OUTPUT WRITING

"No one makes a living as a writer."

How To Be Creative Again: 6 Things You Can Do When It's Hard To Write

Nicolas Cole
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Writing is one of those things that either feels fluid, or like you’re pulling teeth.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that writing takes practice—just like everything else in life. Some days its easy. Some days its hard. Some days, the ideas just keep flowing. And other days, you couldn’t come up with one good idea if your life dependent on it. That’s just the way creativity works.

The key though is to learn how to manage the droughts that come with any creative profession, and find cues and subtle ways to “jumpstart” your creative juices again.

If you want to know how to get yourself to be creative again, here are 6 things you can do when it’s hard to write:

1. Play (or take up) a musical instrument.

I started playing classical piano when I was about five years old.

Up to the age of 23, I played the piano almost every single day of my life. When I was younger, those hours were much more deliberately spent practicing scales and mastering Beethoven pieces. As I got older, and realized I had no real aspirations of becoming of professional pianist, I spent more time composing and playing pieces I had already learned and simply enjoyed playing.

Today, piano and music in general has become a way for me to recharge when I still want to do something creative, but for whatever reason am burned out from writing. (In fact, I’m writing this at my desk, right next to my keyboard, right now.)

The reason music is so effective for jumpstarting your creativity, especially in regards to writing, is because it is a different language entirely. Music’s words are notes, and sounds, and feelings. And asking yourself to play in those constructs, as opposed to verbs, adjectives, and coherent sentences, can be a helpful way to “reset” the language muscles in your brain.

If you aren’t a musician, or have never played a musical instrument, then I highly recommend sitting quietly and listening to some classical piano—Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Bach being a few personal favorites. For pleasure listening, sure, indulge in your favorite genre. But for deliberately resetting your mind and getting yourself back into the flow, there’s something about classical music that is both enjoyable to listen to and difficult to fully comprehend (which is what makes it so great for sparking new ideas).

2. Draw.

Although I would never call myself a visual artist, I’ve been drawing and doodling since I was a kid.

When I was in elementary school, I used to post up and try to trace Star Wars and Lord of the Rings characters into my sketchbook (while watching the coinciding films on the TV in my next door neighbor’s living room). And then in middle and high school, I would fill the boring hours of my day (math, science, history, just about every class, really) with drawings in my assignment notebook. Even in college, I would often draw shapes and patterns in my notebook while I sat in 4-hour-long creative writing workshops.

But it wasn’t until I recently bought this book, Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain, that I realized drawing has always been one of my alternative creative outlets to writing.

Again, the purpose here isn’t really to pursue a second craft or call yourself a “professional sketch artist.” If you want to become that, by all means—but drawing is just another way for you to engage with your ideas without calling upon language. I’ve always found drawing can help me think through story components, or organize my disjointed entrepreneurial ideas, simply because I’m able to see them in a more “visual” form.

Give it a try. You’d be surprised what a few stick figures can help you realize about whatever it is you’re working on.

3. Walking meditation.

Going for a walk can be a helpful way to step away from your desk for a moment. But I’ve found that unless you give your mind something else to focus on, a walk can very quickly turn into an unproductive fifteen minutes of obsessing over what you were just working on.

Instead, go for a walking meditation.

I have this exercise I like to do, usually around 4:00 p.m. when I’m starting to lose steam from earlier writing sessions, where I slowly walk around the block while staring at the trees in my neighborhood. I pay attention to the way their leaves and branches look with the blue sky right behind them. I watch them sway lightly from side to side. I try to notice as many different types of trees as I can on my street, and I see if I can calm my mind down enough to observe as many details as possible: the color of the bark, the thickness of the branches, etc.

The first few minutes of this exercise are almost always aggravating and difficult, further confirming for me where I’m at for the day. But I’ve found that after 5 minutes or so, the trees have a lot to say. And that’s when I start to listen.

4. Read (obviously).

The most commonly recommended solution for depleted creative energy, for good reason, is reading.

To put it simply: if writing and the act of being creative is output, then reading is input. Especially if you’re a professional writer, reading isn’t just about studying other writers, or being entertained. Reading is also one of the best ways to get out of your own work and take in someone else’s instead.

That said, what you read is arguably as important as the act of reading itself. For example, if you’re burned out from writing and working on business-related material, then I wouldn’t suggest sitting down and reading a business book. That’s only going to end up stressing the same muscle. Instead, I recommend reading something that’s completely opposite what you’ve just been laboring over: a work of fiction, for example.

