How I write (and why)

The purpose of this article is…
Actually, there is no purpose. There never is. I just write because I feel like it. Then I read the article and make up a purpose afterwards, and start eliminating anything in the article that doesn’t fit that purpose. But I won’t do that this time. Read on and you’ll understand why. By the way, this text is blue because it’s my second iteration. Black text is the original, first iteration. Here it is:

Let me tell you about my creative process. Every writer has a creative process. Otherwise they wouldn’t get anything written; well, at least not anything creative :)

It feels wierd to be writing about my creative process while I’m in the process of creating. Very meta. Anyway.

I write a lot. Like all the time. Well, strictly speaking it’s not writing. It’s dialogs going on in my head. Otherwise known as “thinking”. I think about stuff a lot. Probably too much. I probably come across as absent minded. Like sometimes I’m brushing my teeth, and I start thinking about something. Like why I write so much. That happened just now, I was brushing my teeth and I noticed I was having a dialog in my head (well, more a monologue) about how I write. Why? I don’t know, it just happens. Maybe because a large part of my job is to help companies improve, and often that involves analyzing things and explaining things. Anyway, so I’m brushing my teeth physically while I’m mentally somewhere very far away, having a monologue about how I write. Like the opposite of mindfulness. Mindlessness. Needless to say, my teeth are exceedingly clean tonight :)

So this happens quite often, these long monologues in my head (don’t worry, it’s not creepy voices telling me to do evil things. it’s just a monologue of me trying to explain some kind of concept or idea, over and over again, in different ways, until i find a really short and clear way). Especially when I do the dishes, take a shower, or do something else that occupies me physically but leaves my mind free to wander (as opposed to when I’m at a computer and letting my mind be occupied by whatever is on the screen, and thereby hindering any attempt at actual thinking).

Sometimes the monologes fade out and I can go back to whatever I was doing. Sometimes I get surprised, like when I’m doing the dishes and my mind wanders and by the time my mind has finished wandering I notice that the whole kitchen is in perfect shape. Kind of like a time warp, very interesting. Sometimes when I improvize on the piano my mind wanders as well. I really wonder what kind of music comes out when I do that, I don’t hear it because I’m thinking about something else. Should try recording it sometime. Could make a record called “Henrik’s mindless music”. A nice reaction against the whole mindfulness hype :)

Then, sometimes, the thinking reaches a tipping point. Like the ideas crystalize into something truly interesting and useful, and really want to come out into the world. Like a baby that’s tired of being in mommy’s tummy and really badly wants to come out and see the world. Often this happens in the middle of the night. I wake up at 3 am or so and lie still, thinking about something, having the dialog, and sometimes even whispering quietly to myself (one of my kids asked me that the other day, she heard me whispering to myself in the bathroom. Must have thought I was possessed or something). Often I don’t notice that I’m awake thinking about something, until maybe a half hour later when I’m like “what the heck, I need to sleep!”. Anyway so I wake up at 3 am, thinking about something, and then can’t sleep because the monologue continues. And, because it’s an interesting monologue, I want to hear the rest of it. Then by 5 am the article/idea/thingo reaches critical mass and my head is exploding. I need to get it out! Besides, I can’t sleep anyway. Might as well do something.

So I get out of bed and run down to my desk. Literally, run down to the desk. Sometimes I stop by the kitchen on the way to make some tea and a sandwhich, which sometimes takes a long time because my mind is wandering while I do it (“er, why did I put the butter back in the fridge, I haven’t put any butter on the sandwich yet!”). Anyway then I hurry over to the desk, head exploding, start up notepad or ms word or whatever and just start typing. Like what I’m doing right now. Just typing and typing, no editing, no going back, no thinking. Just emptying out the article that is pretty much all done in my head. You’d be amazed at how fast I can write an article. Once I even wrote a whole book in 3 days. My first book (OK, a short book… but definitely a book!). I didn’t even know I was writing a book until it was done, and I took a step back and was like “er…. this is like actually a book!”. OK I did add a couple of chapters a couple of days later, and some editing of the original text, but that’s about it.  It even became a bestseller, no one was more surprised than me! Lots of people tell me that the book is so easy to read, that you basically can’t stop reading until you’re done. Probably because that’s exactly how it was written – all in one sitting (well, I paused to sleep for a few hours a couple of times).

Sometimes the text leads nowhere, or diverges into vacuum. Then I just drop it. Head has been emptied, feels great, I go back to sleep. I have lots of unfinished texts lying around, I usually never read them again. They are quite crappy I believe.

Sometimes, however, I end up with a really nice article that actually has a clear theme, clear takeaway points, clear structure, everything. All done on the first pass. In a sense you might say I’m not very fast at writing at all. Because once a topic has reached “critical mass” in my head, I’ve usually been thinking about it on a fairly regular basis over a period of several months, or even a year. It’s like there’s this background process going on in my head, a little writer inside that is continously working on various different articles, sometimes even working in my sleep (maybe that’s his most productive period, while the head isn’t occupied with lots of other thoughts).

