One of the questions I often get from emerging writers is this one: How do you create a lot of good content at a regular pace. Over the years, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to write for a variety of outlets on topics I enjoy. I write regularly for ERLC and am a regular contributor to several other publications.
Every writer has their own rhythms, but perhaps there are some things you can learn from what has helped me. Here are six things I do in my life to be a productive and consistent writer:
1) I don’t wait for inspiration, for a cabin next to a mountain stream, or a light bulb. I just write. I’m amazed at how many people I know talk about writing, love to discuss blogging, have good thoughts on writing a book. It’s a much smaller group of people who actually sit in a chair and write. Don’t let the lack of an idyllic setting or the fear of making a mistake or not being good enough keep you from writing. You have to start somewhere. My advice is to start collecting ideas and start putting those ideas on paper. Your first few attempts will be rough, may not even be ready for publication. They’ll need the polishing pen of an advanced editor. But if you never start writing, you will never publish. When I go back and read some of my first articles, devotionals, book chapters–I now cringe and hope nobody ever reads them. But had I not written those, I would not be writing better stuff down the line. Instead of thinking of your next blog or article as your magnum opus, look at it as the first contribution to a long body of work. When this piece is as good as you can possibly get it, publish it and then start working on another and another and another. Edit and rewrite, but don’t languish over every blog post, every article as if its an instant classic. It probably isn’t. That’s ok.
2) I write from my passions on topics that interest me. I write best when I’m writing in my wheelhouse. The things I love to write about are: pastoral leadership, cultural issues, and parenting/family. My passions and interests are the local church, human dignity, sports, and politics. I’ve also found that my best writing happens when my emotions are stirred. Here are some examples: reading something in a book that enlightens or inspires; listening to a sermon or talk that moves my heart; a comment or article or news story that angers me.
Early on in your career you may not have opportunity, all the time, to write in the center of your talents and passions. You may need to write on topics that are not as interesting to you, only to hone your writing muscles and prove yourself to editors and readers. Along the way, you will discover what it is that moves you and you should work hard to find opportunity to write from that well. Even when the opportunities are not as available, you can write on your own blog on topics you enjoy.
For many years I worked as a copywriter for an organization, writing fundraising letters, devotionals, back-cover copy, sermons. I didn’t have much opportunity to write in my own voice (and frankly, my voice wasn’t very compelling because I was young and immature). This season helped me learn how to write fast and on deadline. Eventually I earned the trust of editors who began to help me improve my craft. Now I’m in a place where I get to write on things I enjoy, things that stir my passions. This is where you eventually want to be.
3) Always be cultivating and chronicling ideas. I don’t journal. I used to beat myself up about it, but then I just accepted the fact that journaling isn’t for me. But what I do is record ideas as they come. My ideas come in bunches and they come all the time. I always try to have some way to record them. Sometimes I send an email to myself. Other times I’m writing on the back of a church bulletin. Often I have a notebook of some sort.
Don’t let good ideas pass. Act on them. What I typically do is take an idea, write it down, let it simmer for a day or two, then put it on paper as an article or blog. In this “simmering period” I not only chew on the idea, I try to picture the structure of a potential article. How will I start it? What will the major points be? How will I conclude? Sometimes I find that the idea is just an idea and doesn’t work as a piece of writing. Sometimes I find that an idea is half-baked and needs something more. But most of the time, I’ve been able to turn my ideas into articles.
4) I try to be curious and always learning. The way to cultivate good ideas is to live an interesting life. Fill your well by walking with Jesus every day, reading good books, meeting interesting people, and being faithful in church, family, and work. You’ll be surprised at how good ideas come. A few months ago I was in a church business meeting, of all things, and an idea about pastoral leadership and trust popped into my head. This became an article for a leading leadership blog. Some of my best ideas have come while I’m in church, driving in the car, listening to a podcast, taking a shower, watching a show, in a meeting at work, reading a good book, playing a game with my kids, or during a hundred other kinds of life experiences.
If you are curious. If you are always learning. If you are willing to let God put you in places of growth and renewal, you will not soon run out of ideas. And those ideas will turn into blogs, articles, even book chapters. This is how writing careers are born and sustained.
5) I write in short bursts, in the margins of life. I live a busy life. I have a full-time job managing a communications team at the ERLC. I’m on the pastoral staff of our church. I’m a husband and father of four children. I’ve never had a mountain stream or hideaway where I could spend uninterrupted hours cranking out words. I’m usually writing in the margins, so at night when the kids are in bed, early mornings, or weekends. Lately I’ve found it useful to actually schedule times to write–perhaps an hour or two during my work day or a morning on the weekend.
If the seeds of ideas have been planted in my head, I have found that I can crank out quite a bit in short, twenty minute bursts. Sometimes I have the luxury of an hour. If I’m working on a book-length project, I may take several days off and work in a coffee shop. The key for those short bursts is this: Write as much as you can in that space, until you have written that piece as best as you can. Then let the piece sit. Pass it around to a few friends for critique. Come back to it later, make some edits, and then publish.
The important thing is that if you expect to have the perfect setting, without distraction, without noise, without interruptions, you may not ever write. Most of my books have been written while my kids were running around me. At one point we were in a small two bedroom townhouse where the kitchen table doubled as my writing studio. I didn’t have a choice. I had to crank it out and so I did. One day you may have an idyllic, mountain hideaway where you can write while the beavers swim and the birds chirp. Until then, don’t let your setting or your schedule be an excuse to not be productive. You can do it.
6) I try not to be a jerk. This seems like a basic rule of thumb in all of life, but it’s especially true for writers. I’m amazed at how many writers are demanding and unkind to their editors. What they don’t realize is that the editors are the gatekeepers. The editors are also the unseen heroes who make your writing shine. I once had an editor tell me early on in my career: “Dan, you are not Hemingway. You need to be edited.” She was right.
Writing is artwork and so we can be sensitive. We can hang on to every word or phrase. But my advice is to hold our ideas firmly, but our words loosely. Let others shape your prose so it can be as good as it can be. Be open to critique. Welcome others’ input. Consider your work the David that the editor is trying to chisel from the stone. Do you want the world to see you at your best or do you want mistakes to obscure your ideas?
Being a jerk is not just detrimental to your career–editors move around and they talk–it’s also a reflection of a deeper need for sanctification. Gentleness and peace are fruits of the Spirit’s work within you. So don’t be a jerk. Be kind. Be thankful. Be teachable.