The more opposite, the better.

5. Go to the gym.

I have always been a big fan of complimenting intellectual pursuits (writing) with physical challenges (going to the gym).

Reason being, the act of writing can be very mentally exhausting. Which is why so much of what we’re talking about here is how to get out of your head and, even better, into your body. I remember reading a few years ago about how chess legend Bobby Fischer would prioritize daily fitness activities, especially during tournaments. In his words, “The mind simply stops working.” Which is the whole goal.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming stigma surrounding successful writers is that we’re introverts that sit by rain-pattered windowpanes sipping red wine at nine in the morning, smoking a cigarette, and wearing a chapeau while writing about the pains of society. If that’s you, no problem. But trust me when I say: your writing will be a hell of a lot better if you can get yourself to the gym every once in a while.

6. Interview someone.

Here’s an unconventional trick, and one of my personal favorites.

When I was working on my first book, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer, I went through countless periods where the writing simply wasn’t happening. To be fair, I re-wrote the thing 3 times, front to back, so I was definitely struggling with burnout. But still, there were plenty of times when I wanted to write, I just wasn’t exactly sure how or where to start.

So, I reached out to some of the characters from the book—people I had played World of Warcraft with years ago—and asked if they’d be game for a phone conversation.

In almost every one of these instances, going back and either catching up with friends or interviewing people from that chapter in my life, led to an explosion of creative ideas. I’d spend 30 minutes to an hour talking to them on the phone, and immediately after would start writing a million miles an hour. Something about talking to another person, and hearing the story from their point of view, gave me ideas for days. I vividly remember writing some of the chapters of the book, nearly in full, right after interviewing someone from the story.

This same technique can be used for almost every type of writing: you can interview someone in your industry, your peers, people you look up to, other writers, etc. I’d even argue that interviewing people on a consistent basis can be an incredible way for you to continue your own personal education, build your network, AND create amazing content online in the process.

Don’t underestimate this technique.

The 1 Skill You Need To Become A Successful Writer

Nicolas Cole
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Becoming a successful writer was all I ever wanted. 

For years, I kept my writing to myself. I would hide my works-in-progress, I would shy away from letting anyone read what I’d written for the day–and all the while I would hope for “success.”

Fast-forward tens of millions of views later, and I get asked frequently how I’ve done what I’ve done. How I’ve had over 50 million people read my writing online. How I’ve been published in just about every major publication on the Internet. How, for a craft I was adamantly told was dying (“Nobody reads anymore.”), I’ve had my writing go viral more times than I can count.

How does one become “a successful writer?”

First of all, I don’t think success in any capacity is an isolated event. 

I mean two different things when I say that.

Success in any industry shares things in common with other successes in other industries. Michael Jordan could have learned from Beethoven, Beethoven could have learned from Steve Jobs, and Steve Jobs could have learned from Magnus Carlsen (World Chess Champion)–and that’s the point.

The habits that manifest success are universal, because they stem from an outward approach to learning. Successful people do not see other successful people as intimidating. They see them as sources of knowledge, and work hard to put themselves in their vicinity so they might soak up more of what they don’t already know.

Second, success cannot (and will not ever) happen in isolation.

“If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The same could be said for society’s definition of success. 

Part of what defines “success” is entirely relative. In order for something to be successful, other things have to be unsuccessful. Which means, technically, you could be the most talented, brilliant artist, inventor, designer, or developer, but if you never share your work with the world you will never be crowned “successful.”

The same advice I give aspiring writers is relevant to anyone, in anyone industry, who wants to become successful.

You have to share your work. Regularly.

You have to practice in public.

You have to let people be part of the process, because it’s through sharing that you learn and grow the most.

One thing I have always noticed about my own writing is that when I keep things to myself, it becomes terribly difficult for me to pinpoint what’s working well and what’s falling short. However, the moment I put it out into the world, share it online, or read it aloud for a small group of people, it becomes clear as day: “How did I ever think this section was worth keeping? None of this should be here.”

The reason is because through sharing you’re able to see your own work from an outsider’s perspective. It’s outside of yourself–which means it’s free to be judged, critiqued, even spat on. And intuitively knowing that judgment process is about to happen, suddenly things become more obvious to you. It’s as if your subconscious is racing to come to those same conclusions on its own, before someone else is granted the privilege of pointing them out for you.

