Wouldn’t it be a magical world if someone could tell you – in detail – how to write a best-selling novel or a hit song?
The truth is that there is a whole lot of secret sauce involved in outputting creative work. It’s hard to describe why one piece of writing resonates over another. I’m often asked about how I write, what I use to write and where my ideas for content come from? (along with how I decide on where things should go? Blog? Article? Book? Client idea? etc…). These are the three pillars of what culminates in my final output of writing…
1. The Tools.
The tools I use to write are as follows:
- MacBook Pro (soon to be the new MacBook Air).
- Microsoft Word for newspaper and magazine articles.
- Windows Live Writer for Blog post writing.
- Scrivener for book and book proposal writing.
- Evernote and Noteshelf is where I keep all notes and ideas.
- I rarely write notes out by hand, so no more pens, Moleskine notebooks, etc…
- I use Google Bookmarks to save all Web-based content.
2. The Tactics.
The ideas for content come from the following areas:
- I still subscribe to a lot of email newsletters (old habits die hard) on topics as far-reaching as marketing, public relations, branded content, technology, art, music, fashion, innovation, etc…
- I use Google Reader and subscribe to many Blogs and news websites (I complement this with news apps, etc… on my iPhone and iPad).
- I follow interesting people and what they’re linking to in spaces like Twitter, Google +, LinkedIn, Facebook, Flipboard, etc…
- I try to read a book every week on various topics from business and marketing to creativity and innovation (I don’t often read fiction).
- I still read the daily local newspaper and I try to grab the national newspapers a few times a week.
- I love magazines. Everything from Wired and Fast Company to Monocle and The Economist.
- I consume and study a lot of art (more on that here: Study Art).
- I try to have a "nose for news" (like I said, old habits die hard, and this one is from my days in Journalism).
3. The Techniques.
All of the tools and tactics in the world don’t mean anything without the physical act of breaking through everything to sit down and write (no one explains this better than Steven Pressfield in his must-read business book, Do The Work!). Writing is a process of asking a question about something that inspired me – at any given moment – and trying to use critical thinking to create a thought or moment in time about it. In fact, Nate Guggia, asked me in an email today, "where does all the content come from? Writing on a daily takes skill," and that was the inspiration for this Blog post. The placement of those ideas is something that comes very naturally to me, as well (I usually have more ideas to Blog or write about than I actually publish). I can just tell – as the idea begins to percolate – if it would be best-suited for a Blog post or for an article. When it comes to writing a book, once the core premise is established, my perusal of content on a frequent and regular basis usually gives me tons of inspiration, and I save those ideas and notes in Evernote and then organize them with Scrivener. Personally, I like telling stories and relating them to items in the news to create context rather than writing "how to" or instructional posts. I also write from a very visceral place. I don’t write in pieces, but usually in one shot and then publish it as quickly as possible. It’s rare that I write posts and then cue them up in a scheduled format and I tend to work best on very short/tight deadlines ("if it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done") verses other authors who write, re-write, think, pace, write some more, tweak and edit. I tend to let the idea brew inside of me to the point where the content must come out.
How about you? What kind of writer are you? What works best for you?
Thanks for the peek into the inner workings of the brain of Mitch Joel! One question: Are you no longer using Delicious? It’s one of my favourite tools for gathering and curating info. (I think I started using it years ago on your recommendation.)
I’m using Google Bookmarks instead, but I’ve stopped socially sharing my links… not sure why… just kinda stopped 🙂
Nice reveal, Mitch.
I talked a little about my process here: http://ike4.me/o84
Essentially, it’s a process of finding the right analogy, then fine-tuning the details to match the theme.
Nice insight into how you work, Joel. I keep it pretty simple. I usually have a number of article and posts on the go at the same time.
Time is very tight for me so I start them and write in bite-sized chunks through the day, week, month; whenever I have a few minutes spare I add a paragraph or two until it’s more or less done. This way I have a constant stream going on and coming off the ‘conveyor belt’. I do all this on my iPhone’s Notes app, so nothing fancy. When one is pretty nearly there, I email it to myself & polish it up on my desktop computer.
I have about 40-50 articles on there most of the time. This way, even waiting rooms become a workspace for me 🙂
I’m the compulsive writer type, most of my writing comes in the form of note taking, whether it is to organize my thoughts on a task at work or during brainstorm etc. (day job), I also like to record my dreams, this has a huge place in my artistic practice (mostly drawing and poetry)
when I must do “creative writing” (see link bellow) I need to have a specific question to answer (as you said), I can set the question and have it in the back of my mind for well over a month, then all of sudden (as the deadline approaches, true) I have an urge to write, I feel inspired, and also everything around me starts reflecting the idea I need to precise, tv shows, movies, conversations with friends, anything and everything
then it’s the same process, I compulsively write notes, like comments, then assemble everything and try to give it a treatment that will make the text readable and unfold nicely ; also, I try to keep it short
Perfect! How much time do you allocate for “content consumption”. Do you time block this?
