What does writing look like? Monty Python famously imagined it as a spectator sport, ‘local boy’ Thomas Hardy making a start on The Return of the Native in front of ‘a very good-natured Bank Holiday crowd… he is writing fluently, easily, with flowing strokes of the pen as he comes up to the middle of this first sentence…’
Today we probably think more of someone banging furiously on a keyboard, a cup of coffee cooling, forgotten, by their side. ‘Just over 3,000 words today,’ they might announce, smugly, as they get up and stretch their cramped limbs.
Well, it is, of course. If you’re going to write anything of substance, sooner or later there’s going to be some keyboard-banging or old-fashioned strokes of the pen involved.
But just because you don’t have a nice round number of words to brag about at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean you haven’t been engaged in the bigger process of writing something that matters. If we’ve learned anything in the Practical Inspiration virtual writing retreat, it’s that the writing process is so much more than keyboard-banging.
In fact, let’s dispense with the baggage-laden word ‘writing’ altogether for now, and think instead about ‘write-brained activity’, by which I mean anything that moves us forwards in the work of creating whatever written output we’re aiming to create: might be a book, might be something else — a course, talk, blog, article, company-wide memo, whatever.
Write-brained activity moves us from a starting-point that is internal and unclear — the itch of a thought, a sense of what matters — to an endpoint that gives the idea external shape, that has clarity and persuasive power, and which can impact people you’ve never met across time and space. And this can involve lots of processes that don’t look much like writing at all.
I’d argue that there are four modes of write-brained activity. We move from exploration, which starts as an internal process with little clarity, through to expression — externally focused, expressing an idea to others with as much clarity as we can muster. Along the way we move through expansion (focused on gaining more clarity) and engagement (focused on involving others, both to test our ideas and to get their buy-in).
In reality of course there are no firm dividing lines between these four modes, but there are activities that are characteristic of each.
In exploration mode we might be free-writing, journaling, creating mind-maps, highlighting relevant ideas in others’ work, making notes, formulating questions, thinking. In the Monty Python sketch there’s a few anxious moments for the crowd as Hardy appears to lose his way: ‘[he’s] crossed out the only word he has written so far and he is gazing off into space. Ohh! Oh dear, he’s signed his name again.’ Exploration can look worrying like not much at all, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
As we gain more clarity we expand our ideas by creating models and visual representations (like the matrix above, in fact!), or by breaking down our initial broad concepts in a more granular, detailed way. We try out metaphors and find stories that illustrate what we’re trying to articulate, we flesh out the idea into a full book proposal.
As we move into engagement, we take those models and metaphors into discussion with others, we engage in research and appreciative inquiry, or simply ask for feedback. As our ideas crystallise we move into beta testing and focus groups.
And gradually, as we gain more confidence and clarity, we move into expression — we write/rewrite the book or the memo or the report, and we put it out into the world.
And if we’re lucky, it will become the starting point for someone else’s write-brained journey.
At Practical Inspiration, we know that helping people with something to say work their way through this write-brained process is one of the best jobs in the world. If you’re planning on writing a book, one of the most powerful tools in your ‘expand’ kitbag is creating a book proposal; it forces you to articulate who the book is for, the problem it’s solving, the distinctive approach you’re taking, and why it matters.
I’ll be kicking off the 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge again on 14 September, why not sign up now, and discover how to be more write-brained?
And if you’d like to hear more about what people learned in the most recent virtual writing retreat — including the revelation that ‘planning is writing’ — have a listen here…
Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is founder of Practical Inspiration Publishing, a pioneering publishing partner for businesses, and host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club, a podcast and community for writers and readers of extraordinary business books. A veteran of the publishing industry, she regularly speaks and writes on the business of books. She sits on the board of the Independent Publishers Guild and is Head Judge of the Business Book Awards. She is the author of This Book Means Business (2018) and is currently writing a book on write-brained leadership.