While Coffee & Pens is mainly about publishing books and learning from people who are a step ahead, it’s wrong to think other writers don’t have anything of value to share. That’s why every month, I listen to five prolific writers I admire and ask them about their secrets for inspiration and consistency.
This is the third edition with Johna, Sharissa, Dylan, John Paul and Mohit.
Johna Baylon: Johna is a freelance journalist and copywriter. She has written for magazines in Manila, ad agencies in Hong Kong and Canadian newspapers like The Toronto Star.
Sharissa Kuurstra: Sharissa, aka The Content Warrior, loves chocolate, plays rugby, writes posts on Medium and works as an online marketer at a Dutch startup.
Dylan Redekop: Dylan creates and curates content for creators. His newsletter is one of the fastest-growing email lists I’ve ever seen.
John Paul Hernandez: John works as a copywriter for a non-profit. He has been writing daily for clients for ages. Since November, he’s also tweeted daily for himself. Together with Jessie, he leads his own cohort-based course: Build My House Club.
Their inspiration sources
Johna: “I find that a lot of ideas come from the doing the work itself: researching stories to pitch, interviewing people, transcribing those interviews, and then drafting stories. Reading news and feature stories in other beats, such as tech and culture, also inspires new ideas by leading me to ask: is there an angle here that impacts newcomers or some relevant policy? Some ideas also come from unrelated conversations—dots seem to find ways to connect during moments like these. I also find ideas from reading other pieces on the internet, often trending essays or feature articles on Twitter. I think my desire to write and tell stories largely results from the joy I derive from reading. So as far as inspiration goes, I get a lot of it from books—my go-to’s at the moment are short story and essay collections, as well as crime thrillers—and magazines.”
Sharissa: “Mostly from my work. I worked as a content marketer for 1.5 years, studied Business Communication & Digital Media at the same time, and just started as Online Marketer. My daily tasks and how things are organised and handled within the company are great inspiration sources. And of course, my Twitter friends post great content!”
Dylan: “I get inspiration from my life experiences and all the amazing creators and marketers in Twitter sharing their wealth of knowledge.”
John Paul: “Inspiration is hard. I often find that when I feel stuck or creator’s block, it’s because I haven’t stepped away from my computer or notepad. I think of Henry David Thoreau when he said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
Busyness, technology, and stress can be real killers of creativity. When we take a step back and “live”, curiosity can flourish. Curiosity is what fuels the creative thinking needed for inspiration and ideas.
I like to ride my bike in rural areas or the beach to spark creativity. While I read heavily, I make it a point to read fiction. Fiction expands our imagination and enriches our emotions. I also like to hang out with like-minded people and people from a different background. The first group keeps me accountable and I can bounce ideas back and forth. The latter group gives new ideas and perspectives. I also enjoy hobbies that promote solitude, which helps me think clearly, like gardening.”
Mohit: “Most of the best ideas I’ve ever had, I had them in my dreams. For a few years now, I’ve started optimising my sleep routine for better dreams. It includes, reading at least two unrelated blog posts on the internet, and listening to music from different genres a few hours before going to bed. Chaos in head lead to chaotic dreams, where often the inspiration stares straight into my eyes.”
Prolific writing advice
- Read a lot and pay attention to the author’s language as you do. I think this also applies in journalism. Reading widely and actively helps you identify what you find most compelling in a story (subject matter, style of journalism, etc), and these insights help in generating ideas, knowing which ones to pursue (that is, to pitch), and cultivating a niche or beat to specialize in.
- If you can, seek out or work with editors who’ll give you honest, constructive feedback. I can count the number of editors who’ve pulled no punches in pointing out everything from careless mistakes to bad turns of phrases in my work. They could’ve done it more nicely, granted, but that they did it at all have helped me immensely. Praise is great, but it doesn’t quite sharpen your eye for good writing the way constructive feedback does!
- Give yourself time between completing a draft and editing that draft. (And yes: edit your work!) The writer brain’s goals differ from the editor brain’s; the time in between ensures the latter is sharp for the rewriting, cutting, and restructuring necessary to turn something good into something great.
- Just do it! Write a piece of content, publish it, ask for feedback, and analyse the results.
- Experiment with your writing – different lengths, tone of voice, using visuals/videos, layout of your content.
- Be patient. Some content won’t perform as well as you hoped it would, but becoming a good writer takes time. So keep trying, keep improving, and results will come.
- Have a solid idea capturing system.
- Write daily
- Publish as much as you possibly can!
- Outline your work. Far too often I see beginner writers have an inspiring idea but when they start writing they get lost. It’s like driving without a road and GPS. Outlines force you to develop an actual thesis that you want to support and plan out what you will write. I like to do this in a separate sitting before I write my first draft. I can literally 3x my output when I do this.
- Write something every day. Whether it is a tweet, an essay, or comments on a forum, make sure you write. Put in your reps and be consistent. I am amazed at how much I have improved when I look a year or two back. It’s like any muscle, the more you use it, the better you get.
- Invest in yourself. Read, read, read. Watch enriching shows and other media. When you invest in yourself through education, you build a strong foundation for your work. I read 60-80 books a year. I try to pick works with quality. Without even noticing it, the thousands of pages I consume each year influence my original thinking and creative ideas for my content.
- Don’t think too much before starting to write. Writing is thinking. Once you’ll start writing, you’ll start finding better ideas in your head.
- Write at equal intervals without skipping. Be it once a day, week, or month, but it definitely should be at least ONCE a day, week, or month. Pick your pace, and stick with it.
- Don’t run away from bad writing. Good writing comes from the bad writing. Do the bad writing, just to reach the good writing.
Their ultimate writing tip:
Johna: “I’ve found that it helps to truly love and enjoy writing and reading as activities in and of themselves. I don’t write short stories, essays, or memoirs professionally (just yet!), but giving myself time and permission to pursue these forms of writing certainly fuels the journalism and content writing work that I do. One feeds into the other, which then feeds back into the other. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s a system that’s worked for me, and as boring as it sounds I do mean it when I say I write for work—and for fun, too.
Sharissa: “Create an outline, do your research, start writing anything you know about a topic, and then at the end (or the day or a few days after) edit and leave out redundant information.”
Dylan: “Approach your work from the perspective of an explorer rather than an expert to defeat imposter syndrome and nothing will hold you back.”
John Paul: “Inspired by Hemingway’s concept of writing your truest sentence… write for your authentic self. If you write true to yourself, no troll, criticism, or self-doubt can win. You are a writer sharing your own experiences. There’s something beautiful in that.”
Mohit: “I don’t think what I will be writing about before I sit down to write. I let the blank page stare at me to pull out the writing from within me.”
What was your favourite piece of advice?