“What do you really want to be doing?”
It’s the question someone inevitably asks
at a social gathering on a Zoom happy hour to prompt people to share their passions and dreams. The careers they’d like to have — if only …
I reply bluntly. I can’t help myself.
“What I currently do.”
Such a buzzkill.
The misery-loves-company party does not want to bond with the person who’s actually happy with what they’re doing with their life.
I knew I wanted to be a writer before I was aware I wanted to be a professional writer.
It was the first activity I was drawn to and, all these years later, it’s still my first priority.
But most people write in some capacity, and for many, being a professional writer seems like a made-up job. A career that happens magically. Or by accident.
A one-in-a-million scenario where a piece of your writing happens to gain popularity. You know, desperate aspirations of “going viral.”
When, in fact, the exact opposite is true.
There’s no sorcery. No coincidence. No random luck.
If you want to be a professional writer, every choice you make needs to be painstakingly intentional.
Professional writers don’t treasure creative ideas
It’s part of our nature to create. We want to build. We want to innovate. It’s fun and it makes us feel alive. We’re creators.
That doesn’t mean we actually meet our goals.
Because we talk. We’re also talkers. And often, the more we talk, the less we accomplish.
Not always, but when someone is preoccupied with talking about a great creative idea, they tend to neglect nurturing, developing, and executing the idea over time.
That’s why creative concepts, alone, bore me.
Show me the strategy.
Strategy activates creativity
Disciplined Creativity gives your ideas the care and conditions they need to mature.
Time to be frenetic.
Time to be focused.
Time to take action.
Time to take a break.
Balance leads to progress.
To work as a professional writer, you need the discipline to finish a writing assignment on time and the confidence to swiftly start your next project with the same high level of creative energy.
That takes practice.
I’ve been using the term Disciplined Creativity for the past couple of years, but I haven’t explicitly described what it means … until now.
What does Disciplined Creativity look like?
Below is a brief, 10-part manifesto on the Disciplined Creativity it takes to be a professional writer.
1. Commit to your own production schedule
The First Rule of Disciplined Creativity is follow-through.
Your ability to follow-through with your responsibilities rests on taming your wild side and committing to excellence.
Since creative work often doesn’t “look like work,” it’s essential to follow your own production schedule.
That way, it doesn’t matter if your routine doesn’t look like work to anyone else. You know you’re doing what you set out to do, whether it’s an assignment for a client or your own writing project for your website.
Serious writers don’t make excuses that inconvenience someone else or disappoint their audiences.
2. Juggle multiple writing projects
This section is about gaining momentum.
Even though your follow-through skills require focus, if you only take on one creative project at a time, what happens if you feel stuck?
You get frustrated and, dare I say it, get writer’s block.
If you outline multiple topics for different writing projects, one will typically stand out as The Most Easy to Write About. Start there.
It might not always be the first assignment you need to finish for your production schedule I mentioned above, but you can use that topic to warm up your brain and then transition to your pressing deadline.
3. Establish routines
Our creative processes aren’t independent from the rest of our lives, so our other routines, as mundane as they may sometimes seem, can have a direct impact on our creativity.
Think of the old adage:
How you do anything is how you do everything.
So, what do you nurture in the rest of your life?
- Set aside special time in the morning to enjoy your favorite beverage.
- Start a meditation practice.
- Try new, meaningful activities — not just top priorities.
You don’t have to run around in Panic Mode, constantly drained and stressed out, in order to get things done.
When you choose another way — and stick with it — you deepen your self-discipline and your ability to create on command.
4. Accept that you’ll break your routines
This one is for you if you thought I got a little too idealistic just now.
Life is messy.
We all want to optimize the conditions that contribute to our productivity, but those pure intentions don’t guarantee that our daily routines run smoothly.
So, instead of berating yourself on days you don’t exercise or write that first draft, accept that unexpected situations and new challenges are part of the creative process. Simply taking breaks is part of the creative process.
5. Find the easy way to get back on track
After your routine gets derailed, you might naturally feel overwhelmed by tasks that appear to be piling up on your to-do list.
There’s no one correct order in which you have to do things, and you don’t have to wait for “perfect” conditions to start a task that is important to you.
Review your schedule for the rest of the day and the rest of the week, and then ask yourself:
What can I realistically accomplish?
Not some huge goal that you’ll likely not meet. A significant milestone that you can complete and do well.
Then adjust your schedule accordingly for the day and for the week, until you naturally get back to your preferred routine.
6. Give yourself extra time
If you don’t leave enough time to embrace your enthusiasm and curiosity, when it’s time to turn in your work or publish it yourself, you give the impression that you practice Flaky Creativity rather than Disciplined Creativity.
You need space to explore tangentially related topics, but many anecdotes you love often don’t have a proper place in your final draft (more on that in a bit).
Leave plenty of time anyway to perform the research that makes your writing voice more robust and nuanced.
7. Set small, satisfying goals
Do you want to know the secret that gets Brilliance to pour out of you in one writing session?
Don’t expect Brilliance to pour out of you in one writing session.
Dedicating an entire day to writing, or even half a day, might seem like what a “real writer” does, but real writers have the same messy lives as everyone else.
Even though you want to leave enough time to indulge your creativity — and be disciplined enough to meet deadlines — that doesn’t always mean scheduling extended periods of writing time.
Exhausting yourself is the quickest way to unsustainable creativity, and if you can’t maintain your creative output over time, you’re a poor candidate for a steady writing career.
You might need a long writing session at some point during a project, but Disciplined Creativity is the result of consistent, focused work.
Plan shorter writing sessions to meet small, satisfying goals daily. Then, if that Brilliance doesn’t all pour out of you perfectly at once, you don’t feel intense pressure.
You know you’ve left enough time to make more progress during your next block of writing time.
8. Prioritize editing
Great writers are great editors, and to become a great editor, you have to learn to recognize ideas that serve you more than they serve your audience.
Those areas of your text need to be revised or removed.
To hone this skill, editing can’t be an afterthought, a “quick pass” through your writing. It’s a separate activity.
Again, one that you, Disciplined Creativity Practitioner, leave enough time to perform.
(Spoiler alert: I’m writing more about creative self-editing next week on Copyblogger.)
9. Raise your standards
To grow and evolve, analyze your recently finished work and make notes about how you can improve in the future.
You only benefit from consistent creative endeavors if you learn from them.
At the end of every month, you can plan to give yourself this type of critical review, as if you are your own client.
10. Let go of feeling 100% right
Whether it’s your creative process or your final draft, you’re never going to feel 100% certain that you got it right. That doesn’t mean you got it wrong.
“Final” is an illusion.
You strengthen your Discipline and Creativity with every new project you take on. You keep building your writing portfolio, little by little, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
It’s not glamorous.
It’s not easy.
But if you want to succeed as a professional writer who turns their creative ideas into paid work — and transcend all ideas of magic, accidents, and luck — it’s practical.