Unleash Your Creativity:
Become a Better,
More Productive Writer
Take inspiration by the throat and make it work for you.
In the summer of 1985 I was trying to write a profile of Ray Bradbury for Writer’s Digest. I had made no progress for about a week, so I put the piece aside and worked on other things.
About 11:30 one hot July night, I climbed into the shower to cool off. Suddenly, the lead that had eluded me popped into my head: "Ray Bradbury is a wimp." The first 800 words of the article and the last 100 quickly followed, almost as if someone was dictating to me.
I jumped out of the shower, dried off, ran into my office and turned on the computer. I worked until about 2:00 a.m. that night, getting down that beginning and end. Because those parts set the tone of the whole article, it was easy to fill in the middle the next day.
Since then, all that showers have been good for is getting clean—but what happened to me is not unusual. Research into how creative people work shows a common pattern: a) a lot of time collecting material followed by b) a period of apparent inactivity, then c) a sudden burst of "inspiration," and finally d) a period of hard work getting all the new ideas down and organized.
Knowing that, we can learn to make "inspiration" happen, and thereby take better control of the creative process so that we become more productive—and better—writers.
Writing calls on two contradictory skills: creativity and critical thinking. Only when we exercise both in balance – and in turn – can we write well. Too much "creativity" and we ignore our readers. Too much critical thinking, especially early in a project, and we might not write anything at all, frozen into inaction by fear of producing something less than perfect.
Researchers like Gordon Rohman at Michigan State University have found that no matter what the genre, successful writers do different things at different time in a writing project, yet virtually all of us use a variation of the same three-stage process: Invention, Drafting and Revision.
Invention—sometimes called "pre-writing"—is where you figure out just what it is you have to say. It is the most "creative" part of the process, the home of "writer’s block" and where most of us get hung up. It is the time for letting our "writer" create and getting our critical "editor" to shut up.
A while back I finished a Drama in Real Life piece for Reader’s Digest about the rescue of 20 people who had to abandon ship in near hurricane winds and 20 foot seas in the North Pacific. I had a research file more than two inches thick. I interviewed 16 people, plotted two drifting life rafts on nautical charts, and read dozens of newspaper clippings and official reports. I had everything I needed , yet I couldn’t get started. Before I could start to write, I had to organize.
Using a computer outline program, I was able to weave the sixteen stories into one, creating a backbone for my story that allowed me to relax and just tell the tale.
Outlining is just one invention technique. For a large project like my story, it was what I needed to get my mind ready for the actual writing. I’ve also found outlines useful on technical projects, such as the computer manuals I sometimes do.
Other invention techniques are less structured. Here’s one that is perhaps the least structured of them all: Spend just a second thinking about what it is you’re writing about. Now start writing everything that comes to your mind. There’s only one rule: You must not stop for ten minutes. You must not pause. You must not correct your spelling or grammar. You must keep going.
If you get off the topic, fine. Follow that train of thought and keep writing. There’s no way to do this wrong except to stop.
If you can’t think of anything to say, repeat the last word over and over or write, "I can’t think of anything to stay." It will start again quickly enough.
If you write on a computer, turn off the monitor or cover the screen so you can’t see what you have typed and will not be tempted to go back and fix typos.
At the end of the ten minutes, stop. Read what you have written, remember that this isn’t meant to be finished copy, not even relevant copy. If a line strikes or idea strikes you, use it as the jumping-off point for another ten minutes of writing. Then another short pause to let other things settle down a bit and another ten minutes of writing.
This process is called "freewriting" and its chief proponent is Peter Elbow, author of Writing with Power. Freewriting is an intentionally unstructured activity designed to force you out of your critical mode and into you creative mode. An anatomical parlance, it uses your more allegorical "right brain" rather than your more structured "left brain."
Occupied with the simple goal of just writing without stopping for ten minutes, you conscious mind gets caught up in the immediate task of continuing writing and lets your unconscious mind take care of what you write.
The results of freewriting exercises will often surprise you. Sometimes what you come up with will be trivial; other times you will find insights that startle you.
