes, citations, graphics. Organize them. Build a plan. Only then are you ready to start writing.
During: create the space and time that generates flow
Everything in your workspace is conspiring against you. Your computer, your smartphone, your colleagues: they’re all potential distractions and interruptions.
I love the moment of sitting and creating. You may hate it. But we both need uninterrupted concentration to create writing that flows. This demands two things: time and space.
First, time. Get yourself at least 90 minutes when you won’t be interrupted. If your workday is full of meetings, this might be at night or on the weekend. If that’s not for you, block off time during your day when you won’t be interrupted (with a 15-minute buffer before and after). Match your natural daily cycle: learn if you’re more productive at 5:30 am, late morning, in the afternoon, in the evening, or late at night.
Next, space. You need a writing place where coworkers won’t interrupt you in person or on the phone. Forrester Research had a quiet space in its Cambridge building with no phones, just for this. You might prefer to work at home, or at an unoccupied desk. In some workplaces, putting on headphones tells your coworkers you can’t be interrupted. Some people do their best work on airplanes; one of my coauthors did most of his writing in a coffee shop.
I like silence. Some people like to blast music. I like plants around me. You might like bare walls. Surround yourself with the things that make you productive but don’t distract you.
Finally, purge the everyday distractions of social media and email. Turn your phone off. You’re entering the sacred writing space. Don’t let anything destroy that.
Now start writing, based on the plan you created before. Keep going until you get stuck. But when you get stuck, write yourself a note about what you need to fix (“transition needed here”) and then continue. Optimally, you’ll write in 30- to 60-minute bursts with five or ten minutes inbetween. If you write in 10-minute bursts with 30 minutes between, your writing will be choppy. You won’t achieve flow.
After: don’t destroy what you’ve created
If you’ve been successful, you’ve generated a nice hunk of prose. It’s got flaws and you know what they are. It’s a first draft. It’s not done.
Let it sit at least a day. Your mind will come back to what you wrote, unconsciously. You’ll develop ideas on how to improve it.
When you go back to rewrite, try not to add. Cut what doesn’t work. Fix what’s frayed and the transitions that don’t work. Rearrange to improve structure. But preserve the fluid elements of what you created.
Flow feels great. If you can get it into your writing process, the results will be great, too.
Graphic: Oliver Beatson via Wikimedia commons
Great article, Josh. Two things that might be helpful: If you know you’re going to get interrupted for a long period of time, it’s sometimes better to stop in the middle of a longer paragraph than at the end of one because it’s easier to start back up later. Also, if you’re blocked after having been interrupted, sometimes just retyping the previous couple of paragraphs will get you back into a rhythmic flow.