The Writing Marathon, or How to Get New Ideas When You’ve Reached the End of Your Thinking

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This week’s Friday guest contributor is positioning and creativity guru and blogger, Mark Levy of Levy Innovation, who’s also a friend and author of the newly-expanded, and re-subtitled bestseller, Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content.

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In the past few days I’ve talked with a dozen smart people who create content for a living. They write posts and e-books, record podcasts and vlogs, and are on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

These pros aren’t trying to produce one lone idea a day. They need to generate lots of lively and practical ideas that can be spread across multiple platforms every day. Their livelihood depends on it.

As far as tough jobs go, it may not rank with working in a coal mine, but it’s no cakewalk.

Many of these content creators are burnt out. They feel that, within their field, they’ve reached the end of their thinking. They’ve said everything they know how to say, and anything that comes out now is only a mild variation of what they’ve said before.

What might they do to revive themselves?

As a writing coach, I’d give them the same counsel I give myself when I’m working on an important project and find myself – not just stuck – but empty. I’d tell them to conduct a writing marathon.

Based on Peter Elbow’s Loop Writing Process and the technique of freewriting, a writing marathon is an exhausting yet liberating day-long writing session that’s part information dump and part exploration into ideas that they may have never thought about before.

In the end, they’ll have pages of thoughts and prose. Much of it will be junk. Some of it, though, will be startlingly original, and may well be the best stuff they’ve ever created.

Whether you’re blocked or not, you might like to try the marathon yourself. Here’s how it works:

Set aside a stretch of five to eight hours. If you’re a morning person, begin it in the morning. If you’re a nighttime person, schedule it for the evening.

Get a timer and a computer. You’ll need the computer, because if you try doing the amount of writing I’m asking you to do with pen and paper, you’re hand will cramp.

Now, set the timer for twenty minutes, open a blank document, fix your subject in mind (for instance, “How can service firms sell to mid-sized companies”), and start typing.

Attack the subject from a spot that, for you, has energy. In other words, don’t start writing about it from some point out of obligation. Begin where you want to begin.

No one is going to see what your writing unless you want them to, so be honest and bold.

Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Don’t worry if what you’re writing is interesting or even coherent.

Write as fast as you can, without stopping for any reason. And, if during the writing you feel like digressing, by all means follow those digressions.

What you’re doing is using the writing to watch yourself think.

When twenty minutes is up and your timer rings, stop. Now’s not a time to rest, though. Take a few minutes to read through your writing and note language and concepts that catch your attention.

If a line interests you — if it’s well-said or contains an idea you might want to develop — underline it. If a line strikes you as a considerable insight, bold it.

Once you’re finished making annotations, look the page over once more. The reason? You want find out what to explore next.

  • Do you see a thought you’d further like to pursue?
  • Is there an underdeveloped idea that needs elaboration?
  • Do you notice a relationship between ideas that needs writing about?
  • Are you struck by a thinking-error that’s apparent only now that you’ve written it out?
  • Has a question occurred to you that bares investigation?

You’re searching for a new starting thought. It needn’t be profound. Again, you just want to begin writing from a spot that has energy. A spot that intrigues, delights, or annoys you.

Once you’ve come up with a starting thought, fix it in mind, set your timer for twenty minutes, and start writing about your starter thought.

As always, follow the dictates of your mind. If you want to stay on topic, fine. If you feel like going off topic, do it. Have fun. Be irreverent, provocative, even scandalous.

When twenty minutes is up and your timer rings, stop. Again, read through your writing and underline and bold the notions that grab you. Find a new starter thought. Repeat.

That’s the marathon. You do twenty minute sessions, punctuated by the search for starter thoughts, over and over for five to eight hours. Why that long?

You want to clear the brain. You want it to dig deep for facts, opinions, people, stories, scenes, details, ideas. By doing so, you’ll burn off the obligatory surface thinking that can’t be avoided. The party-line stuff. Your mind will have to start reaching. That’s what you want.

One of the keys to making the marathon work is by following Ezra Pound’s rallying cry, “Make it new.” Each time you formulate a starter thought, demand that it sends you in a new direction. I can’t stress this point enough.

You don’t want to merely parrot what you’ve already written because, if you hit “Save,” you have that writing forever. Why duplicate it?

You want new. Force yourself into uncharted waters, even if doing so seems artificial or uncomfortable. Pursue novelty and uncertainty. Head towards anxiety. Make yourself write and think about ideas that aren’t traditionally “you.” Get beyond the point where you write about what you know.

As Ron Carlson wrote, “ . . . if you get what you expect, it isn’t good enough.”

