The Ugly New York Times Bestseller — The Creative Process in Action

95 Comments


(Photo: photosteve101)

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”
– Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very'; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
– Mark Twain

Writing isn’t a clean process.

In general, attempting to be creative isn’t a clean process. It’s filthy. I wish I could poo diamonds, but — alas — I am not built for such miracles. Instead, I plod and stumble my way through revisions, hacking at mental cobwebs and killing inner demons. Eventually, enough caffeine and wine permitting, I might look down and see something that doesn’t make me gag.

To give you an idea, below are some hand edits of the Introduction to The 4-Hour Chef, which–much improvement later–hit the NYT and WSJ bestseller lists in November of 2012. As I write this, it’s hovering around #180 on Amazon. Keep in mind that the below is after 5-10 drafts:

Download a full-size PDF of my edits here

Even this simple blog post, as one example, was revised and rewritten 14 times. The iteration pays off — it ended up getting 700+ comments. Conversely, one-take wonders usually get burned at the stake, and rightly so.

“Revising,” “iterating” (in start-up speak), “editing”…no matter what you call it, it’s tweaking something bad or mediocre until it finally works. As Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

This applies to much more than writing. Ernest would no doubt agree that my first attempt at a blog was shittier than shitty. Here are the “before” pics from 2007. Note that my friend Ramit Sethi and others had equally hideous “rough drafts” of their sites. It’s par for the course…

Here’s the first Apple computer. Ground-breaking, to be sure, but it’s not exactly as sleek as a Ferrari. It didn’t need to be.

How often we self-sabotage in the name of “perfectionism”! Perfectionism may be better than sloth, but it can become a clever hand-waving exercise. “Not yet!” one might say (and I have said often). More research, more preparation, more interviews, more… procrastination. Let’s call it what it often is: a forgiving term for a terrible habit. It’s like calling someone “eccentric” instead of “crazy.”

To create anything remarkable, it takes not one giant leap after perfect prep, but many baby steps in the right direction once you have barely enough to get started.

To start something big, you have to first start something small. From a past interview of mine on the creative process; note the bolded portion:

“I do my best writing between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.. Almost every friend I have who is a consistently productive writer, does their best writing between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. My quota is two crappy pages per day. I keep it really low so I’m not so intimidated that I never get started. I will do the gathering of interviews and research throughout the day. I’ll get all my notes and materials together and then I’ll do the synthesis between 10 p.m. to bed, which is usually 4 or 5 a.m.”

How can you take something you’re putting off and make the first step tiny?

How can you use an easy quota like “two crappy pages per day” to get started?

Posted on: December 9, 2013.

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95 comments on “The Ugly New York Times Bestseller — The Creative Process in Action

  1. One of the most helpful pieces of advice I got when writing my (one and only) book: that my goal at first was simply to write a “shitty first draft”. That took a lot of the fear of writing and the pressure to have every sentence perfect out of it.
    The second great advice that I applied was that it was necessary to “kill your babies” (the notion that, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and needs to be cut, no matter how much you personally are attached to a particular piece.
    I didn’t see the third oh-so-true quote, which defined writing as “manual labor of the mind” until after I’d handed over the final manuscript to the publisher. If I had understood how true it is, I might never have attempted to write a book at all. (Before starting the book, telling everyone that I was going to write a book, and getting a publisher for it, I had the image of sitting in cafes, sipping coffee, while beautiful sentences stating great insights were flowing effortlessly from my brain through my arm onto the page. Ha! But after committing myself publicly and contractually to it, I couldn’t back out any more once reality hit.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Tim,

    I came on here looking for Entrepreneurs thoughts on travel, to incorporate business travel experience into our 2014 Entrepreneur LaunchBox.**
    But ended up reading for reflection instead.
    I read your book years ago, and find I really like the sentiment behind this peace here, oops, I mean piece here.
    Or did I? Thanks for sharing your evolution.

    -Amy
    (**To answer – What Do The Most Successful Innovators Pack For Biz?)

    Like

  3. Another great and honest post Tim.

    Regarding your question of: “How can you take something you’re putting off and make the first step tiny?”

    One technique that I find works particularly well is connecting with your End State Energy – how you would feel and be as a person once the task has been completed.

    Procrastination usually occurs because the size of the task is such that can overwhelm you, or there are too many unknowns between where you are and where you want to be for your mind to process. What ends up happening as you think about starting the project you get into a stressed out state, causing your body to start producing stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine. Being in these states also diverts blood away from your brain and into your extremities. You might even notice yourself starting to fidget or shaking your legs. We have all experienced how conducive these types of states are for creativity… You sit down to write at 10pm and end up wrestling with yourself for several hours. Finally exhausted, you start to relax and get to something good at 4 or 5am.

    Solution: Before starting, take a few moments to mentally create what it would be like once you have accomplished your goal or solved your problem. This should be a positive state and you will feel yourself shift and relax. Now, really step into having that positive experience – see what you would be seeing, hear what you would be saying to your self, and notice where the positive feelings start, as well as how they move through your body.

