National Book Award-winner and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Nathaniel Philbrick details to The Paris Review his writing process. Philbrick writes historical non-fiction, so he often has to dive head first into topics and develop a mastery while maintaining a sense of wonder. As a result he has a pretty regimented process to assure things come out right. Some choice gems:
On taking notes:
Moleskine. It’s almost a reading journal. Day by day. Early on I’m getting a sense of the book. I find that when I’m new to a topic, that’s when I’m catching the best details. It’s all new to me; it’s what the reader will respond to. Because, you can so easily over-know a topic, and you lose the magic. It becomes interesting to you, but you’ve lost the connection to the reader. You’re too far down the rabbit hole. So for me, it’s having a record of those initial reactions to the material is really important. It’s the roadmap I go back to. You forgot how interesting the material was when you first learned it, after you’ve learned a lot about a topic.
On getting feedback:
So, after I finish a draft, I hit print. I used to do a lot more revising on the page. I used to print at the end of every day, and then the next morning revise. I’ve since gotten to the point where I just do the revising on the screen. I print out the whole chapter, edit it, spend a day looking it over, then reprint it, and take upstairs and read it aloud to my wife after dinner.
[Paris Review:] Out loud?
That is the most critical point. She has a notepad where she’s writing comments. It’s so funny—you can look at things on the screen, and it looks great. Then you read it, and you go, oh my God. The rhythm of the prose is something I’m really trying to work on. So when I’m reading it aloud, I’ll hear the prose and go, that sucks. Like for all of us, I’m always searching for a word. It’s a lot of the sounds I’m going for—not that I’m creating anything anyone notices.
On the importance of the preface:
What I should mention is that, what applied to Away Off Shore and all my books since, is that, for me, it’s the preface that matters. That’s where I develop the voice; that’s where figure out what I’m going to say. Well into the Moleskine approach, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to begin with. What scene will introduce what I’m trying to do. That’s really hard for me. I’ll have forty drafts of how I’m going to start the book. Forty different ways in. How about trying this way, how about that? And that’s really the hard part. I’m deconstructing myself, second guessing myself. Where am I coming from? What is this about? What’s the voice? The tone? My manila folder for the preface is always really fat.
Read the entire interview (a must for any writer) here.
I don’t believe in briefs; I believe in relationships. The difference between a brief and a relationship is a brief can be anonymous. And I’ve tended over the last fifteen to twenty years to really work with people who give you a really deep sense of where it is they want to go, what it is that they are dreaming about. And that, in turn, has informed us on the projects more than any brief has ever done so.
Initial discussions should provide not only the vision for the project, but the aspirations of the company. Instead of anonymously sending out briefs, make it a collaborative thing: the brief will naturally evolve out of these client conversations. With continued dialogue, you build the trust you need to really question ideas and find innovation. Use the brief as a creative tool to open up dialogue with your clients, negotiate easier, and get to the heart of the problem.
Do notifications impact your workflow?
Co-founder and CEO of Buffer, Joel Gascoigne, undertook an experiment in which he disabled all notifications on his phone. Not only did he regain his focus, he was also able to convert his workflow from reactionary to proactive:
It is now completely up to me when I choose to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I have no excuse that a notification came in. If I check it too frequently and find myself procrastinating, it is only my fault: I went out of my way to go and look.
Focus isn’t a magic ability. It’s simply a function of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating. 99U challenges you to turn off all notifications for a week, and let us know how it goes below.
It’s important to be aware of inspiration that simply influences us versus inspiration that turns us into a copycat. Knowing the difference can help turn us into the type of creative worker we strive to be. As Evernote designer Joshua Taylor explains in this interview over at the InVision blog:
Researching and seeing what others are doing is important. I try not to do that too much though because I think there’s a subconscious tendency to copy as soon as you start looking at everyone else’s stuff. My advice is that if you are going to look at others’ work, look at a ton of them so that there’s enough influences and you can’t distinguish between them. Constantly looking at other people’s work has a huge impact on who you are…We are all products of our environments, so surround yourself with great things.
The right inspiration, at the right time (and in the right amount), can be just what we need to improve our own ideas and creative work. It’s when we catch ourselves looking for inspiration as a way to solve the task at hand or complete the work we’re doing that we know we’ve stumbled into possible copycat territory.
Instead, we must strive to constantly surround ourselves with a lot of varied and high caliber work.
Your business idea (be it for a design studio, an app, or consulting practice) has yet to become a success and you can’t figure out why. In an interview over at Entrepreneur with Scott D. Anthony, author of The First Mile: A Launch Manual for Getting Great Ideas Into the Market, the strategy and innovation consultant discusses the most common reasons why your business idea is stagnant:
One extreme is something called “paralysis by analysis,” where the business exists only in someone’s head. They’re trying to make the business plan perfect and remove all risk before taking the first step. The other extreme is “doing without thinking,” where you put something out into the market to see what happens. You can waste a lot of time and money learning things the world has already discovered.
Do either of these two scenarios look familiar? If so, it may be time to take some focused action to get your business off the ground. The real answer lies in between the two extremes: the best action is usually securing your first customer and then building upon that success.
Do you get pissed off whenever someone asks you to setup a “quick call” to chat? Gary Vaynerchuk bets that you do:
We have gotten to a place where everything happens on our time. You watch the TV show when you want to watch it, not because it airs on Wednesday at 8 (7 central). You text because you can respond to that person on your time.
To avoid the awkwardness around small-talk, try to outline what the topic of the conversation is going to be. It makes you feel less guilty for transitioning into the purpose of the call.
Use email to get your high-level thoughts communicated first, and then use a phone call to add a personal touch or to have a higher bandwidth conversation.
If your work requires phone calls, that’s understandable. But remember that more often than not, synchronous communication puts you in a reactionary state. Don’t feel obligated to answer the phone every time it rings; what’s urgent isn’t always important.
Editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine Scott Dadich says it’s time to start getting it wrong. In the field of technology design, we have figured out how to do it right. We have beautiful, sleek devices that are an ease to use – and it’s getting boring:
…once a certain maturity has been reached, someone comes along who decides to take a different route. Instead of trying to create an ever more polished and perfect artifact, this rebel actively seeks out imperfection—sticking a pole in the middle of his painting, intentionally adding grungy feedback to a guitar solo, deliberately photographing unpleasant subjects. Eventually some of these creative breakthroughs end up becoming the foundation of a new set of aesthetic rules, and the cycle begins again.
Dadich emphasizes that it’s not about throwing out design rules and starting from scratch. You need to master the rules so you can effectively break them. In his work for Wired Magazine, Dadich would apply his ‘Wrong Theory’ in small ways by only breaking one or two rules to regain visual interest. He would make large images small, overlap graphic and type and put headlines at the end of stories. Our future lies in failure as Dadich states, “…only by courting failure can we find new ways forward.”