Wondering how to choose your next writing project from among every note you've ever scrawled sideways in a journal?
This is a place where writers often find themselves circling. And by circling I mean stuck.
Can science help us here? Social science fascinates me, I must admit. Sometimes I have to read it twice (3x?) to understand it, but I am a sucker for a good research study, especially in the area of creativity. I’m constantly on the lookout to learn new things I can apply to my writing life.
Recently, I’ve been reading up on personality and how that might affect the choices I make as a writer.
Apparently, contemporary psychologists take the Big Five personality traits as a given at this point. Their focus is now on whether the traits are on a spectrum, or within a range, whether they shift depending on environment or over time, and whether our behaviour is biologically determined.
So if this is how psychologists think our personalities work, then how does a writer’s personality affect her creative life?
Having found an interesting study, I’m now going to bastardize it completely in order to make it useful for you and me. Come on along for the ride. :-)
In 2014, Guillaume Fürst, Paolo Ghisletta and Todd Lubart reported on their study on creativity in The Journal of Creative Behaviour. (Volume 50, Issue 2 if you’d like to look it up.)
These researchers were looking for a model of creativity that pulls together what’s known about personality traits with what’s known about how we think. From the bazillion factors that are measured under the Big Five personality traits (okay, there are “only” 44: still feels like a lot to me), they grouped some of these into 3 categories of personality traits:
Plasticity: high openness, extraversion, energy, and inspiration.
Divergence: low agreeableness and conscientiousness, high non-conformity and impulsivity.
Convergence: high ambition, precision, persistence and critical sense.
They also took the idea that creativity has two “process factors” – Generation (producing ideas), and Selection (evaluating ideas and turning them into an artistic project) – and looked at how the different personality traits mix it up with the process factors.
Basically: how does who we are as individual humans affect how we come to the creativity process? (See, told you it could be useful. Stay with me!)
What they found was: Plasticity and Convergence predicted Generation.
Whassa mean? Essentially, if you are someone who’s highly open (curious, imaginative, perceptive, etc) and also somewhat extroverted (which includes traits like being articulate and energetic) AND you are also ambitious and persistent, then you are good at generating ideas. Probably lots of ideas, I’m guessing, right? ALL OF THE IDEAS ALL THE TIME.
This is so me: I have 8 new ideas before breakfast. And it can be exhausting because I can’t do everything, and that annoys the heck out of me. I tend to beat up on myself a little bit for not being able to act on all of these good ideas.
But the researchers also discovered another interesting fact about their new model. (Researchers love new models even more than they love a matrix! Sometime they put the new model into a matrix and that really turns them on.)
They also found that Convergence positively predicted Selection. This means that the ability to develop a critical sense, to be precise in thought and to persist – these are the kinds of skills required to know how to choose which idea to work on.
And that is interesting to me because these are things that can be developed: we develop our critical sense by reading, by interacting with other writers, and we can also learn to persist and to allow ourselves to pursue ambitious artistic goals.
Then these same researchers determined that it’s the mix between idea generation and the ability to evaluate and act on these ideas that predicts how intensively we pursue our artistic projects, and our achievements with them. The ability to go back and forth all the time between cool new ideas and then evaluate, choose and settle in with one particular project and see it develop is critical to achieving anything with our art.
Choosing is important. If you’re flitting back and forth between projects, unable to dedicate yourself fully to one, you are not going to make much progress. We know this instinctively as writers – right?? -- but there is pain in choosing, pain in leaving other good ideas behind, at least for now.
It’s also possible to fear we’ve chosen the wrong project – which keeps us circling in an uncommitted loop and unable to make real progress.
So as I read it, these researchers are essentially saying that first you generate all the good ideas, and then you choose. But how to choose? Based on my own process, I’ve put together a 5-step process to help you choose your next writing project.
For this exercise, you need a set of index cards and some space to lay them out, such as your writing desk or a table or piece of floor you can take over for at least a full day. If you prefer, you can use Post-It Notes and stick them on a wall as you do this exercise. (Love those office supplies!)
Start by making an inventory of all of your current writing ideas. Write each separate project or idea on its own card. Make sure you capture everything: comb through your notebooks and journals, any notes you may have taken and set aside for later. Don’t worry about what “counts” as a fully-fledged idea – that doesn’t matter at this stage. Just do a brain dump and get them all down.
You might have a few cards in front of you, or there might be a lot of them. Either way, it can feel overwhelming sometimes to have so much choice. But that’s okay: you’re not committed to anything just yet and you don’t have to work on all of these. Just breathe deep breaths in and out as you cast your eyes over all of the ideas and projects in front of you. Don’t choose right now, just breathe. Let it be easy.