By the end of the marathon, you’ll likely have pages and pages of language and ideas that you can use as raw material for dozens of significant projects. The honesty and power of your exploratory writing may surprise you.

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Mark Levy, who founded the marketing strategy firm, Levy Innovation, is called, by David Meerman Scott, “a positioning guru extraordinaire.” Mark’s latest book is a revised, expanded, and re-subtitled edition of his bestseller, “Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content.” It liberates readers from their status quo thinking.

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48 responses

48 responses to “The Writing Marathon, or How to Get New Ideas When You’ve Reached the End of Your Thinking”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by remarkablogger, Grant Griffiths, kurio's resource, TwittyBean, Santi Chacon and others. Santi Chacon said: The Writing Marathon, or How to Get New Ideas When You’ve Reached the End of Your Thinking: This week’s Friday gue… http://bit.ly/bW74Ql […]

  2. Fantastic advice for a blogger that constantly has new ideas but doesn’t necessarily take the time to block out sessions to get them all down.

    I love the idea of underlining a key sentence or thought you’ve had that particularly stands out and then creating a whole new compelling topic around that.

    I will be trying this next week!

    • Mark Levy says:

      Hi Natalie:

      Glad you liked the idea of underlining phrases and ideas, and using them to fuel the next session of freewriting. That, to me, is one of the things that makes the marathon work.

      With each twenty minute session, you don’t have to start anew. You use what came before it as a means of sending you in a fresh direction. That way, you can take advantage of all the little surprises that show up in your writing from one session to the next. Interesting turns of phrases, unusual ideas, and odd bits of whimsy help you examine whole new parts of the subject.

      I’d love to hear how your experiments go with the technique.

      Mark

  3. Rob Long says:

    Great stuff, Mark!

    Happy coincidence to find you here today. I own a very dog-eared copy of the original Accidental Genius and have been “private writing” — daily — for 6 years. It’s made mucho difference in my personal & professional life. Looking forward to the revised book.

    • Mark Levy says:

      Rob, you made my day.

      That you’ve used private writing every day for six years to make a difference in your life is thrilling for me to hear.

      If you have any stories you’d like to share with me about the writing, I’d love to hear them.

      Thanks, too, for saying you’re looking forward to the revised and expanded edition of the book. It’s got 40% new material in it; mostly on how to use exploratory writing as a means of writing books, posts, and other public pieces. I think the new stuff is pretty helpful (and I’m in no way biased, right?)

      Anyway, thanks again.

      Mark

  4. I LOVE this idea… sort of like a triathalon for writers. Move over NaNoWriMo!

    • Mark Levy says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Linda. And you’re right: the marathon is like a triathlon.

      I can’t help but brag about it when I finish a writing marathon. I tend to drop it into conversations:

      Friend: “How are things, Mark?”

      Me: “Fine. ‘I just wrote for eight hours straight. It was exhausting, and a struggle, but I got a lot of great ideas and prose out of it . . . How are you?'”

      (No, I’m not quite that bad. But close.)

  5. What a cool idea! Sounds a bit grueling for my antsy-self, but I am absolutely certain it would dig out way better stuff than I can do in my too-short carved out writing periods. Checking my calendar now for a good marathon day. Thanks for the step by step guidance.

    • Mark Levy says:

      Thanks, Michelle.

      Eight hours can be a lot. Consider trying a three hour session first. That way, you can build up to sessions that last eight hours or more.

  6. Thanks Jonathan, and thanks Mark for this great post – I’ll definitely use this technique for creating fresh posts in my weight loss blog and muscle growth blog too.

    A variation of this is to get a huge piece of blank paper and write a central idea in the middle, circle it, and create a mind-map of related ideas flowing outwards from the central one.

    • Mark Levy says:

      Thanks, Dominic.

      You know, years ago I tried mind-mapping my projects, and I actually found it inhibiting. I guess different people have different cognitive styles. That, or I was just doing it wrong.

  7. Mark, thank you for your guest post which is actually quite timely. Sometimes I feel a little brain dead, and this is a clever way to stimulate new thinking. I’m going to conduct my marathon this Sunday and see where it leads.

    Avil

  8. I’m usually partial to writing ‘sprints’ but I really like the idea of getting caught up in particular thoughts and just rolling with them in different directions. Thanks for this!

    • Mark Levy says:

      Hi, Tallulah.

      I’m with you: When I write, I love to sprint. Don’t look at the marathon as an eight hour session, then. Look at it as sixteen or so sprints that you do on a given day. It’s not much different than what you do normally.