Freewriting is particularly useful when you’re intimidated by the audience you are writing for—some writers are intimidated by their editors. Writing for yourself first, you begin to tape a lode of material you didn’t even know as available.
Another invention technique is called "clustering" and comes from Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico. At the center of a sheet of paper, jot the central idea of your article or story. As you think of sub-concepts, note them around the outside of the central circle, and connect them to the center with a line. As each of these sub-ideas suggest other ideas, cluster them around the parent that spawned them. Son, you will develop a branching structure.
Not everything on the cluster diagram ends up in the article, but that’s fine. Like freewriting, cluster is to help you create. Worrying about writing to a certain length can come later.
If you want help exploring ideas, try heuristics (from the Greek word heuriskein, "to find out"). Heuristics ask questions that cast a topic in a new light. For them to work, you must spend some time to think about each question, no matter how strange it may seem at first.
Erika Lindemann, in A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, spends more than a dozen pages outlining various heuristics. One of the best sets is derived from the work of Aristotle and focuses around five concepts: Definition, Comparison, Relationship, Testimony and Circumstance. Each question contains a blank into which you insert the topic you are writing about.
For example, under the general heading of Definition are quest questions as "How does the dictionary define _________?" and "What earlier words did ________ come from?" Questions under Comparison ask, "From what is ________ different?" and "_________ is most like what?" Under Relationship, "What causes _________?" and "Why does ________ happen?" Under Testimony, "What have I heard people say about ________?" and "Are there any laws about ________?" Under Circumstances, "Is _______ possible or impossible?" and "If ________ starts, what makes it end?"
Of course, these are just a few of the questions in this one set of Aristotelian heuristics. Other sets of heuristics help you define dramatic motives, identify your audience, analyze a piece of literature or study a subject from different perspectives. Besides Lindemann’s book, another source of heuristics is Richard Coe’s Process, Form and Substance.
I used heuristics in doing a piece about hypothermia for Omni a few years ago. Hypothermia is the cooling of the body’s core. It can kill people in extremely cold weather or cold water. Heuristics asked me to question "What parts can hypothermia be divided into?", which made me think about the stages of hypothermia. Another one, "To what is hypothermia similar?" lead me to a whole angle about drug induced comas that share many symptoms with hypothermia-induced comas.
One other invention technique is the eases and my favorite: I talk about a project. By explaining what I am working on, I clarify my thought and bring into focus just what it is I have to get across. Also, like many of us, I must fight a tendency to write in loftier (and less understandable) language than I use when speaking. In talking about my story, I usually find simpler, clearer ways to saying what I have to say.
Not all invention techniques work for all people But every successful writer develops techniques to find out what he or she wants to say. The key is to relax. Don’t try to "write." Just let the ideas come with no criticism. The time for deciding one idea is better than another comes later.
Don’t be afraid to spend lots of time on invention. I often spend half my time on a project in the invention phase.
Drafting, on the other hand, is the shortest phase, sometimes taking as little as 10% of my time on a project.
Lewis Carroll had some of the best advice on drafting. In Alice in Wonderland, when Alice was trying to tell the Red Queen what had happened but found herself confused, the Queen advised, "Start at the beginning, go through to the end and then stop."
Change that just a little. Make it, "Start at A beginning, go through to AN end and then stop."
In other words, don’t get hung up on your lead or your conclusion. Start anywhere. Just get down everything you want in your story. Let your momentum carry you. You can reorganize and clean up later. For now, it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even close.
Do consider three questions: "What am I trying to accomplish with this writing? To whom am I speaking? Why am I writing this?"
Answering these—purpose, audience and occasion—will start to bring your work into focus. For instance, knowing that this article is for writers, I am filling it with practical ideas you can use to improve your writing. Had I bee writing it for people who teach writing, I would have been more theoretical and more concerned with telling how to get the ideas in this article across to students.
The revision phase puts your internal editor in charge.
The key to making revision work is learning to organize and control it. Do you find yourself correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation as soon as you start to edit? Don’t. Instead, organize your editing into six separate "passes" through the work.
