Consistent Creative Work Is Hard, But This Helps
Recently, I’ve kept coming back to the same idea.
“If you want it to be real, write it down.”
It’s so simple, right? Now, don’t misunderstand: I don’t really believe the popular idea that you have to write down your goals to make them happen. Evidence may exist. That’s fine. I’m just not the kind of person to glorify 5am wakeups, calling myself a “stoic,” and re-reading my goals to myself each day. It may work. It may work for YOU. High fives if so. It’s just…not me.
The thing is, I do very much write everything down. And I do very much believe that “if you want it to be real, write it down.”
Today, I want you to think about the most important ideas and processes you use to create work that matters. Then, ask yourself:
Have I actually written this down?
There are three reasons why writing things down makes them “real.” Rather conveniently, they all start with “Re.” It’s almost like I planned it out ahead of time…or maybe…[ENORMOUS SH**-EATING GRIN]…I wrote it down? Eh? Ehhhhh?)
(Yep, got it, moving on. Cool cool.)
The three reasons writing something down makes it real…
Reason #1: Realize
One of my storytelling heroes is Jad Abumrad, creator and co-host of the podcast Radiolab (and other projects). I’ve heard Jad describe the feeling of crafting an ambitious story for his show as the process of escaping a jungle. It just made SENSE!
Instantly, I pictured myself smack dab in the middle of a bright green, sticky, sweaty, and suffocating patch of tropical rainforest. I’m hacking away in various directions, and sometimes I find a patch of land where I can run freely, but mostly, I’m slogging through the underbrush (raw ideas), tripping on hidden roots (spots I forgot to ask the guest something), swatting tiny bugs that buzz me (social media alerts), constantly wiping sweat off my forehead (sweat off my forehead).
(It’s really hot in my apartment and I’m Italian. Okay?)
According to Jad, eventually, you find your way out of the jungle, and it’s this amazing feeling. You have NO idea how you escaped, but you did, and suddenly, it all seemed worth it. You made it out. You made a thing — a thing you’re proud of.
This idea — creating meaningful work as an endless trek through the jungle — makes me realize that one advantage of writing things down is that you force yourself to make sense of your own ideas. We think of writing as the act of sharing what you know. I think writing is about exploring what you want to know. Don’t write because you already understand. Write so that you might.
The first reason you should write something down — a process, an idea, a story, a scope of work — is so you can actually realize stuff. What the heck is this thing? What holes are there? What are you really adventuring towards as you hack your way through the jungle?
Writing is an act of trying to understand. If you want to realize important things, big and small, write them down.
Reason #2: Repeat
My favorite quote about creativity is from Ira Glass. Here’s a beautiful animated video with music that conveys the feels I feel when thinking about this quote.The quote is below, emphasis added by me to underscore the money line. (But I seriously hope you’ll watch that video, because wow):
The most important thing you can do…is a lot of work. Tinker. Try. Start. Ship. Make stuff. Your job is not to “be creative.” Your job is to CREATE.Over and over and over and…
If the job is to create repeatedly, then an important way to repeat what we’re doing — and have it all feel coherent somehow — is to write things down. If you host a podcast, document the episode’s flow, the rundown. What blocks and beats do you move through each episode? If you write stories, write down your story structure. Do you use an established framework, like the hero’s journey, or do you have your own spin on story?
If we want to repeat stuff, write it down. Make the process visible. Make it easier to “fight your way through” that gap between your taste and the work you’re able to create.
Write down the parts and pieces so you can see the parts and pieces. And control them. And repeat them.
Over and over and over and…
Reason #3: Reinvent
Of course, it’s not enough to just repeat the work. You also have to improve. Sometimes, that happens through simple muscle memory. You do a thing a lot, and that thing feels easier and better. But what if you develop bad habits? Is your good taste enough to protect against that? Or what if you don’t see the parts that are great and need to be used more often? Or the parts that are bad and should be changed or removed?
What if, after doing something over and over and over and…What if after all of THAT, you’re still no better for it?
Firstly, I think that’s nigh impossible. When your intention is to be good, you often suck up a lot of good work from other people you admire. Coupled with your taste, you’re almost assuredly heading in the right direction simply by putting in the reps.
But, we can go one step further and be even more intentional about this: write it down to see where you need to reinvent.
Remember that episode rundown you documented? Yeah, well, B Block is really not clicking. Change it! Add a new segment. Remove it entirely. Or any number of ways to reinvent a show. (I see five in total, but who’s counting?)
Remember that story style you keep writing? Yeah, well, it worked before, but you’ve grown too fond of it. Try something fresh and different, or just change how you open each piece you write.
If you want to reinvent it, write it down. You can share it with others, and make it easier for Future You to see what even needs reinvention in the first place. Stagnation is the enemy of every creator. It’s hard to battle it when the only way you hope to explain your ideas and your process is through hand-waving. That’d be like battling a monster by…um…hand-waving. Unless you can cast some spells I didn’t know about, I’m pretty sure you need to arm yourself with something more concrete.
If you want to reinvent it over time (and believe me, you will): Write. It. Down.
We all want to do work that matters, but so often, this work comes from the gut. We can’t teach it to others we work with, nor make the parts and pieces visible to ourselves. We have no plan, no process, no documentation, no hope of doing the hard work. If you want to realize something, repeat something, or reinvent something … if you want it to be real…write it down.
Have I actually written this down?
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
Get in touch anytime: email@example.com // Speaking inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org