    At this point, ask yourself what is the next smallest step you can take while maintaining your End State? It may and usually is smaller than what you thought it would be. Just writing the first word or sentence and build on top of it bit by bit. If you start to slip out of a positive state, it usually means you are going the wrong way or trying to jump too far a head. Take a step back until it starts to feel right again.

    As with everything, people typically force themselves to do things the hard way because they don’t understand how their body actually works. The great thing is that the more you use the approach above, the more you condition yourself and the easier this process becomes.

    Creating is still a slow process of iteration, it just doesn’t have to be such a stressful one.

    Let me know how it works for you.

    Like

  4. Hey Tim,

    This post is just a great reminder. I am a writer and a musician and its amazing how many times I can’t bring myself to begin the creative process. I have to find new ways to break down whatever it is I am doing into reachable goals. The key for me I’ve found is to keep mixing up the goals. On days that the tasks seem really daunting, I make the goal smaller, but I make it. On days I think I have a little more in the tank, I make the goal a bit bigger but still extremely manageable.

    Keep up the great work! Love the new show!

    Like

  5. Writing is not writing so much as it is rewriting. Re-vision: To resee, recast, reshape, rethink. That’s all we have as writers, the ability to go back and change our minds. Frankly, when it comes down to it, writing is just a lot of hard work. The white collar equivalent of pounding nails…Strong writers know all of this. Weak writers don’t.

    Like

  6. Oh, how timely!
    I’ve been procrastinating on a guest post I needed to write two weeks ago. Mostly because the owner of the website in question is a highly accomplished individual, and how in the world would I ever write something worthy enough?

    Thank you for reminding me that it’s OK to make mistakes, to fine-tune and toss, and re-write and fine-tune again.
    I often use your “paralysis by analysis” expression from the Four Hour week (with full credit of course), in my work with people. But as easy it is to apply to others’ work and help them start, it’s much harder to follow your own (well, your learned and internalized) advice.

    I have 80% of a first crappy draft. Tomorrow it’ll hopefully get half-way decent, and after 2-3 more iterations I’ll submit it in all it’s imperfect glory.

    Like

  7. Thanks for sharing this Tim, I have a tendency to just write posts and publish them without editing, so I definitely fall on the opposite of the extremes spectrum. My writing quality would definitely improve if I were to take a page out of your book I think.

    Like

  8. A friend once told me, “What are you waiting for?”

    It is so simple and I couldn’t answer because anything come out of me is excuses.

    Someone said it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

    Like

  9. … curious if any writers reading the comments have used Dragon Naturally Speaking for writing non-fiction/marketing type stuff? I’m a marcom guy by day who writes in a relaxed voice, which might seem to lend itself to dictation, but I’m constantly editing while writing to produce my best work. In researching Dragon, some have suggested it helps reduce that element of self-editing, but I’ve only found mention of such success with fiction – a completely different beast when compared newsletters, direct mail and marketing collateral. Has anyone used the program for such tasks, and how has has it worked for you? Thanks tons for any and all help! Doc

    Like

  10. The hand edits you posted are my #1 reason for procrastination. I’ll do anything to avoid it – usually in the form of trying to make a perfectly good process better or more efficient – when I know the only solution is starting, getting my hands dirty, pushing hard, and getting over the humps.

    I hear you on blog revisions. 14 revisions on this short of a post makes me feel a little better about my 20+ on average…

    Thanks Tim – timely reminder.

    Garrett

    Like

  11. Hey, this is an enlightening post.

    I went through several revisions designing my blog while outsourcing all the codework to a guy in India. Saved me so much time and it still took a week to get it all done.

    I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t read the outsourcing chapter in your book. I’m trying to outsource almost everything related to my business and blog such as data entry, sales b2b rep introduction calls, mail list management these days.

    I’m 24 and being in command like this really feels…… AMAZING.

    Keep up the quality post. Thanks.

    Daniel

    Like

  12. I could honestly relate to almost everything in the post. Small steps do lead to great and amazing results. Much of it is due to the compounding of small efforts. A typical example being a client couple of mine wanting a memorable photo shoot. Thy didn’t do the tired & standard beach fare and after much research – did something entirely more awesome – It was in my opinion a heart pumping, pulse racing, ridiculously awesome, style-me-pretty First ever Gros Piton wedding PHOTO-SHOOT!! – “Second tallest mountain in St. Lucia”

    I consider myself to be very ambitious, but had to learn the hard way that with great ambition one needs to channel it in the right direction, in the right amount and certainly in the right way to get maximum effect.

    Keep doing your thing Tim – Awesome post.

    -Janus

    Like

  13. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for sharing the “first draft is shit” philosophy! Definitely feeling that right now.

    Any suggestions for the daunting editing/re-working process when you get the first draft back from the editor?

    Thanks again,

    Toby

    Like

  14. Hi Tim,

    Whats the best way to put your show on Itunes ?

    It seems a tricky process I know you can go through an aggregator, PS tried to access your show via UK couldn’t really get it as US ??

