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.
Have you ever emailed someone who is extremely busy, only to hear back several days (or weeks) later? Or perhaps you didn’t hear back at all? Busy people are difficult to reach via email, because you’re asking them to part with their most valuable resource of all: time.
In a guest post for OkDork, business coach John Corcoran shared how he got the attention of App Sumo founder Noah Kagan via email. The trick to capturing the attention of the busy executive was a sense of urgency:
I said the interview would take only 5-7 minutes of his time. If you’re asking for something, you want to make the commitment so small and the benefit so great, they can’t possibly pass it up. I think Noah probably realized it was likely the interview would run longer than 5-7 minutes, but it’s good to demonstrate your willingness to keep the time demand commitment short out of respect for your recipient’s time. And in fact, when I did interview Noah, I offered multiple times to cut off the interview but he allowed it to go longer.
In a study commissioned by author Dan Pink for his book, To Sell Is Human, workers reported that as part of their job, they spent 40 percent of their time trying to convince someone to part with resources of some kind (what Pink calls “non-sales selling”). And much of that is accomplished using email.
Corcoran says that when you’re writing an email, you want to make the commitment so small and the benefit so great that the recipient finds the offer hard to refuse. So instead of asking for half an hour of someone’s time, ask for a handful minutes. Instead of writing, “I’d love to grab coffee,” say “I could pop by your office for a couple of minutes.”
Almost half the people you’ll run into today are suffering from some level of sleep deprivation. This is largely because we don’t know when (or how) to call it a night. Tethered to our devices, work more often than not spills into the precious time that we need to decompress and prepare for a good night’s sleep.
Do a nighttime audit of how you spend your time after work. For one or two evenings, don’t try to change anything—simply log everything that happens from the moment you arrive home until you go to bed. What you may discover is that instead of eliminating activities that you enjoy and are keeping you up late (say, watching television between 10:30 and 11:00), you can start doing them earlier by cutting back on something unproductive that’s eating up your time earlier on (like mindlessly scanning Facebook between 8:30 and 9:00).
As the story goes, Bill Gates first met Warren Buffett at a dinner. Gates’ mother (and dinner host) asked everyone around the table to identify what they believed to be the most important factor in their success. The two moguls gave the same answer: “Focus.”
Focus as a Noun.
When people speak of focus they usually mean having a single goal. It is a static thing, a thing you have. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Roger Bannister relentlessly pursuing his goal of breaking the four-minute mile, John F. Kennedy challenging NASA to put a man on the moon within a decade or, coming back to Bill Gates, a vision of a personal computer on every desk. The upside to this kind of focus is clear and compelling: you pursue a single objective and don’t get distracted along the way; you build momentum as many different people aligned behind achieving this one goal.
Focus as a Verb.
Focus is not just something you have it is also something you do. This type of focus is not static; it is an intense, dynamic, ongoing, iterative process. This kind of focus conjures pictures of Steve Jobs saying to Jony Ive day after day, “This might be crazy, but what if we…” until once in a while the idea took the air out of the room. It’s the constant exploration needed to see what is really going on and what the “noun focus” should be.
Focus is a powerful attribute, especially in a world that is tirelessly trying to compete for your time, energy, and attention. McKeown says that if we want to direct ourselves toward what’s essential, then we need to develop both kinds of focus. It’s the only way to confidently answer the question, “What’s important now?”
Introductions are crucial. As the adage goes, “first impressions are lasting impressions.” Neuroscientists even found that 7 percent of what people think of you is cemented upon meeting you for the first time.
This explains our aversion to name-droppers, ramblers or the people making it rain business cards at networking events – the “dirty” networkers. Bernard Marr, author of Doing More with Less recommends a simple adjustment to our personal introductions to make a good impression:
Instead of leading with what you do, lead with who you help. As in, “Hi, my name is Bernard, and I help companies identify and make the best use of their key performance indicators and big data.” Done. You know who I am, what I do, and more importantly, whether or not I can help you or someone you know.
Human beings make snap decisions – our brains are hardwired in this way as a prehistoric survival mechanism. However we can use this to our advantage by focusing on how we help others, rather than flaunting how well we’ve helped ourselves.
You can’t force inspiration, but how do you cultivate an environment where you are open to it? When the Los Angeles Hammer Museum’s breakout artist Jennifer Moon was looking for a new source of inspiration, she unexpectedly found it on her 5 a.m. drive from Los Angeles to Big Bear. She noticed the dreamlike, half-conscious state of mind was not only soothing and meditative, but allowed her mind to be open to new ideas:
When I’m driving and things come to me, it’s definitely not forced. The times when I try to force it, it usually doesn’t happen. Really, my only job as an artist is to remain as open as possible and as aware as possible, so for ideas to enter me I have to be open. That’s the only thing I really need to focus on.
As we learned from Moon’s experience, our mind requires moments of rest to collect, organize and connect the abundance of information from our busy lives. This information is supplied through new experiences; in Moon’s case, driving at 5 a.m. has a completely different ambiance than 5 p.m. And lastly, she found inspiration in the everyday. When on vacation, it’s easy to fully engage in every aspect of a new environment.
The challenge is to keep that wonderment alive in the day to day.
Architect David Rockwell, in his soon-to-be-published monograph What If…?: The Architecture and Design of David Rockwell, describes how he distills his creative process down into one phrase: “What if?”
A recent FastCoDesign feature quotes Rockwell on his penchant for curiosity:
The central question the firm asks on any project… is “what if?”—a query that opens up what could be cut-and-dry design projects (say, the firm’s umpteenth collaboration with chef Nobu Matsuhisa) to unexpected possibilities, like “what if a restaurant became a hotel?”
“I’m interested in hybrids—what happens when you sort of have various things rub up against each other and infiltrate each other?” [Rockwell] explains. “I think this is a time where barriers between what a hotel is, what an office is, what a restaurant is, what a cultural event is, those are all merging.”
This question powers each of Rockwell’s projects. For example, his current undertaking is something called Chefs Club, a Manhattan restaurant he’s designing that will feature a constant rotation of chefs hosted by Food & Wine. If it weren’t for wondering “what if?” Rockwell would not have opened his mind to the possibility of transforming an airport terminal into a “food theme park” or making the cavernous Kodak Theatre into an elegantly intimate supper club for the 2010 Oscars.
Sometimes in the creative process, the right question is the answer.