I have written articles in under two hours that got over half a million views in less than 24 hours.
For me to sit and write 5,000 to 6,000 words in one evening writing session is not unheard of (first draft, of course).
A couple decades of experience and habit certainly help with being able to write this way, but I definitely am not the most disciplined daily writer you’ll meet. For that, you should seek out Stephen King or some other prolific creative person.
I’m terribly unprolific (though trying to be better) because I write more when I have something to say than when I have a deadline. It drives our Managing Editor crazy as she tries to plan our calendars, but delights our editorial team, as my articles are usually hella-thorough.
Everyone has a different writing process.
Trying to adapt your natural habits to someone else’s system is kinda like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. Or trying bangs (fringe for my European and Commonwealth friends) when you have unruly curls and a widow’s peak. It might look okay at a quick glance, but it will never really look right, despite your best efforts.
Still, people ask me all the time how I write. What’s my process?
My process generally involves thinking. Some more thinking. Eating an omelet while thinking. Taking walks and dictating notes to my phone. Copying and pasting links to Trello. Thinking some more.
Then finally sitting down and writing a 3,000-word article in 90 minutes.
Well, hold onto your hats, kids, ‘cause I’m about to tell you exactly how I do it.
Now, unless your brain works exactly like mine does (bless your soul if it does, I’m thinking of starting a support group …), you will likely have to take bits and pieces of this process and adapt it to your own natural habits.
Don’t write like a square peg. Be well-rounded.
Though my “official bio” background is in personal essays and university studies in creative writing and classics, I am not really an artistic person.
I’m a thinker.
I need to formulate ideas, do research and study, test things, review and reflect on everything, then draw my conclusions. I like to have an organized system, a mental list of boxes to check as I accomplish each step.
My preferred method is to gather the mass of tangential information that swims around in the nebulous grey matter of my brain cells (it’s a really murky mass) and cohesively review it to make it make sense to me, before I can try to make it make sense to others.
Trust me: I’m super fun at dinner parties.
Only when I am sorted through enough can I sit down and write. Sure, I do more thinking as I’m writing (especially as I’m planning and outlining, but more on that below), but I actually do a majority of the work before I ever touch pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
This mental game is really the most important part of my entire process, but you need to understand the ways that this information is applied to the actual writing before you can understand why and how to collect it. Believe me, after years of attempting to explain it to friends, clients, and random podcast hosts, I can tell you this is the thought-train journey we must take together.
If you loved this process, or if you’re currently having traumatic flashbacks to an elementary school lesson plan, you are probably remembering the scientific method and academic essay writing structures.
As I fall in the camp of people who loved this process, I’ve done pretty much all my writing following a modified version of these traditional methods. Since a young age, and much to my parents’ chagrin as they attempted to instill values of hard work and dedication into my developing little soul, I’ve been that annoying person who can write a paper that garners an A grade the night (and sometimes morning) before it is due.
At its most basic level, many of us learned a simple five-step system for the scientific method:
But the actual scientific method is more involved than that:
Of course, you then have the actual report or essay, where you share what you’ve learned with the world. That generally follows a new process, an outline with different headings:
Again, this is a very simple manifestation of what goes into quality reports and essays, but often simple is best when trying to form habits and processes. Better to get to bare bones and build out from there than try to comprehend the inner workings of the universe.
It is from these thinking and writing systems that I developed my own.
As I got older, and my teachers were no longer assigning me topics on which to make observations, I had to start adapting.
It’s a cruel joke from the universe that we spend 12+ years having someone tell us how to think, then we suddenly have to go and do that for ourselves. Add to that we’re now expected to confidently communicate that thinking to others.
Bullshit, I tell ya.
As I started writing more regularly for myself, way back when blogging was something people did from their basements because they couldn’t be bothered to interact with the three-dimensional world outside those walls, I realized quickly that randomly throwing my thoughts onto the internet in flowing streams of consciousness was not useful for me or anyone who had the unfortunate experience of stumbling onto them.
