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


(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.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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

  1. Hey I really appreciate the posts man. Always giving value. Im taking Noah Kagan s course now and it asks what inspires me. I wasnt awake until i read the fourhourworkweek. I always knew i thought differently from everybody else but didnt think others did. You gave me a new paradigm on the world and i really appreciate it


  2. It’s amazing just how long it takes to edit even a short blog post into something that’s not…shit!

    For me it usually looks something like this:

    Braindump => Something I don’t hate => Something others won’t hate => Something others MIGHT find useful => Something others find useful AND entertaining AND that I hate a little bit because all the ego juice is squeezed out of it.

    This creative process, so so grueling to us mortals, is why you’ve gotta admire a dude like Osho. He spoke unrehearsed to an audience every day, and when you read the transcripts of his talks — which is all his books are, transcripts — it reads like an amazingly well thought out, edited work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. There’s irony in that I’m procrastinating from writing at the moment, but…

    I find setting a sub-goal for the day also helps. For example, telling yourself, “I will write 100 words within 30 minutes of waking up” or something like that. It’s just another tiny step to get over that bump of beginning each day.

    If I’ve got a fragment of something written before midday, the rest of the writing tends to go a lot more smoothly.


  4. Tim,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been trying to perfect my podcast since August and have delayed the release of the 30+ episodes I’ve recorded that were all ready to go in October.

    I think there is so much info in the world today that if we arent careful we try to consume it all trying to avoid mistakes and end up never launching.

    You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book. So I guess I should start recording and publishing daily and take my lump on the road to getting better.


    • Ron, thank you for sharing this. I, too, am sitting on a bunch of material I’ve prepped for a blog site. It has been 80% there for two months, yet I constantly create reasons (excuses) as why everything isn’t “perfect enough” to just hit publish and go. The graphics are tweaked, the profile needs polishing, blah blah blah.

      Tim’s blog and your comments are my motivation for today. Screw it, let’s just get on with it!

      – Matt


      • Agreed!

        It’s so much more exciting to launch something that isn’t perfect and rectify it on the fly, based on your *actual* users feedback (instead of what *you think* your users want). You can’t imagine the time I’ve wasted on doing what I thought was needed, just to find out it was the wrong thing once I pushed it out after weeks of “refinement”.

        All you need is to define what’s your “good enough” and push out as soon as you get there.


    • I agree with Ron Story Jr. “You can’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book.” Sometimes you just have to take a leap. You can’t wait for optimal conditions, or let the negative ‘what if’s’ get in the way either. You just have to plow through. I am amazed how organic the process of creating is. Sure, it may feel like a train wreck at the time, but a month, a year from now, it’s obvious how that moment served its purpose.


  5. Thanks Tim. Nice to be reminded that y’all started much, much smaller than you are now. I’ve taken your 2 pages a day and BJ Fogg’s small steps into my own writing challenge. I’m writing weekly on my blog with some pretty fun stakes! Even if no one (but me, repeatedly!) reads it I am learning a ton from writing and iterating. Details here, if you want to take a minute:

    Thanks for sharing so authentically – I’m impressed over and over again with your willingness to share.

    Rock on!


  6. That is easy. I want to write a book at some point. I’ll just use “two crappy pages” verbatim!

    Something I used in the past was to do only five breaths of meditation a day. Eventually it became 3hours a day when I was 13.


  7. Excellent post! Most people do not realize what goes into creating “epic content” in this day and age, especially where we are trained to expect instant gratification.

    I recently finished and self published my 5th book, and I’ve developed a process that works for me, as you have. What I find particularly interesting about the idea of creative processes is that many of us do our best work in the middle of the night, as you indicate.

    This is incredibly contrary to ALL the advice provided in the time management and productivity world — telling us we should be in bed by 9pm and get up at 5am to do our writing, etc.


  8. Tim, I find this validating for all the bloggers and authors. Whenever I write a post on my blog it takes about 2-3 days to have it finished.

    It’s the literature review=>first draft=>grammar revision=>flow=>readability=>links=>h1=>meta tags=>keywords=>title, etc.

    Everything needs to be at least decent. And if you put your efforts into it, most of the times it would pay off. Readers are avid detectives when it comes to cheap and rushed jobs.


  9. You called my bluff.

    I’m starting the important things again I’ve been putting off until ‘tomorrow’.
    Sometimes I forget that I’m allowed to fuck up and ‘iterate’.

    Thanks for the kick Tim

    “Mientras se gana algo no se pierde nada.”


  10. Oh how I wish the process was cleaner.. but then I guess everyone would write.

    My process seems to go:

    Have an idea
    Ponder for a day or two, brainstorm and take notes
    Get excited and decide my idea is amazing!
    Try to write my amazing idea down into a blog
    End up with utter tripe – terrible sentences, no structure, no sight of what I was actually trying to say…
    So I walk away for a while and while I’m doing something completely irrelevant I have a crazy epitome that structures everything..
    Then I get to my 20 drafts that lead to a blog I feel quite pleased with.

    There are always moments of despair along the way – self-doubt, a desire for perfection, and feeling completely overwhelmed. But the mess always turns into order, and the despair always turns into joy and pride.

    I just wish I could skip the despair..


  11. I use “one hour a day” with my business. I know it isn’t a lot, but at least I do something every day, and more than just an hour most days. It keeps the flow going.

    There is a very fine balance between making something good enough, and trying to make something perfect. When aiming for perfect, chances are it will never see the light of day. When aiming for good enough, I find I still put in the necessary amount of editing and revision, but my drafts aren’t sitting in wordpress for weeks or months at a time never to be read by another human being.

    A first draft is definitely not something to marvel at, but aren’t you too harsh? I still find a lot of good and much potential to craft something I can be proud of. Then again, I have nowhere near the success you do (in my defense, I’ve only been at it for 2 months) so maybe I’ve got it all wrong ;)


  12. This is my favorite kind of post. It’s honest, insightful, and inspiring.

    A few small tips that I employ to help the creative process:
    1. Nearly 95% of my planning is done prior to even touching the computer. I find that if I am not intentful on my planning or research, I’ll wander aimlessly and drastically reduce my output.
    2. After my initial planning and research, I’ll step away from it all and do something physical that doesn’t require much thought. I.e. jogging, weightlifting, housework. By letting the information subconsciously incubate and synthesize, I find that creative ideas come much easier and faster.
    3. Just as you said, start small. Write (draw, make, ect) EVERYTHING that first comes to mind, no matter how crappy. The active creative process is really nothing more than a series of revisions until you have (sanefully) reached a comfortable completion point. Strive for perfection, but be comfortable with stopping just before reaching it.

    Thanks Tim!


  13. What I find that helps is literally having ‘mind dump’ sessions that allow the cutting room floor to be as messy as ever. But once the final edits are in place… usually a masterpiece is created.


  14. As Tim mentioned in his post. It’s important to work with a system to refine things. If you plan on starting a business you should read Guenter Faltin’s book ‘Brains versus Capital’. It shows you how to create a business model by using different technics. You could say, it shows you to ‘edit’ you idea into a business model.


  15. Tim –

    Thanks for the encouragement and kick in the butt. Great stuff, as always. I need to improve 2 things – not comparing myself to others and edit my posts like crazy (not be satisfied with the first edit or two). Thanks!