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The secret techniques and tools of successful book writers

Writers are always curious to know about other writers’ routines and habits – and the different tools and techniques they use to capture ideas and turn them into a narrative.

Do they rise early and write for three hours every day like Anthony Trollope, write in secret like Jane Austen, or after dark like Franz Kafka?

Do they use digital tools and apps to capture ideas and inspiration … or do they prefer physical notebooks and paper or cards stuck on the wall, in folders or in boxes?

Do they use standard word processing software – or a specialist writer's app?

Steven Johnson – whose books include Farsighted, Wonderland and How We Got To Now – has been interviewing writers and creative people for a fascinating series of blog posts exploring the different workflows they use.

Cover of Farsighted by Steven Johnson

He kicked it off with a post about his own battle with the design of word-processing software and his two-decade-long quest to find a better system for book writing.

Word processors were initially designed with business users in mind – people writing linear documents from start to finish. Johnson says that's fine if you're writing an office memo or business plan, but not for "long, complex, and structurally open-ended documents like non-fiction books or novels".

For book writers, he says: “In the initial stage you have hunches and fragments: a hint of an idea for a character, or an historical theme, a quote from a book you’ve read as early stage research. These fragments are often only tangentially related to each other, and usually have no intrinsic sequence to them. They’re just floating around in your head or your notebooks.”

Over time, Johnson says, fragments coalesce into coherent ideas: “A character comes into view; and an interesting explanation for some historical trend becomes clear to you. As they do, they send you off on further paths of investigation.”

Finding one tool that fits all stages of the writing process is tricky. Writers tend to use different tools at different stages: notebooks, phones, index cards or digital apps like Evernote to capture initial ideas; pen and paper, laptops, and writing software like Scrivener for first drafts and beyond.

“For many authors, the switch from idea generation to actual writing is marked by a shift from the physical world to the digital: they keep their ideas in notebooks or index cards, and only move into the realm of software when the fragments have turned into narratives," says Johnson.

In his quest to avoid multiple tools, Johnson has become a big fan of Scrivener. While he thinks it has "way too many features", he gives tips in his blog post on how to use it in the ideas/hunches/research phase of a book as well as in the assembly and writing of it.

So what has he been finding as he talks to other writers?

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, also uses Scrivener – but she pins physical index cards to a big wall to help her structure and get a sense of the overall shape of the book. She colour codes the index cards to track different narratives.

Cover of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

“I use actual index cards – paper stuck to the wall index cards – for thinking about structure. I did that for The Immortal Life; I had three different narratives that were braided together, and each one had a different color in the index card system."

She says the wall of cards helps her to look at all the scenes at once.

In the research phase of a book she fills lots of notebooks with copious notes, makes audio recordings, and takes hundreds of photos.

Like Johnson, she's constantly looking for new ways to store and sort all the things she can't keep in her head.

"I have these two different quests: please let me find some piece of software that can be the brain that I don’t have, the one that can remember everything and organize all this stuff outside of my head. And then there’s this other quest: finding some tool to just help me write."

When she writes she puts on a "weird playlist of fast-beat, lounge-y foreign language dance music " – music with an intense beat but nothing to distract her.

Daniel H. Pink, whose books include Drive, When and To Sell Is Human, says he's "very old-fashioned" and uses Microsoft Word for writing the actual book – but he's become a big fan of Dropbox for squirrelling away interesting articles he comes across or things that might turn into an idea for a book.

He says: "When I have an idea or see something that might be the germ of an idea, I’ll throw it in there, or I might throw it into Evernote."

Cover of When – The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

Every six months or so he goes through the folders out of curiosity and prunes them – taking away the ideas that "absolutely suck" and keeping the ones that endure.

He says he also uses a lot of paper – things he's collected or printed out – and stores it all in labelled expandable files.

He does his writing in the morning – aiming for 700 words with no distractions when he's at his most creative – and does his filing and emails in the afternoon trough.

Kevin Kelly, author of The Inevitable and founding executive editor Wired magazine, uses Evernote to capture interesting things he's read on the Web , and he uses Scrivener for larger projects to organise.

Cover of The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly

He says he doesn't enjoy the process of writing and uses a piece of Gregorian chant music on loop to create a sort of mantra that helps him zone out distractions.

And he tends to writes at night – "During the day I’ll do research, do interviews, do reading. I just find the psychological interruptions difficult."

The full blog posts make for an intriguing read or listen – find them in the Workflow section of Stephen Johnson's Medium blog.

Squirrel away your writing stuff


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