      Good luck with this.

  9. Mike Shawn says:

    I like the timer idea. I usually set the timer alarm on my cellphone to remind me of tasks, or just to limit my time when I get distracted (say only 30minutes for checking emails, I’d start the timer).

    • Mark Levy says:

      Hi, Mike.

      Chuck Palahniuk, the author of “The Fight Club,” sometimes times his writing by doing a load of laundry. As a timer, I’ve even used things like writing until a friend finishes getting their hair cut.

      If you try timed writing, I think you’ll find it really helps to focus the mind. Best of luck to you.

  10. Mark,
    Nice tip. I think I sometimes spend too much time Outlining, Organizing, Researching, and Preparing. I should probably try to just write in Notepad and organize it later.
    Thanks,
    Chris

    • Mark Levy says:

      What I often do, Christopher, is to do some freewriting sessions first.

      Then I comb through them and put together the best ideas in an interesting order.

      And only then do I outline.

      In other words, I outline after the first draft, so I can see where the piece as a whole is going. At that point, I rewrite and recombine until I get the document i want.

      Anyway, thanks for the kind words.

  11. Right on Mark! This is excellent advice. Here’s a tool I use that is perfect for forcing the 20 minute bursts of writing you suggested:

    http://writeordie.drwicked.com/

    This is the best resource I’ve run across in a while. You can set how many words you want to write and how long you have to write it. It prods you into typing – if you stop, it starts flashing and playing annoying sounds. It’s a great tool for writers.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Mark Levy says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Brandon. I used Dr. Wicked a few months back, and I thought it was great. You’re right: it’s an excellent resource.

  12. Ceil DeYoung says:

    I’ve never brainstormed like that for that long but it should work. I wonder if there would be any value in saving your outpour and going over it later? Perhaps something that didn’t trigger a new idea at the time might produce something at a later time. Just wondering.

    • Mark Levy says:

      Going back what you’ve brainstormed does make a world of difference.

      Sometimes you can only see an idea’s value after the fact, or at least after you’ve created more ideas and you start seeing a pattern.

  13. I’ve been writing in 15-20 minutes bouts but it usually gets sidetracked by the minutiae going on around me and the writing usually yields no solid results. I think this is the perfect exercise to overcome the resistance I have for writing. Specifically on subjects that given the opportunity I have no problems talking about endlessly.
    Thank you,
    Brendalee

    • Mark Levy says:

      Hi, Brendalee. Sometimes the parts of your writing where you get “sidetracked” are where your most interesting ideas are. By all means, let your writing diverge. Go off track. Just eventually guide yourself back to the subject at hand.

  14. Jess Webb says:

    Wow, I love love LOVE this marathon idea and will definitely set aside some time to try it next week. I often feel stuck for what to write and this is just the type of exercise I need to break out of that rut.

    Thank you so much for this post!

  15. Krisenkindt says:

    Wow, that sounds totally awesome! 🙂 I usually start and don’t stop until I think I am done, but I have never done it in many stints over so long!
    I will definitely try that. For me, it sounds perfect for a sunday late afternoon to bedtime adventure hehehe
    Thanks a lot!

    Oh, and since many from the commenters before me mentioned they are gonna try it:
    Come back and tell how it was, please, thats gonna be interesting! 🙂

    Have a great weekend, all of you!
    Anna

    • Mark Levy says:

      It is an adventure. I promise you that if you write fast enough, for long enough, you’ll come up with ideas and prose and stories that will make you say, “Huh? Where did that come from? How did I know to say that?” Best of luck.

  16. Diane says:

    Hi Mark

    This post absorbed me, and I love your ideas. If I sat for several days doing this, I reckon that my lists of topics would get sorted.
    Do you ever work your writing with a list of starter questions? One thing that I’ve done was to copy lots of opening questions/headers from many blogs onto a spreadsheet, and thought that I might be able to change the header or question and then write about that. I also thought that I could integrate keywords before I started, so that they became easier to bring into the writing in a truly natural way.

    • Mark Levy says:

      I do use starter questions. They’re certainly valuable. Most of the time, though, I start with what I have most energy for. So, I’ll think of an issue that’s been on my mind, and I’ll just start writing about it:

      When did I first learn about this issue? Who’s involved? What stories does it being to mind? What images does it being to mind? What do I want to see happen? What resources do I have available to make it happen?

      Anyway, thanks for the kind words, Diane.

  17. Alana says:

    Fascinating process that I would love to find time for soon. Aside from producing new content, for me and my writing I think it would be an amazing way to get past emotional/psychological blocks into new thoughts/feelings/internal territory. A deepening. Thank you.