People who withhold their work from the world aren’t masters. They’re cowards.

Anyone can hide away in their room and slave over their work in the comfort of isolation.

That’s easy.

What’s difficult is sharing pieces of your work in progress along the way, and leaving yourself open to feedback. What’s difficult is allowing yourself to be judged prematurely–in an effort to learn about yourself and the work you’re doing, faster. What’s difficult is admitting to the world, “I am a work in progress.”

However, that is the process required in order to become successful. 

Too often, I hear aspiring writers, entrepreneurs, and dreamers say, “I’ll share my work–when it’s ready.”

Guess what?

It will never be ready. Who you are tomorrow will never be satisfied with what you created yesterday.

And that’s the point. 

This article originally appeared on Minutes.

How I Write 10,000 Words Per Day, Every Day

Nicolas Cole
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Most people don’t believe me when I say that I write 10,000 words per day, every day.

Between writing on Quora, my Inc Magazine column, overseeing writing quality for our clients at Digital Press (not counting the dozens of emails I respond to), my own personal book and personal branding projects, and a wide range of other writing-related endeavors, I can honestly say that even 10,000 words per day is (at times) a low estimate.

I am a professional writer.

So, if you want to know what a day in the life of a very busy professional writer looks like, here you go (and what you can do to crank out the same amount of writing).

The Morning: 3,500 Words

Every single morning, I wake up and try to knock out three pieces before I do anything else.

What I’ve learned over the years is that there are really only two windows of time that allow me to write at my absolute best.

7:00 a.m.—11:00 a.m.

7:00 p.m.—11:00 p.m.

Sure, I do plenty between those two gaps, but for some reason the words come so much more naturally right when I wake up, or later in the day when the sun begins to set.

So, I do my best to take full advantage.

The moment I wake up, I brush my teeth, take a shower, make a quick breakfast, text my girlfriend good morning (those love letters don’t count as part of the 10,000), and then I turn off my phone.

Yes, I turn it off.

The more times I am pulled out of the flow, the longer it takes for me to write a piece.

I have been writing online for a very long time. The first blog post I ever wrote was in 2007, when I was 17 years old. I wrote about how I was one of the highest ranked World of Warcraft players in North America. As soon as I realized people all over the world were reading my writing, that I had a voice, I was hooked.

Today, assuming there are no distractions (and the density of the piece), I can pretty much stream-of-consciousness a nearly perfect ~800 article in 30 minutes. If it’s a subject I am familiar with, 17 minutes. If it’s a highly technical article that requires some element of research and deep understanding, 60–90 minutes.

If I try to write an ~800 word article with my phone on, however, it can take upwards of three hours.

This is very, very bad—for the writing, for my sanity, for productivity, for all things.

For example, I wrote three ghost pieces this morning while eating my breakfast. Each article was ~800 words, and it took me about two hours.

From there, I made some minor edits to other pieces in my queue. Responded to a handful of emails. And jotted down a few article ideas for myself (this being one of them).

Break: CLEAR YOUR HEAD

This is a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s worth sharing now that no matter how ambitious you are as a writer, you will not be able to read this post and then go write 10,000+ words in a day, tomorrow.

It just isn’t going to happen.

Realize this is something I have worked up to over the past decade. And when I say I write 10,000 words in a day, I don’t mean “words for the sake of words.”I mean coherent, thoughtful, creative articles that people read, enjoy, learn from, and then share.

Most people struggle to do that once a week, let alone once a day.

I do it about ten times per day—and here’s how:

You have to take breaks.

After a long writing session, I do everything I can to keep my head clear. If my morning has gone as planned, then I’ve already done the hard work of getting to that quiet, meditative place within myself where I’m not cognitively processing through every single sentence. I’m just flowing. My fingers are on the keys and I’m not doubting myself. In an analogy, it’s like driving down the streets at night: green light, green light, green light.

This is usually when I respond to urgent text and Slack messages, and start making lunch. If I’m out, working at a coffee shop or Soho House, I order something and take a moment to look around. I fight the urge to stare at my phone and scroll through Instagram and Facebook, because that’s only going to clutter my mind.

At this point in the day, less is more.

A meditative exercise I have recently adopted is looking around the room at an object and staring. While staring, I ask myself how I would paint or draw that object. How does the light hit its side? How would I capture the curvature of the glass? What is that red spot, shining in its reflection?