My first published blog post was a listicle entitled “Things I Did Over my Bedrest Vacation,” and it involved deep-thought musings and binge-watching an early season of the television show Bones. My mom thought it was good. (That’s a lie — she was supportive, as only a parent can be of such ridiculousness.)
Sometimes you’ll want to celebrate your growth and cringe at your younger self, so go back and read some of your earliest writings. Oy.
Based on all this, I knew that I needed a better process for pondering such deep-thought musings and communicating them. I didn’t have a professor guiding me in how I was supposed to think anymore, or a class that a paper was due in. No outline to follow or points to cover.
Times like this helped me to understand why so many writers new to online and essay writing will ask, “Is there a good format to follow for writing posts?”
So I took the process I had followed before, and made it my own to force me to think and create in this organized system. Starting with the thinking and research.
I had no idea a mind palace was an official thing until I read about it. I thought it was just another of the weird ways that my own mind works.
But no, this is something that highly skilled memory champions and big thinkers use. A mind palace is a visual image you mentally create, which you can then make future associations with, so you can store information that wasn’t there previously, per neuroscientist Boris Nikolai Konrad.
It was recently illustrated in the BBC series Sherlock as a series of rooms assigned to people and places in his life. By saving each piece of information to a place he can “see” through these mental visualizations, he can quickly find his way back there when he needs to use the data again.
My mind palaces have never been the places of glitz and glamour one would associate with something as ornate as a palace. Instead, they have always been notecards on an old wooden desk. Some desks were walnut and roll-top, some were open rustic farm tables, others were sprawling oak with leather blotters. They are each in their own rooms, with their own surroundings of musty books and various overstuffed reading chairs.
No surprise, my mind palace is much more like a castle of libraries.
Each desk is a different person, a different place, a different topic. I can tell you the physical description and cards and ink color and associations with each, if you are ever bored and I’m feeling a bit tipsy. And when I need to remember something, I just trace back through the hallways and doorways to the desk and notecards, and store it there.
As I come up with a new inkling for an idea for something to write about (possibly … not every brilliant thought I have sees the light of day …), I would assign it to a desk. Then, every time I came across or experienced new information that I could assign to the desk, I mentally wrote a new notecard and added it.
Eventually, I’ve added enough cards and drawn enough connections. I often group cards together mentally on my desks, by their connections with each other. So a few articles about, say, memory and research practices, will get grouped together on the How Do I Think and Write Process desk, under “Information Collection.”
By the time I’m ready to write, I have all these notecards written out, sorted, connected, and ready to be applied.
I told you, it’s weird up inside my brain.
This probably helps to explain why I am in love with Trello like I am in love with bourbon barrel- aged craft beers from Allagash.
Trello is a technological solution that is essentially notecards on different desks.
As I get older, my desks have begun to get a bit cluttered. And by a bit cluttered I mean that anytime there is a window open in my mind and a gust of wind comes blowing through, these notecards go flying and I am scrambling to not only save them all, but attempt to maintain some semblance of their order.
Maybe it is information overload, maybe it is the inevitability of the evil that is aging.
Regardless, when I saw Trello and its organization system, my heart pitter-pattered.
I’ve written extensively on how we use Trello to manage our editorial calendars and processes before, but that’s a system. How I use Trello to organize my thoughts is more similar to the mind palace/desk and notecards above.
For each project that I am working on, I use a new Board. Boards include Elisa’s Editorial Calendar, CYC Editorial Calendar, Book Proposal, Fiction Manuscript, and other projects I’m building mind palaces for.
On each Board, I create Lists to organize the different piles I need to collect and connect information on. Usually, these become their own desks, in a little cluster around the big mind desk.
On the Lists are Cards that further organize the information by method of collection and type. Articles, Books, Quotes, Snippets (small lines or paragraphs I’ve already written in my head and want to get down somewhere before they slip away), and other obscure details.
