These ideas are from Mark Levy’s book Accidental Genius. It’s a great book to help you generate ideas faster.
1. Try Easy
2. Write Fast and Continuously
3. Work Against a Limit
4. Write the Way You Think
5. Go with the Thought
6. Redirect Your Attention
Levy’s first step in becoming a more prolific writer is to put in less effort. He shares a story of an Olympic coach who told his runners to run a 9/10’s speed. They all ran faster than they had at full speed because they had relaxed their muscles. It turns out that 90% effort is more efficient than 100% effort. Going 90% might sound like a silly trick but isn’t believing we can go 100% also silly? No one can go 100% for very long so when you write “try easy” and go at 90%.
Author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers also talks about this principle how he increased his speed by taking it easy.
When I notice I’m all stressed out about something, or driving myself to exhaustion, I remember that bike ride, and try dialing back my effort by 50%. It’s been amazing how often everything gets done just as well and just as fast, with what feels like 50% of the effort. Which, of course, makes me realize that much of my effort apparently wasn’t effort at all, but just ineffective stress added on top of something to make it feel like I’m doing the best I can.
Begin your writing session by declaring your honest expectations for your session. Set the height of the bar you’re going to reach for. Write this out as a way to loosen up and also declare your expectations. Then fulfill those expectations by continuing to write. Is this lowering expectations? Yes. It also relieves the pressure for perfect prose.
There are two reasons to do something fast. You think you’re doing a good job at it, or you don’t care about the result. Free-writing instructs us to write fast and continuously because our job is to write, not write well. In addition, writing fast and continuously improves our thought process.
Levy teaches that writing fast improves our thought processing by relaxing us. It’s counterintuitive that going faster will make things easier but consider how difficult it is to steer a car when you’re going 3 miles per hour versus when you’re going 30 miles an hour. The faster we go, the easier it is to steer. The same is true of how fast we write. Consider how quick you think and how quick you write. They are different speeds because you do more than just write, you edit too.
You can’t pour liquid at measure it at the same time. In the same way, you can’t write and edit at the same time. You must choose. You must choose to write or edit. In order to get your best work out, you must be willing to write continuously. As Levy reminds us, “By writing continuously, you force the edit-crazy part of your mind into a subordinate position, so the idea-producing part can keep spitting out words.”
Writing and editing at the same time is like trying to change a tire on your bicycle while you ride it up a hill. You either move forward or you stop to fix your bike, but you can’t do both. Doing both will kill progress and the “fixing” will take longer than it should. You must choose. Choose to write. There’s plenty of time for editing, later.
Set a timer for five minutes and write using these rules.
1. Don’t stop writing
2. Write gibberish if you run out of things to say
3. Do not edit any words, only move forward
4. Set a goal of quantity, not quality
You’ve been told that limits are a bad thing, but in fact, limits are helpful when writing. Knowing limits helps you build your mental strength to keep going when you want to quit. Why do runners collapse at the end of a marathon? They’ve trained for and reached their limit, 26.2 miles. Limits give us energy because we know how far we have to go.
When we free-write with a timed limit or a “number of ideas” limit, Levy teaches that we find comfort in knowing that we don’t have to write forever, that we can have a fast pace but not run out of things to say. He recommends 10-20 minute time blocks for free-writing.
Set a timer that does NOT make a sound as it counts down. Write continuously for 10 minutes. Take a break and do something away from your computer for 5 minutes. Repeat this process three times than spend 15 minutes reading through your work. In one hour you will have created a lot of words. Some of them might even be worth keeping.
You’ve no doubt heard the term “write the way you speak” but Levy teaches that we should instead write the way we think. The difference is simple. When we write we aren’t speaking so we can never truly “write the way we speak”. What we can and should do is write the way we think. Your writing is simply you capturing your thinking, nothing more.
The trouble with writing the way you think is that you don’t think in perfect paragraphs, or in a linear way. Your mind wanders. You use words that aren’t the perfect words to communicate what you’re trying to say. So what? The point isn’t to get it right the first time you write. The point is to write, then make your writing better.
When you free-write you’re creating clay. When you edit you’re molding that clay. Far too many writers try to mold and create clay at the same time. That’s like trying to wear a scarf at the same time you’re sowing it. It would be faster to sow the scarf first, then wear it. Create, then edit. In order to write the way you think you must give yourself permission to trust your thoughts, no matter how disjointed they are. They are the building blocks, the raw materials. The more raw material the better.
Set your timer for another 10-minute session and free-write about a fond memory from your childhood, keeping Levy’s three principles in mind.
1. Use plain language. Write as you think. Don’t dig for “better” words. Just keep writing.
2. Ignore details. Don’t worry about explaining the situations or people you mention. Just keep writing.
3. Don’t be linear. When you worry about the order you’re editing. Don’t edit by ordering. Just keep writing.
Resistance is the enemy of free writing. You have a time limit so you don’t quit early. You don’t edit as you write so that you can let your ideas flow more easily. You don’t worry about writing in a linear order because it slows you down. Going with your thoughts instead of trying to edit them means your trail is identified by the next step you take, nothing else.
Where should you go when you write? Your writing will tell you. Your trail is the next step you take. Isn’t that freeing? Isn’t that empowering? You can’t get lost when the trail you’re supposed to follow is the next step you take.
Levy harkens back to his days learning improvisational comedy. Improv works when the actors go with what they’ve been given. They must work with the last line or everything comes to a halt.
Set your timer for 7 minutes.
1. Write about a subject that you’ve recently heard about on the news.
2. Rest for a few minutes then write about that subject from a different direction. You’re starting at the same place but running in different directions with your writing.
3. Review your writing and see how many choices you have in where you go in your writing. You choose your path.
You will get stuck while you write. You will lose focus. Pay attention when this happens and take action.
Change your focus of being stuck by asking yourself a question. Ask it by writing it down, then answer it by continuing to write. Don’t have the conversation in your head, have it on paper.
What am I afraid of saying about this?
What would piss someone off if I said it?
What is a metaphor for what I’m trying to say?
What will happen if I don’t keep writing?
Can this be broken into an order or steps?
How can I explain this to a 10-year-old?
Write for 10 minutes and when you get stuck don’t stop writing.
Instead of stopping, write a question you’re asking yourself to get going again.
Here are some examples.
I’m stuck but Andy told me to keep writing so I will. But why am I stuck? Am I distracted? Am I over-thinking it? It is complicated or is it so simple that I’ve said everything I can say about it? I am really looking forward to getting a refill of my coffee when I get done with this session. This feels so dumb but I’m going to keep writing and not editing even though I spelled the word editing wrong.