Making lunch, too, is a meditative exercise in itself. It’s a way for me to stay as connected as possible to that space within me where all the words live—and that I just spent several hours getting to.

From there, I eat. Clean up. And then sit down for Round 2.

Lunch: 2,500 Words

A trick I have learned for maximizing your time as a writer (especially as a ghostwriter) is to stay in one voice for as long as possible.

The more “voices” you try to write from in a day, the moreexhausted you become.

I can write five pieces in one voice much faster than I can write five pieces in five separate voices.

The reason is because each voice has its own tone, timbre, conviction and truth. Changing voices is as difficult as switching from the piano to the violin, or lifting heavy weights and then trying to run three miles.

Even though the late morning/early afternoon tends to be less giving than the mornings or nights are to my writing, it’s also the largest chunk of the day. So as much as I would love to kick back and say, “I don’t feel like writing right now,” I can’t—nor would I want to.

The brutal truth is that you don’t become a professional writer, let alone someone who can consistently crank out 10,000 words of straight steam by waiting for inspiration to strike.

The afternoon is grueling. It’s when I find myself most likely to deviate, for my attention to drift, and for me to start finding excuses as to how I can’t complete the paragraphs in front of me.

This is where I am grateful for my years as a competitive World of Warcraft player, or my years as a bodybuilder.

The gym is a great metaphor for writing. There are going to be days you’re not going to want to write—just like there are plenty of days you won’t want to go to the gym. But a bodybuilder doesn’t sit at home waiting for to be inspired to lift. A bodybuilder lifts regardless, because that’s what it takes to be great.

A writer is no different.

In the afternoon, again, I choose a voice and try to stick with it for as long as I can—until I finish everything I need to and move on to the next.

In most cases, I can work through 2,500 words or so before the middle of the afternoon.

That’s when I’ve about reached my limit, and it’s time to step away and do a full reset.

Break: CLEAR YOUR HEAD x2

Repeat after me: marathon, not a sprint.

Following my afternoon session is almost always a lift or a swim. I highly suggest doing something physical because, at this point, your brain is going to be pretty much fried. 5,000 words is a lot, even for the most conditioned writers.

I use this time to get back in my body.

Now, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, so far the day has gone pretty smoothly. This is what a perfectly crafted schedule looks like—and if I’m being completely honest, it rarely happens like this.

The reason my afternoon sessions end up producing less writing than my mornings and nights is almost always the result of distractions. Calls. Emails. Messages. Other easier-to-tackle tasks.

Part of the gig is just accepting that not every day is going to be one smooth adventure.

All you can do is take things as they come, and do your best to guard your time. I wish I could say that being a professional writer is all about locking yourself in your room for 12 hours per day, every day. But that’s just not how it goes—nor is it how you stay sane, and continue to come up with great ideas.

Once I’ve finished my late afternoon lift, I come back, make something to eat, and read.

This is the secret: you have to read.

One of the best ways to get yourself prepped for your last big grind session of the day is to read—particularly something in the voice you are preparing to use.

This is not something I am recommending just for ghostwriters, but for all writers. I know that even for my own projects, it’s all about tapping into the right voice. My creative non-fiction voice is very different than my poetry voice, which is very different than my business writing voice.

Read the genre you are planning to write in next.

This will help light the wick.

Dinner: 4,000+ Words

After dinner, I repeat my morning routine.

I turn my phone off and I get to work.

I’ll tell you that, right now, it’s 8:56 p.m. I started this writing session roughly four hours ago, right after finishing a rather concerning plate full of chocolate gluten-free pancakes with jam and peanut butter (I’m bulking).

In the past four hours, I have:

  1. Written 3 articles, each ~1,000 words.

  2. Edited 3 articles (let’s assume ~500 words)

  3. Responded to about a dozen emails (~500 words)

…and I’m still sitting on my floor, with my laptop. I just moved to L.A. I hear that’s what you do here.

Playing with conservative math here (which is great because I went to art school and math was never my strong suit), that means we’ve already hit 10,000 words for the day—not counting this article here, which I’m assuming will finish out at around ~1,500–2,000 words.

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This is not an out-of-the-ordinary day for me. And truthfully, I’m not even done yet. I haven’t written on Quora yet. I haven’t written a column for Inc Magazine (been swamped with other work). Nor have I made any progress toward finishing my next book.

So, it’s now 9:03 p.m.

Excuse me while I get back to work.