Delicious is where links do to die.
One new technique I’m trying right now is to write down 4 pieces of information on a daily basis in Evernote –
1. What was remarkable about yesterday?
2. Who are 2 new people I talked to?
3. What did I learn yesterday?
4. What am I grateful for?
One or more of these brings forth a topic that is easy to write about.
Oh man you should NOT have mentioned the new MacBook Air.
I’m having an identity crisis.
My 13″ MacBook Air is 4 months old, and after yesterday, it feels like 40 years old.
Oh well. Lion is way faster than Snow Leopard, so all isn’t lost.
Are you pre-ordering the iPhone 5 like I am? 😀
Great post, Mitch! But I’m confused on one point… how are you using Windows Live Writer if your main platform is a Mac? Are you using VMware or Parallels to also have a Windows install?
I used to use (and loved) WLW when I was on Windows systems… but after switching full-time to Mac-land 3.5 years ago, I’ve wound up using MarsEdit as my offline blog editor of choice.
Great post! And it’s nice to know that I’m not the only compulsive thinker/reader/writer. Like you, I’m driven by deadlines. I also have to visualize a piece before I can figure out where it will fit (blog post, article, concept for a client project, etc.). I always keep pen and paper near the shower. My kids have been jotting down notes for me since a very young age. I guess you could say that we’re hooked on phonics!
So detailed, Dan 😉
Yes, I run vmWare… love Windows Live Writer that much!
I like to write longhand and get an idea down in one swoop, Then when I go to write a blog post about it, it is like a second draft. I might let it sit for a while so I can go back fresh and proof it. Otherwise I end up with way too many typos.
It was a delight to see into your writing process. Mine varies, depending on what I’m writing. If I’m writing for “work,” I tend to use whichever blogging platform my client has in place. If I’m writing for my own blog, I usually start by writing in Word or iWork Pages. For some reason that works better than starting from scratch on my blog’s CMS. My approach to my creative writing is completely different. That work requires a pencil and paper.
Hey Mitch, thanks for the reveal. Very informative. Quick question: which MacBook Air are you planning on, the 11inch or the 13inch, and why? I’m finally about to buy one myself and curious what you think. Thanks!
Mitch – did it take you long to get used to Scrivener? I’ve downloaded it but am a little reluctant to learn an entirely new app.
Watch the video demo… not much learning to do 😉
How do you ‘layout’ your posts? Do you ever mindmap or outline?
No I don’t. I have a concept and I just start writing.
Cool. I use MindManager Pro for my ‘creation’ posts. I want to make sure I don’t miss a point, but then I don’t create content as often as you do — I’m more of a curator…
Mitch, you’re very generous with your knowledge, as usual. This stuff is very useful. Thanks! Oh, and after procrastinating for I don’t know how long, I finally opened an Evernote account. Do you use/recommend a premium version?
Haven’t found the need to upgrade just yet. Basic one seems to be doing the job.
Great post – I love reading about how other writers write (and apparently I’m not the only one!). I have to ask how do you prioritize pieces – do you work solidly on one before starting another or do you have many on the go at once? Also, any tips on when to stop gathering content and start writing?
Great information, thanks. I was wondering, does anyone use voice recognition software to get the initial ideas down before they poof?
One of my favourite and most used tools is a digital voice recorder. Itâ€™s great for spontaneous interviews (article ideas come at me whenever Iâ€™m in the company of an â€œexpertâ€; doctorâ€™s office, etc.). And since the hamster never stops, it enables me to â€œtake notesâ€ while driving. Itâ€™s one of those never-leave-home-without-it tools!
I just participated on a panel this weekend at a social media conference where I discussed my thoughts on the art of writing a blog, and I’m tickled to see we think so much alike. My biggest advice that day was: write, just write whenever you can, and as you do you’ll get better and it will come more naturally. But organization is key too. I love my MacBook Air (sadly not the shiny new one, but still an awesome tool!), but I also think writing with pen and paper can inspire creativity, as much as getting up and writing somewhere new can inspire creativity.
I’m primarily a fiction writer and I write my first draft by hand. I found that if I do the first draft on the computer, I am always editing and tweeking and not writing anything new. So now, if the sentence isn’t perfect, I just tell myself that I’ll fix it later. Its the best way for me to keep going.
After repeatedly seeing Evernote listed in different writers’ toolboxes, I am going to give it a try. I am always slow to take the time for new tools; most tools tend to distract more than help.
Great short post!
Great practical starting point! The challenge is to get started… I like these questions and they work every day 😉
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