    Should do an expert on the best martial arts

    cheers

    Alex

    Like

  15. Tim, You allow me to sleep better at night that is for sure. I am definitely on my first iteration of a shitty blog, and have seen how the beginnings were even shittier then they are now. I just keep forging forward, following my passions, knowing that in the end everything has to turn out better than before. I am glad to have this post as a reminder not to get stuck in the inertia of “perfectionism”

    Megyn

    Like

  16. I totally understand where you’re coming from with this. For me the important thing is to start, once writing, it becomes much easier for ideas to flow. Your recent posts have been gratefully received. Today I downloaded the kobo copy of ‘Daily Rituals’ (can’t access Audible in Turkey), which I hope will keep me inspired as I go about writing my first book.

    Fraser

    Like

  17. I struggled for a long time to close my first book project. I baby stepped my way to 90%, but couldn`t close it.

    I had simply too much distractions and responsibilities during the day to get some serious work done. And I was scared what`s going to happen when I finally publish the book.

    The solution?

    I left my normal environment behind and went to Rumania. With not a single distraction I was able to finish my book within a couple of days. Extreme situation, extreme solution.

    Like

  18. I have been following this advice and related work on the importance of iteration, it’s rewarding.
    Your advice is cool, practical and can be applied for day to day success.
    ‘Love for your life’

    Elma

    Like

  19. Tim and fellow readers, I’m really curious what content-creators think of producing content with no expectation of pay for their creation.

    Should we just create content and just give it away?

    Like

  20. This is so true! We got the proof of my husband’s first novel in the mail just before Thanksgiving, and I gave it a final editing pass with those little sticky flags and a red pen. He’s halfway through it right now, and the book’s grown a neon green mohawk of post-its. He finished the first draft five years ago, and it’s been through several professional editors in the time since, not counting the publisher and their people. Needless to say, I feel a lot better having seen your edits, and knowing how many times other people go over their work. And I totally know what you mean by the “hand-waving”. I had to twist his arm to get him to send his book in to the publisher once his pitch got approved. “Just one more pass.” Luckily this upcoming edit is the last one they’ll allow, so no more hand-waving for him.

    Like

  21. Tim,

    Thanks for this post and all the shared wisdom over the years. I’m re-reading the 4HWW after a 4-year hiatus and deferred dreams. I’ve finally got the kahones to take control of my life and I’m focusing on what’s most important: travel, writing, spending time with my family, and my muse.

    Your lifestyle Bible has been a HUGE inspiration for me over the years. ????? ??zhi

    Like

  22. This is very encouraging
    I am a student in Canada and english is my second language. When I must write an essay I feel like I have to dredge each word out of me and I procrastinate until the last day. This semester I did not hand in my research peper that was worth 25 % of my final mark. Not because I did not care but because I thought that I need to write it perfect. I was so anxious to see my mistakes! I wish I could read your post earlier!!!

    Like

  23. You hit the nail on the head with the “Baby Steps”……Everyone would agree right? But I also believe in “Swinging for the fence”..in other words “Swinging for the Homerun” every once in awhile along the journey. It’s hard to hit a homerun if you only try to “connect with the ball” on every attempt. Besides, all the “Baby Steps” are the building blocks that lead to the Olympic Runner. Great Article! Thanks!

    Like

  24. It usually takes me a full day to write a good 1000 word blog post. I use a mixed approach where I write a part of the post and then just keep editing it until I find it good enough. Sometimes I completely rewrite it multiple times. With every edit I re-read the thing, remove unnecessary words, focus on making the flow of the text better and then go on writing the next part. It’s slow, but enjoy the process and I’m always happy with the end result.

    Now I tried hacking the process and only working concentrated 15 minutes per day. Unfortunately my last 2300+ word post (about productivity) took three months to complete working on half of the days, but I think it was worth the wait. (the post is here http://mariusandra.com/blog/2014/01/how-to-be-productive/ if you want to check)

    Has anyone worked this way and switched to the “write a horrible draft of everything before editing” and can comment on the difference? I’ve been thinking of trying that approach for a while now.

    Like

  25. This is a great post, I’ve come back to it several times now. I have been working on a screenplay for several years now and have been 90% finished for several years too. It was shelved before reading this post, because all the final tweaks wore me out and became too daunting, plus you start hating your stuff when you read it too many times. Now I’m fired up to keep tweaking till it gets there, and FINALLY get it out there!

    Like

  26. “To create anything remarkable, it takes not one giant leap after perfect prep, but many baby steps in the right direction once you have barely enough to get started.”

    Thanks Tim, really love this quote!

    Like

  27. Feeling this. I laugh a little when I track my wordpress draft count. My About page is at over a hundred. I have learnt to take it less seriously enough to be able to hit ‘publish’, or nothing will ever get out there. In the case of the About page, I am learning to see it as a good thing; I started my website without a clear idea of what I was wanting to share, even if I felt I had a clear enough idea at the time. Just getting started and now, all these revisions later, I feel like things are feeling clearer and it coincides with understanding why I am doing what I’m doing. I like that.

    Like