Then, as I’m out and about living life and sometimes focusing on a particular desk, I’ll catalog and store the information virtually — using the browser or mobile app to do so.
By the time I sit down to actually get the article started, I’ve got everything I need collected onto those little Cards.
Like many writers, I often fall victim to the thoughts and world I’ve envisioned.
Meaning, I know how all the notecards are connected and why they are on the desk, but I forget to share that information with the reader. It’s common knowledge to me, but it is like trying to understand how Point B relates to Point Q for someone else.
So what I’ll do, before even starting a first draft, is sit down with my Trello Cards (or, if I haven’t Trello-ed something, a quick bullet list of the notecards in my mind) and handwrite an outline. My outlines tend to follow that same format as before, which my first grade teacher taught me for writing reports:
It isn’t a pretty process. For this article, it ended up looking like this:
Writing the outline by hand is something I have done since I can remember. Notebooks and single sheets of ruled paper, marked up with letters and arrows and scribbles and colors.
It gives me the opportunity to see what my piece is going to look like before I start writing it. To move the notecards and organize them, decide which are pertinent and which might have helped my thinking, but have no place in the article itself. To finalize the thoughts before I put them into words.
Hilariously, when I’m doing this process with clients on their manuscript, if we are on video, they can actually watch me take my hands and move the air around in front of me, as if the outline were there on the mind desk with the notecards. A peek inside The Mind of Elisa.
From this outline, I can now sit down at the computer and flash my fingers over the keyboard, dumping everything I’ve been thinking through so diligently in my mind palaces onto the screen. I wasn’t being sarcastic in the introduction; I usually sit and write thousands of words without even realizing it (I write in Google Docs in offline mode most of the time). For this article, it has taken me one hour and 42 minutes to write 2,457 words to this point.
I’ll usually get this brain dump written, and then step away from it for a day or two, so that when I re-read it, my mind has shifted from “get the notecards off the desk and onto the page” to “will this make any semblance of coherent sense to another person?”
Of course, I then send it to our editorial team for a few rounds of content edits and proofreading, because even with this second revision myself, I need some insight from people who live and think outside my brain.
People who can’t see the mind desks and notecards. Who don’t go through the writing process with me. They only read the final product of it all.
As I said in the beginning, this exact process may not work for everyone. I’ve been told countless times, with both admiration and wrath, that my mind definitely does not work in the same way that other minds do.
To be honest, I’ve only spoken with one other person about writing processes that used anything remotely similar in their own (it was Glen Allsopp from ViperChill, on my old podcast Writers’ Rough Drafts).
It is essentially taking the process for research and writing that we all learned in school — the scientific method then communicated in academic essay form — and adapting it to the leisurely and engaging reading style necessary for most online and personal content.
The research and information points are much easier to organize, and can be written more quickly, if you use mind palaces (or other repositories of your choosing), or if you can find a technological solution (like Trello) to save those data while you are bulking up your memory muscles.
By the time you sit down to outline and organize all those notecards from your mind desk and knick-knacks from the palace, you already understand the connections and importance of each to your hypothesis or topic. You can scribble out and plot the different points to give yourself a format to follow.
When you finally start to write, you’ve essentially thought through and planned the entire piece. All you have to do is find the words to communicate the information from your brain to others’ understanding. This part will get easier the more you write.
What do you think? Do you want to build a mind palace? Can you use it to make your own writing process that much faster?
Photo credit: Olly18
Elisa Doucette is a writer and editor who works with professional writers, entrepreneurs, and brands that want to make their own words even better. She is the Founder of Craft Your Content, and oversees Client Strategy and Writing Coaching. Her own writing has been featured in places like Forbes, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yahoo! Small Business, and The Huffington Post, among others. She also hosts the Writers' Rough Drafts podcast here on CYC. When she isn't writing, editing, or reading words, she can usually be found at a local pub quiz, deep in a sun salutation, or binging TV shows for concept ideas and laughs.