I’m always hooked by articles about becoming a more efficient writer. Most of them don’t disappoint: they’re full of good practical tips – for example, stay focused, avoid negative self-talk, find your best time of day to work, and so on.
The other day, while thinking about this issue, I looked up the word “efficient” and read the following definition: maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort. I have to say that it made me shudder. It made me think I don’t want to be an efficient writer after all.
The fact is, I am not productive to the max in the sense of being prolific. I’m not able to churn out books and articles one after the other, no matter how often I write at my best time of day. It takes time for my ideas to steep, like tea leaves having a long soak to produce the richest flavor. Sometimes, I put a piece of writing aside for a while. I daydream a lot. I rest.
Here’s a confession: I just released a book, and I don’t have a new book proposal ready to go out. I don’t even have one in the works. I feel like I should, but I just don’t. I need a little time to lie fallow.
But in the end, I’m not too bothered by this because I believe that steeping and daydreaming and waiting are key parts of the writing process. I’m going to go a step further and say that I’m being productive when I engage in these activities. Simply put, they help me produce. My writing will not go where I want it to go without them.
A few years ago, author Leslie Leyland Fields wrote a post entitled “The Slow-Writing Revolt.” Her words resonate with my thoughts about efficiency (or the lack thereof). She encourages writers to “slow down. M a r i n a t e. Wait. Sometimes even—stop. Sometimes even—say No.” Leyland Fields calls it “marinating” while I call it “steeping,” but the idea is the same. It takes time for the good stuff to come.
I recently talked with Jonathan Rogers of The Habit podcast, and during our conversation he said something very interesting: Being too efficient can stifle creativity. Going straight for that one source you’ve pinpointed for your project means that you may miss other sources and ideas along the way. One of the best ways to aid new discoveries is wandering the stacks in a library. I did this many times during my graduate studies at the University of Chicago. On my way to a particular book, I took the time to let my eye wander over nearby book titles and discovered valuable information I wouldn’t have found any other way. It was time consuming but completely worth it.
Fellow writers, be encouraged that inefficiency is a virtue. Steeping and daydreaming and resting are legitimate parts of the writing process. Even if words aren’t flowing from the pen (or marching across the computer screen), things are likely happening behind the scenes, in your heart and mind.
A couple caveats:
- Please note that I’m distinguishing steeping from procrastination. They are very different things. Don’t procrastinate—even though I do it all the time.
- I understand that the need for a paycheck may complicate my arguments. Sometimes a writer may have to be efficient to put bread on the table. But I still think all writers should take time to daydream and wander through their mind palaces.
I summarized my points in this list – The 7 Habits of Highly Inefficient Writers
- Steep (your ideas) – let them develop a rich flavor
- Wait – it’s ok to put your project aside for a better time
- Daydream – get lost in your mind palace and dream up new ideas for your writing
- Rest – fill the well by taking time off when you need it
- Wander (the library stacks) – see what you discover by exploring with no particular goal in mind
- Say no – feel free to decline a writing project if it’s not the right one or the right time
- Live life – writing is intertwined with life, so don’t hesitate to enjoy your friends and loved ones, laugh, and be fully engaged in all the pleasures and responsibilities of daily life
Write on — inefficiently. Creatively. And well.