My Writing Process (Or “How I Am Productive”)

A number of people who read this blog have written to me and asked me to share my writing process, having been intrigued by recent posts on academic workflow. Many people who know me ask about how I manage to get a lot of writing (and other stuff) done. I thought I would try to cure tonight’s insomnia by writing about it in a blog entry!

I should start by stating that I am a something of an uncertified graphomaniac – I love writing and find that it is in prose that my imagination finds its best expression, and my mind can come to rest and find peace.

In fact, apart from the writing I did in school and uni, I have written quite a few scholarly articles, parts of books, a dictionary of Mìgmaq (a First Peoples language), parts of a few textbooks, many journalistic pieces and countless reports, appraisals, proposals, and grants. I have also written speeches, ad copy, packaging copy, telemarketing and sales scripts, canvass scripts, minute-by-minute plans for events, strategic plans, vision documents, and so many other sorts of technical pieces that your eyes would water.

So how do I do it?

I find that the first strategy is to give writing and thinking about writing the time that it takes. Contrary to what many people will have assured me, just forcing myself to write regularly even if what I am producing is gibberish doesn’t work for me. I need to feel driven to the page. This can happen organically, or I can nudge it by doing things that I enjoy.

Security. I need to feel safe and secure to be able to write. If I start to feel psychological turmoil, or cognitive dissonance, then I will not be able to put pen to paper. I need to feel stable, unencumbered and at peace.

Fitness. Bizarrely, I write best when I am in good shape. When I get flabby or feel ungainly, my creativity drops. I have contemplated whether this has something to do with self-esteem or whether it is truly biological. I now tend to think it is biological, since my self-esteem has always been pretty solid.

A clean house/office. I often will go through a heavy cleaning of my house or office before embarking on a new project.

Cheerful, superficial conversations with people I like or find attractive. This may be weird, but emotional intensity throws me right off when it is time to be a productive writer. This means that when I need to write, I avoid all the drama-oriented people in my life. Actually I tend to avoid them in general (unless they need my help). I particularly avoid them when I need to write. There is nothing like sweet sunshiny convo in the hallway with a nice colleague, or with a neighbour on the sidewalk or at the mailbox, just before sitting down to the keyboard.

Positive reinforcement. Having others tell me that they want me to be creative, or that it is important to them that I be creative. That’s helpful. Not sure why, but this is a really motivator.

Avoiding criticism or negativity of any kind. This is *huge* for me. When I am seeking inspiration to write, or getting into “writing mode”, I often do a variety of things that others may find they are critical of: watch silly tv shows, listen to superficial pop music, lie in all morning reading magazines, take inordinately long baths, go for a drive in a friend’s sports car, or other such banalities. When someone expresses negativity toward these things, it *really* throws me off and can mar my productivity until my brain is reset by a good night’s sleep. Sometimes one night’s sleep isn’t enough – it needs to be a night’s sleep and then immersion in escapist banalities until the negative emotional memory recedes away. If someone does this to me, even inadvertently, I have been known to viscerally avoid contact with them or harbour resentment for weeks, or even forever. Irrational, I know – probably a sort of self-defense mechanism for my productivity.

Finally, avoiding interruption. When I am on a roll, I turn off the ringer on my phone and put my blackberry away (I have always been bad with voicemail anyhow). I get into the zone, and then tune out the world.

If I can get into the zone, I can work at a writing project until it is done – producing thousands of words at a sitting.

I hope this blog entry sates your curiosity! Or that it speaks to you. Does any of this ring true?

Being productive at the Fairmont Battery Wharf in Boston.

Join the Conversation


  1. I welcomed your insights, particularly appreciating the degree to which you tend to the emotional in order to render fluid your creative/cognitive side.

    Too many people, I’ve noticed, don’t acknowledge the role that many environmental preconditions can play in effective writing.

  2. A lot of those environmental factors ring true for me. I used to not be able to write a term paper as an undergraduate until my room was clean. I always thought it was a type of procrastination, but I think its more of a general concern about my surroundings when I sit down to write. Glad to hear there are others like me out there.

  3. Hi Alex, I just came across your blog, and I really like your last two posts on academic writing, specifically the last one, where you differentiate three types of researchers. It’s helpful for me to have these categories, as many people ask me exactly what literary research is.

  4. Thanks for your feedback, friends! I do think that emotion is very important in the life of the mind. Rationality is over-rated! Reason is important, though. Zac – cleaning is so important. A clean house = a clear mind. Melissa – it was so nice to have a comment from you! A new Master of French Lit!

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