It’s critically important to not be disturbed during this writing frenzy. My family knows that. I have four small kids, age 3-10. If it’s the middle of the night it’s not a problem, they’re all asleep. However if it’s daytime and they are around I tell them “now I need flow” and I go into my home studio and close the door. They know this means that they really shouldn’t disturb (they even created some really nice “don’t disturb, daddy is in flow” signs for my studio door). I’m in a state of hyperflow and even the tiniest disturbance, even a *risk* of disturbance, will ruin it. That article that I can write in 2 hours in hyperflow would take weeks to write if I didn’t have the hyperflow, and it wouldn’t be as good. So we all have come to respect that magic.

Once I get to the end of the article (if it doesn’t fizzle out on the way), well, it feels great! I’m usually quite exhausted by then, so I just save the doc and go back to sleep or go back to whatever I was doing. Nice blissful feeling, the voice in my head is finally quiet, I can be more present and enjoy the moment, be more authentically social rather than absentmindedly social. I know the article needs some more work, but the critical period is over, I caught the magic and it’s written down.

Creative flow is like a train that departs at a certain time. When my idea reaches “escape velocity” in my head, I either catch the train or not. If I catch the moment and go write, I get a great article (well, usually) in amazingly short time. If I don’t catch the train, it’s usually gone forever (until I come up with a new topic next time). Sometimes when I can’t (or don’t want to) catch the flow right now, I add a line to my “stuff to write about” doc on my iphone. That list is veeeeery long by now, and I almost never read it. I just add stuff to it. I like to believe it’s a list of inspirational stuff, some of which I might write about in the future. In practice, though, I suspect it’s really just a list of missed trains. Miscarriages. But that doesn’t really bother me, there’s always new trains. And it feels good adding stuff to that list for some reason, a sense of closure.

I’ve come to respect this creative flow, so I make sure there is at least potentially time to catch it. I usually reserve 2 days of “slack” in my calender every week. I aim for 2, although sometimes it’s only 1. I literally write the word “slack” on 1-2 days every week in my calendar. Slack means I don’t have anything scheduled. I might have lots of stuff to do, but nothing specifically scheduled that day. Normally I’ll spend the day doing email, boring admin, preparing for future engagements, catching up on stuff, or whatever.

But if creative flow happens to come on one of those days, I have time to catch it and run with it!

Anyway, so I’ve just speed-wrote an article (and now I’m rereading it the morning after and doing minor edits, that’s the blue text). What’s missing is a title, an intro, and some kind of final take-away points. I leave that for later. Typically later the same day, or maybe a day later. Not later than that. I go back, read the whole thing, and start thinking about what this really is. Is this a useful article? What should the title be? So I start brainstorming titles, usually I write a number of different titles and let them sit there for a while until I (maybe a day later) discover what it should be called.

I also think about what purpose this article could serve for it’s readers. I start most articles with a problem statement, and then a “the purpose of this article is XXX”, and then some kind of disclaimer. If I can’t think of a clear purpose for the article I don’t publish it. So it’s not like I first think up a purpose, and then write an article to fulfill the purpose – it’s the other way around. I write an article and then figure out what purpose it might fufill.

So I’ve added some kind of weird intro now, basically admitting that the article doesn’t really have a purpose. Haven’t done a title yet. Well, the doc is called “my creative process.rtf” so I might call it that. On the other hand this is specifically about how I write, not how I do other stuff like create a presentation or record a song. Hmmm. We’ll see.

Then I think about the takeaway points, and add that at the end. Usually I can come up with some clear takeaway points, but if I can’t that’s OK.

Now the shape of the article is pretty clear! Now I go back and start fiddling with the text, and start adding pictures. I love pictures, I’m very much a visual thinker. Often I draw small sketches on my drawing tablet as I write the article, and paste them directly into the text as part of the writing or editing process. This article probably won’t have any pictures. That’s very unusual. During the editing process I’m very minimalistic, always looking for sentences and words that can be removed, or replaced with a simple picture. I very much apply the principle “perfection is achieved not when you have nothing left to add, but when you have nothing left to remove”. The after-the-fact purpose statement helps me figure out what to remove – basically anything that doesn’t fit the purpose. So the final article is often shorter than the original draft. This article is an exception, since I haven’t stated any specific purpose and because I want to show you my creative process, uncensored. So if this article seems talky and confusing, that’s intentional :)

Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, move a sentence higher up or lower down, remove a word or two, erase a paragraph because it repeats a point that was stated earlier, add a concrete anecdote or examples, etc. This process is creative but not nearly as flow-critical as when I wrote the first draft. So I don’t need hyperflow, it’s OK to have minor disturbances like kids running in to talk with me. Although this time around I’m hardly removing anything, for the reasons stated above.

