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.
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.
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.
Join our Email List for Weekly Updates
And join this amazing community of makers and doers. You know you wanna...