On the first pass, edit for truth and accuracy. Did the government really say his opponent has a face like a ferrett? Why correct the spelling of ferret (only one t) if you are going to drop the whole sentence anyway.
On the second, reorganize the building blocks. Did you discuss revision before you discussed drafting? Now is the time to put those sections in their proper places. Again, don’t worry about little things. Right now you are moving entire sections, not fiddling with the placement of words.
On the third, carefully examine your paragraph structure. In English, our paragraphs most often move from the general to the specific. The most general idea in the paragraph appears in what is called the topic sentence. Each succeeding sentence should related to that topic sentence in some way or another.
For instance, in the previous paragraph, each sentence is subordinate of and more specific than the sentence just above it. You could chart is like this:
1. On the third, carefully examine your paragraph structure.
2. In English, our paragraphs most often move from the general to the specific.
3. The most general idea in the paragraph appears in what is called the topic sentence.
4. Each succeeding sentence should relate to that topic sentence in some way or another.
Of course, not every paragraph has a purely subordinate structure. Some paragraphs have several sentences at the same level of generality: coordinate structure. Other have both coordinate and subordinate structure. This paragraph is one of the latter.
1. Of course, not every paragraph has a purely subordinate structure.
2. Some paragraphs have several sentences at the same level of generality: coordinate structure.
2. Other have both coordinate and subordinate structure.
3. This paragraph is one of the latter.
Notice now the two sentences marked "2" refer directly back to the topic sentence. Neither relies on the other for its meaning.
Understanding this principle of increasing specificity helps you understand when a new paragraph should begin. It also helps you keep your facts straight within a paragraph. You’ll never have to analyze every paragraph you write, but when you just can’t seem to get one to come out right, this analysis will often show you where you have gone wrong and how to fix the problem.
On the fourth pass, ensure that each of your sentences meets three criteria. First, is the central action in a verb? Don’t say, "He made a decision" when you can say, "He decided." Second, is your verb in the active voice? The active voice is more vital and easier to understand. Again, "He decided" is better than, "A decision was made by him." Third, is the core of the sentence together? Is the subject next to the verb next to the object? Don’t say, "The boy, after swinging mightily, hit, with great force, the ball." Just say, "After swinging mightily, the boy hit the ball with great force."
Watch lengths of sentences as well. Keep them short and to the point. One idea per sentence, no more. It’s the easiest way to stay out of trouble.
On the fifth pass, check your diction and usage. Have you used less when you really mean fewer? Is it the eldest or oldest sister?
On the sixth, check your spelling and clean up your punctuation.
For those of us with deadlines and word counts remains one last task: paring the piece down to size. For instance, as I draft this piece, I already have more than 3,000 words for a 2,500 word assignment. Before I finish, I must tighten and select well enough to get this word into something between 2,450 and 2,550 words. That means another pass (or two) through the piece to throw out everything that isn’t essential.
Knowing When to Quit
Know when to quit is as important as knowing where to start. Often we wait too long. Pragmatically, some assignments just don’t pay enough to justify spending as much time on them as we do. Also, no piece of writing is every perfect. No matter how many times you revise, you can still find things to change. When you are done, you editor will find something else to fix.
So, don’t be afraid to let it go. As the Red Queen says, "go through to the end and then stop."
So, I will.
Tim Perrin has been writing for a living in one form or another virtually all of his adult life. He has published several hundred magazine articles and five books, including one on writing (Better Writing for Lawyers, 1989). Tim has been teaching adults since 1975 for such schools as Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, several community colleges and in seminars across Canada and the US.
His passions are screenwriting and book-length "new journalism" non-fiction. His current project is a book on taking charge of your life. California born and raised, Tim has lived the last 25 years in Canada. He and his wife live by a little lake in the beautiful Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Tim is the executive director of www.WritingSchool.com.
© 2004 WritingSchool.com All Rights Reserved. Originally appeared in Writer's Digest, July 1989 Used with Permission.