Next, don’t do anything. Leave the cards where you’ve put them – on your desk, or up on a wall if you’re using Post-It Notes. For the next 24 hours, you’re going to just leave them all there where you’ve put them. You can come back a few times to read them, but you are still not yet choosing.
Your only job for a full 24 hours is to notice what emotions come up as you read what you’re written on the cards and as you think about these ideas. Name the emotions for yourself and try to get clear on which emotions are attached to which projects. (Bonus points for napping with the index cards at this point in the process. Napping is an essential writing skill. #truth)
After a day has passed and you’ve let all of these ideas sink in a little bit, and are aware of your emotional response to them, now we’ll get down to the selection process. On each of the cards or Post-Its, write down the emotion attached to that idea or project. (I use a different colour for this, even multiple colours to signal different emotions. But you do you!)
Once you’ve done that, step back to look at all of the ideas again. Now you are looking specifically for a sense of excitement or anticipation that you can build on to generate some momentum in your project. Among all of these, is there a sense of excitement for one or two particular projects over others? If so, set those aside from the rest.
You can select up to 3 projects at this stage, but no more. (I’ve got my eye on all you people who want 3a and 3b: No.)
You have now made conscious the choice to NOT develop those other projects, at least not right now. You might come back to them later when you’ve finished your next project but not before that: put them in an envelope and stick them in the back of a drawer somewhere.
Right now, these are no longer project options for you and keeping them present in your mind just provides a distraction and excuse not to focus on one primary project so that you can make real progress. Back of a drawer, back of a closet, back of your storage locker…and for the really brave? Burn them. If they’re still there as ideas when you finish the next project, then they are worth coming back to. Your essential ideas will never be lost.
You should now be looking at a maximum of 3 projects in front of you.
From here, it may be evident to you that one of these excites you more than the others: if so, congratulations, that’s your choice! Settle in and make a plan to work on it until the first draft is finished.
If you think that they are all still equal for you, then I want to challenge you to go further. Imagine yourself going deep into writing each one – what do you feel now?
And if you really can’t decide, then brace yourself: flip a coin. Heads it's your urban fantasy novel, tails it's the short story collection that riffs off hard rock lyrics. Flip that coin until you have one project left in front of you. Congratulations, you just committed to your next writing project!
Now I’d like you to stick with that project, ideally to completion, but for at least the next 90 days before moving onto another shiny new thing.
By now if you’ve done this entire process and you still don’t feel great about your chosen project, then you know something really important: it was never about the specific projects or about your ability to choose. Honey, maybe you are just afraid of writing period right now. And that’s okay, it happens to all of us from time to time, and it doesn’t have to be forever. What if you pick one of your projects anyway and tell yourself that you’re just playing around to see what might come up in a draft? Start writing, observe yourself and see what happens.
If you work in multiple genres, it may be possible to work on 2 projects. For example, writing individual poems from time to time while staying primarily focussed on completing your novel. The point of this exercise is to identify for yourself one primary writing project that you will focus on all the way to completion.
One more thing about that study before I sign off…
To be honest, I’m a little suspicious about tossing extraversion into the mix for artists. As a writer, I feel like being an introvert is an essential ingredient for idea generation and for selecting and refining those ideas. I’m a social introvert when I have to be, but still introverted.
This aspect of my personality just seems to get more intense as I get older, as does my ability to focus and get things done. However, in this study it turns out that the sociability related to extraversion isn’t as important as things like enthusiasm, confidence and ambition. And I don’t think either of those three are fixed: we can develop and foster those characteristics.
When Scott Kaufman wrote about this study in Scientific American, he described the inherent “messiness” of the creative mind. (I’ve put that in quotes because the pejorative annoys me: messy is bad, right?)
But Kaufman points out that these traits all interact with each other and cause tension throughout the creative process and that this is perfectly fine, even expected:
“Those who are capable of reaching the heights of human creative expression are those who have the capacity for all of these characteristics and behaviours within themselves and are flexibly able to switch back and forth between them depending on the stage of the creative process, and what’s most adaptive in the moment.”
That quote is a bit long for cross-stitching on a pillow but it does make a heck of a lot of sense to me.
What about you? Do you find it hard to switch gears and choose a primary writing project to focus on for any length of time? I’d love to hear about your experience and any tips you have for how to choose your next writing project. Come find me on my FaceBook page and we can chat some more about it.