    • Mark Levy says:

      You got it, Alana. If there’s a situation I’m procrastinating about, I always freewriting about it first. By the time I’m finished, I’m usually psyched enough about it to make things happen away from the page and in the larger world.

  18. Anne Hill says:

    I couldn’t disagree more, Mark. I am a big fan of freewriting, and this sounds like a productive technique, but if you have run out of things to say about selling services to mid-sized companies, freewriting on that topic will not necessarily help you.

    Instead, I recommend getting together with people who are experts in other fields (the more far-flung the better), having a freeform conversation, and seeing where it leads. Rather than just exploring the fishbowl of your own thoughts, see whether similar principles hold true for their world and yours. Where do they get stuck in their own fishbowls? Where do they see cutting edge, breakthrough thinking taking place? How have your individual experiences led to different (or identical) conclusions about your respective areas of expertise?

    Guaranteed you will come away with thoughts, insights, and angles you didn’t have before. You may also be inspired to pursue related fields because what is happening there can inform the circles you write for. And you have tons of new material to freewrite on.

    • Mark Levy says:

      Hi, Anne. I appreciate your comment. Conferring with people in other fields is a wonderful way of opening up the mind and trying on new problem-solving models. I use that method myself.

      I’m just saying that, from experience, I know that we sometimes have ideas and experiences and wisdom inside of us that we’re not reaching. Said differently: Our fishbowl is larger than we think.

      The marathon helps us get at those experiences and ideas, so that they might help us when we think we’ve run dry. It also helps us create concepts, based on the experiences and memories we’re able to call up.

      Again, techniques like brainstorming with expert outsiders and doing freewriting aren’t mutually exclusive. They all help.

  19. Cath Lawson says:

    Hi Mark, I love this idea. I use various freewriting techniques but I never tried a marathon before. I’m betting it could generate some awesome ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Rob says:

    Thanks Mark and Jonathan for a fresh technique to try.

    Definitely up for attempting the writing marathon to unload and explore. I actually realise I do a similar technique when writing music ideas.

    When time is tight I’m going to experiment with a shorter version of this marathon, followed by a read-through highlighting the key themes and then pick up where I left off on the next occasion and see if that generates anything interesting or new.

    What do you think about theories where writing by hand encourage the creative elements of the brain?

    • Mark Levy says:

      Hi, Rob. I’m not too knowledgeable about those theories, sorry.

      I do know that freewriting works just as well with pen and paper as it does on the computer. When doing the marathon, though, I strongly recommend using a computer because of the amount of writing to be done. Most of us aren’t used to writing cursively for hours on end.

  21. Mark–THANK YOU thank you thank you! What a great idea. I have been working on some content lately and, while I have no idea what’s reasonable in terms of how much time I spend, keep thinking that I’m spending way too long on one idea, which gets me caught in a cycle of perfectionism/wordsmithing/editing, before I get any kind of rough material down. I love the idea of repetitive, quick brain dumps (and for me, that break in between is going to include one or more of the following: yoga, music, or going outside and looking at trees.) Gotta get away from the computer in order to regenerate, I think. Again, thanks.

    • Mark Levy says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Kristy.

      Yeah, for me, spending loads of time polishing a single idea can be a trap. The reason: During the polishing I often come up with an idea that seems like it might be better than the original, but now I have too much time and energy spent on the original and am hesitant to abandon it.

      I strive, then, to come up with lots of ideas and prose at the outset, which I look at as resources to draw upon. It’s from these resources that I create drafts and, later, finished pieces.

  22. I do love the idea. I would definately need something there to strap me in the chair. I have a difficult time sitting for even 20 minutes.

    I wouldn’t say re-purposing previous ideas into new writings is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it might take a second or third time for someone to read something to really get the idea behind the topic.

    • Mark Levy says:

      You know, Michael, I find it very difficult to sit still . . . except when I’m freewriting. Why my sudden discipline?

      One reason is that I look at freewriting as play. Instead of a bat and ball, I’m using ideas and language. It’s like I’m going to the park. I have fun. Much of the time I’m smiling and rocking in my chair.

      A second reason is that I’ve done freewriting for fifteen years, and I know that oftentimes my best ideas come once I think the well has run dry. In other words, when I’m certain I have nothing less to say, then my internal editor relaxes and an unusual thought or two will suddenly crop up on the page.

      About repurposing one’s ideas: I agree. If you say something one time only, most people won’t see it, or they might not pay attention to it. If you have something important to say, by all means run with it.

      Thanks for the comments.