You know it’s not fair.
How can top bloggers write several quality blog posts a week while you struggle to produce just one?
Why are you finding it so difficult to research and finish your first book when other authors are releasing lengthier works every year?
What are your peers doing to become more productive than you, even though you know you work harder?
Writing is a difficult profession and it’s natural to feel frustrated (and even a little jealous), when others appear to accomplish more than you and with less effort.
There’s a simple but effective secret to becoming a more productive writer. Copywriters, authors and successful writers all keep a personal library. The good news is you already have the skills to create one and it doesn’t take a lot of extra work.
1. Create a Commonplace Book
Commonplace books were a personal, pre-internet repository of letters, medical information, quotes, facts, experiences, anecdotes and histories. They were also a way for families and communities to sort knowledge about their lives.
Historical figures, authors and poets like Marcus Aurelius, John Milton and Thomas Jefferson kept commonplace books. More recently, the author Ryan Holiday described how a commonplace book helped him write The Obstacle is the Way, saying:
“The purpose of the [commonplace] book is to record and organise these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”
Holiday prefers a paper-based system for his commonplace book, but you could use digital tools like Evernote or Simplenote. Whatever your choice, in your commonplace book record:
* day-to-day knowledge and wisdom
At the end of the week review your commonplace book and see if there are useful ideas you can extract and turn into something fresh.
This way, the wisdom you’re gathering will sink into your writing projects.
2. Use a Swipe File
In the season 7 premier of Mad Men, Don Draper tears a car ad out of Playboy and puts in his pocket. His wife tells him not to not ruin her magazine, but what the episode doesn’t show is the moment where Don takes this ad and puts it in his swipe file.
Don knows it’s better to build on what’s already out there than it is to reinvent the wheel every time (how else could he spend his time drinking, sleeping and hooking up?).
A swipe file is a place where you store facts, figures, headlines and ads relating to your industry. It’s a repository of information which, if it’s not relevant to your current writing project, will be of use at some point in the future.
Copywriters and advertisers use swipe files to keep ideas, research and information that they can use for future campaigns. A swipe file differs to a commonplace book in that it’s less about you and more about the work of your peers.
You could swipe:
* Headlines and first lines
* Inspiring videos and pictures (Pinterest is a social swipe file)
* Compelling emails
The copywriter and salesperson Dan S. Kennedy writes about swipe files in The Ultimate Sales Letter, saying that his huge “idea files” of “themes, words and phrases” helps him write sales letters.
Every productive non-fiction writer can make life easier by swiping and remixing old ideas to inform their work and to avoid burnout.
3. Have a system for annotations
If you’re a non-fiction writer, then you’ve had the frustrating experience of having to stop writing, look for a book and find a quote or fact to back up your work. This interrupts the process of writing.
You can get around this problem by annotating what you read, and then storing these annotations within your commonplace book or swipe file.
I annotate books by highlighting passages on my Kindle. I also record observations in Evernote, using Michael Hyatt’s method.
There’s nothing wrong with annotating books with a pen either. You could use color-coded stickies or Post-it notes so that these annotations are easy to find.
Prior to making annotations, I used to spend time searching old books for quotes that I half-remembered and points I wasn’t sure about. Now, when I’m writing an article or blog post, I return to my annotations for inspiration, for advice to back up a point.
Annotations will also get you to consider what makes a great sentence or argument, what makes a poor one and how accomplished writers succeed.
What you need to do next
Becoming the type of writer who comes up with an idea, puts it on the page and then finishes what they started is hard work. When you picked this craft for a profession you knew this, but you also know it’s important work.
If you want to become more productive, write an observation about an article you read in your commonplace book. Take a headline from a blog post you like, and put it in your swipe file. Finish that book you picked up about copywriting, and annotate the best bits.
Then, go out there and finish something.
Bryan Collins is on a mission to teach people how to become writers and finish what they started with A Handbook for the Productive Writer. He makes his online home at BecomeAWriterToday.com.
Upper photo from Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net