Today’s thesis is this: Flow is more important to writing than anything else. So you should do everything legally possible to achieve it.
What is flow?
Flow is the state in which creation seems effortless. It’s like going downhill: there is challenge but no struggle and you make steady progress. As the psychologist who defined flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, described, flow exists when our skills and challenges are perfectly balanced.
In writing, flow has huge benefits.
First off, it feels great, because when you are writing in flow, there is enormous pleasure in creating along with a feeling of invincible confidence.
Second, it creates a massive productivity benefit. When I am writing in flow, I can create 2,000 words of excellent prose in an hour, and I can do that for several hours at a stretch. When I am required to write and I am not in a flow state — because of a lack of preparation, a deadline, or demands that require me to work on content that bores me — I’m less than half as productive.
And perhaps most importantly, when you write in flow, the result flows. Since your brain is turning thoughts into words in a fluid way, the writing on the page is also connected and fluid. While not everyone is capable of writing at this level — at least not at first — I can tell you this for certain: writing out of flow creates disjointed, inconsistent, workaday content that needs heavy editing.
How to write in flow
Writing in flow is always, always, a result of preparation.
When you watched Derek Jeter make an incredibly fluid play at shortstop, you could certainly marvel at his athleticism, but he didn’t decide to be fluid at the moment the ball was hit. He had practiced those moves thousands of times. He had put in the time training in the gym. He had watched video. His coaches had counseled him on his footwork. He had researched hitters and their tendencies and was standing in exactly the right spot. His body and his brain were trained for that exact moment, so when the ball was hit near him, then he was able to execute a fluid movement and field the ball beautifully. You saw the move, but you didn’t see the preparation that went into it.
It is the same with writing.
Here are eight things you can do to prepare to write in a flow state.
- Practice. The more you write, the better you will get at it. Every time you sit down at a keyboard, you are practicing. Regular blogging — or journaling, if you’re feeling private about it — is a great way to develop the skill of fluid writing. (I do it every weekday.) But there are lots of other opportunities. Every email is an opportunity to put in a little effort and craft what you write. If you are thoughtfully putting words in order to accomplish a goal, you’re practicing.
- Research. You cannot write in flow if you need to interrupt yourself every two minutes to look something up, or if you write with gaps that needs to be filled in later. Plan what you will need, and then conduct the research to find it ahead of time. Gather all the materials and organize them close at hand. Then they’ll be there when you need them.
- Create a fat outline. Organizing content is work. Writing is work. But if you keep them somewhat separate, you can concentrate on the fluidity of the writing instead of struggling with the organization at the same time. So create a fat outline from your content first: move bits and pieces around until you have a narrative thread. Don’t start writing until you have that nailed down.
- Block off time. Distractions kill flow. You cannot write in flow if you are interrupted every five minutes. It takes a while to get going. So write when you know you won’t be interrupted. Block off time in your schedule and treat it like a meeting with your most important client — inviolable.
- Create and occupy a sacred writing space. Some people like the buzz of a coffee shop in the background; others have a writing room with a closed door and prefer absolute silence. Wherever it is, treat it as a sacred place. This is where you write. It is where you enter communion with the muse. So respect it as a special place with a special purpose.
- Kill the time-killers. No checking email. No checking social media. No texting. When you are writing, you are writing. You can do the rest of that stuff an hour from now after you’ve written something great.
- Manage your mental state. Writing in flow takes enormous energy. (Writing out of flow does, too, but when you are in flow, you channel that energy into productivity, not struggle.) Because of the need for energy, you must know your body and your mind. Choose a time when you know you have energy; for some people, that’s 5 a.m., for others, midafternoon. Manage your level of caffeination: you want to be alert, but not jittery. Manage your blood sugar: you want to feel energized, but not logy. Manage your energy and emotions: don’t try to enter a flow state right after a contentious struggle with a client, boss, spouse, or child.
- Edit later. Many people write words and self-edit simultaneously. This isn’t a problem; sometimes your state of flow includes writing and self-editing all at once. But if you know there are problems, you don’t need to achieve perfection. If you know there are organizational issues to solve, you can write in flow now and solve the issue later. If you know a passage isn’t quite working, you can mark it and come back to it later. Edit your work after you’ve spent a night away from it. If you know you will do that, the pressure to create perfect prose is lifted, which makes writing in flow easier.
Is it worth it?
All that preparation takes time and effort. Why not just craft bits and pieces and stitch them together? Why not do research and planning and writing, all mixed up together? Why not plow ahead even when you’re not in the best mental state? Why waste time practicing?
You can write when not in flow. Sometimes you have to. And if you toted up all the time spent on preparation to write in flow, maybe it would turn out that writing in flow wasn’t more efficient than just winging it and turning in whatever you create.
But writing in flow feels better. And writing in flow creates better prose.
Writing in flow should always be your objective. If you are serious about writing, attaining the skill of writing in flow is the pinnacle of your craft. That’s what you should be striving for.
And you should do whatever it takes to get there, because it’s worth it.