Now the article is pretty much done. I ask my wife to come look at it. She’s good at pointing out things to improve. So I fiddle some more based on that input. OK, I’m at a conference, 8 am, in bed typing, wife not around. But Crisp colleagues are around. Let’s see if i can get any of them to read through this article today. When I’ve written an article I want feedback immediately. HATE waiting. I want to get the thing done, published, or whatever, so I can move on with life. I should probably get up now or I’ll miss breakfast.

Now, after all this, I ask myself: “so, what will I do with this article?” Sometimes I put it directly on my blog (that’s probably what I’ll do this time), sometimes I turn it into a PDF and put it on the blog. Sometimes I offer it to other sites like InfoQ or PragProg.com. Sometime a long article ends up being a book. It all depends a lot on where and how I want the ideas to spread.

Once the article is up, I mention it on twitter, facebook, linkedin, and (when I remember) Google+. I want people to read it! Once I see it spread, I feel a great sense of closure. Absolutely wonderful.

A shrink might have all kinds of not-too-flattering explanations and psychobabble about why I get this great sense of relief and closure once my article spreads. I don’t know, but it just feels good. I love spreading ideas. Some ideas get bounced around for a while and then quietly ignored by the community. Others go viral and spread all over the place, some even cause entire companies to change the way they work. Often I get really useful feedback and learn even more about the topic. And I get emails every day from people thanking me for my articles, sometimes things I wrote years ago, telling me about the impact it has made in their lives, feels great!

The most influential things I’ve created so far are “Scrum and XP from the Trenches“, “Agile Product Ownership in a Nutshell“, and “Scaling agile at Spotify“. (Agile Product Ownership a Nutshell is actually a video, but the creative process was similar). The impact of these article/videos have been absolutely amazing. And the total amount of work invested in the actual production of them is about, say, 2 weeks in total for all three. That’s the power of hyperflow.

So, this urge to write… I don’t think it’s about power or influence or ego. I think it’s just this basic human need of feeling useful. I feel like I’ve helped people, made the world into a slightly better place. But then, even if my article made little or no impression on the world, I feel very good just having released it. Because then I’ve freed up that part of my mind, quieted that monologue. And thereby I can move on, leaving space for whatever article is going to pop into my head in the future.

So basically, articles write themselves in my head all the time. Unstoppable. Most of them never get out. Sometimes, however, the stars align and I have the opportunity and time to actually sit down and write it down. Maybe once per month or so. I try to make space for that using my slack days, and when things match up, I often end up with a really nice article to share with the world.

So that’s it. Writing is my blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because it makes me feel good and generates very interesting and well-paid work, and because creative flow is such a pleasure to be in. It’s a curse because I can’t stop the voice in my head, it’s always thinking and analyzing and talking about stuff. Sometimes I can make it shut up by doing something very presence-demanding, like playing with kids or cooking a new type of meal, jamming with a band, or having a conversation with someone. But mostly it just keeps on rambling until I sit down and actually write the darned article.

There. That’s it. I just finished the brain dump. Feels great. I’m not done, still need to do some editing. (mostly done with that now I think, gonna leave the text pretty raw) But the critical part is over, I’ve captured the essence of the monologue that was in my head. Now it won’t be lost.

I’m in bed, at a hotel. I was planning to read a book, but I ended up writing this article instead. Tomorrow or the day after I’ll go back and polish up the text, figure out a title, and maybe fiddle with the ending. Then I’ll probably put it up on my blog. We’ll see. Goodnight!

Breakfast time. Good morning!
(laughing out loud at what a crazy meta-article this is…)

/Henrik

7 Comments

  • 1
    Mattias
    October 20, 2013 - 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Loved it. Thanks for sharing. :)

  • 2
    Mårten
    October 21, 2013 - 8:23 am | Permalink

    Very inspiring read!

  • 3
    October 21, 2013 - 8:51 am | Permalink

    LOL. Mindless music FTW.

    Can relate to much of what you describe.

  • 4
    Joe Little
    November 3, 2013 - 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I hate this post! Because it is too much how I write! (smile)

    And sometimes our inner thoughts are useful to others. Hard to predict, but wonderful when it happens.

    Best regards, Joe

  • 5
    CK
    November 5, 2013 - 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting
    It’s a testimony of a non-structured flow of creativity against writing a plan and so-on cold process.

    Not to compare but I heard that was the way that Mozart was composing: everything in fact was ready in his head before writing down.

    Very inspiring despite this two-weeks duration for three amazing hits! Grr

  • 6
    Nazar
    January 9, 2014 - 11:30 pm | Permalink

    very -very bright post, i must share it!

  • 7
    June 14, 2014 - 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this great post! My big take away will help me to get back into blogging. In the beginning it was OK to be topic driven, but this then locked me into the mindset of having to think of a topic for a post first. So thanks your article unblocked my mind.
    Secondly it helped me iterate a notion that I had for a few weeks. At my full-time contracting job I have no slack whatsoever so I thought I take a few days of in one block every calendar quarter to use as professional slack time. The iteration will be that I think I should take a ‘slack day’ per month or two in order to do that. Otherwise too much stuff accumulates in my mind that I’d like to do.

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