Expert Interview: Confident Content Creation
Hey there, welcome back to How to Write and Publish Your EBook. We've been talking about how to actually go about and take the writing that you've already done, thousands and thousands and thousands of words, whether they're in the form of blog posts or transcripts, webinars, keynote presentations, and fit them into your outline so that you can write your book the fastest way possible, which is to not write a whole ton of new content. You've already got that book written. We're, basically, right now, we're just kinda weaving it together, distilling it down into the outline that you've created based on that perfect topic idea that we created in step one. So, in terms of writing books fast, and in terms of writing lots of content, there is no one I know that is better suited to talk to us about this than Srini Rao. Srini is the host of the Unmistakable Creative Podcast, but he's also the author of The Art of Being Unmistakable. He's got another book coming out really really soon. But he ...
is the only Wall Street Journal best selling author that I know personally. And so, I wanted to make sure that you got to talk to him, you got to see what his perspective was, how he approaches writing, how his podcast has affected the way he writes and what he produces, what he's learned from all of that. And so Srini, let's bring up Srini and welcome him to our class here.
Thanks, it's good to be with you.
Hey Srini, how's it going?
I'm well, how's it going?
Excellent. So you produce a lot of content, right?
You produce tons and tons and tons of content. Facebook posts, blog posts, podcasts, writing all over the place. Can you tell us what your daily writing practice looks like?
Yeah, absolutely. It's fitting for us to be having a conversation about this because my entire next book is actually about this. It's called One Thousand Words a Day. So that, you know, is a precursor to what my writing practice looks like. So I am actually sitting in the very room that I do everything in at the moment. In all honesty, most of it is driven entirely by habit. It's really repetitive, it's incredibly mechanical. Like, on a day-to-day basis, it's not very interesting, but, you know, I always say, repetitive like a mechanic, spontaneous like an artist. And it's something that basically started because I found myself in this situation where I was writing for a startup that had asked me to consult with them on content marketing. I was having to produce podcasts for this and I was also writing for another blog that I was getting paid for. And I realized that I didn't have enough ideas on a daily basis to be able to just do that, so I remembered something that somebody I'd interviewed told me. They said, "a thousand words a day, rain or shine." And that was Julian Smith, who, at the time, had built one of the most popular blogs on the internet. So I thought, okay, maybe he's onto something here. So I'm just gonna do this, I'm gonna write a thousand words every day, and I'm gonna do it every single morning. And we can talk about, sort of, how I've set everything up to make it possible, because that plays a big role in all of this. So I just started writing a thousand words every single morning no matter what, and eventually, that just led to this very prolific body of work. It led to The Art of Being Unmistakable, which I literally wrote through a series of Facebook status updates and then compiled into a book, uploaded to Amazon and called it a book. And, you know, hundreds of posts on Medium, and then, of course, fast forward to two years later, all of that leads to a book deal with a publisher. I wrote a 45,000 word manuscript in six months. There's another post on medium about how I did that that, you know, if you guys wanna link up, you can read that. So it's all driven by a daily habit more than anything else. So I'll walk you through sort of my daily routine, and then we can get into specifics and tease it apart a bit. So I wake up pretty much at the same time every day. I'm a morning person, I always have been. Part of it is I'm an avid surfer and waves are good in the morning, they're lousy in the afternoon because it gets windy, and that's why surfers can't have real jobs. So, you know, in addition to that, I meditate right when I wake up, and then after I finish meditating, I write in a gratitude journal. The other thing that I do, and this was something that I picked up from a writer named Dani Shapiro, she said "fill your ears with the music of good sentences." So I spend anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes reading, and I'll often read things that I've read before. Every now and then I'll just pick up Steven Pressfield's The War of Art and I'll thumb through it and read passages. And this is another trick that I use. Sometimes I won't start with my own words, I'll just write down a quote so at least I have something on the page, because often I think the thing that traps most people is just putting something down on the page. It's so daunting 'cause you're staring, you know, at this blank page. Unlike other art forms, you don't have material to work with. You have to create the material that you're working with. So I always read something, then I write by hand in a moleskin notebook for 20 to 30 minutes. A lot of it is pretty bad. Most of it is pretty bad, actually. And then, probably about an hour in, I turn on the computer. I try not to have any devices turned on for the first hour of the day. Because devices create a lot of inflow into your life, and they create a lot of input, whereas, I think, to really think creatively, to write and to be prolific, you have to be able to shut off that inflow for some period of time. And that's why I think the mornings are really critical. So really, it comes down to several things. A very set time, a set space, and then, of course, a ritual that you follow on a daily basis. And then, of course, one of the things that happens as a byproduct of these rituals is that you start to build momentum. And I, like I can't stop writing because I'm very terrified of losing the momentum that I have. And it's a lot harder, so let's say I take five weeks off from writing, it would be a lot harder to get started again, as opposed to just writing 1,000 words. And the other thing I think it does is it removes the pressure to be good on any given day. So, you know, I said that the secret to being a good writer is to being a prolific one, because that way, so let's say I write 1,000 words, there's 365 days in a year, that's 365,000 words, just do the math. Maybe 50,000 of that is usable for a book, which means only about 10 percent of what I write is actually any good. Almost all the rest of it is terrible. So that's, in a nutshell, the process. But we can tease it apart even more, because there are really specific hacks that, you know, I've implemented that make it possible so I never miss a day.
Yeah, how about just one of those hacks, 'cause I wanna make sure we have time for questions from the audience as well. But I would love to hear one of them.
Okay, so, this I actually stole from a happiness researcher named Shawn Achor, so I have to give credit where credit is due. In his book The Happiness Advantage, Shawn wrote about a concept called activation energy. And the basic idea behind activation energy is this, that the more energy it takes to do something, the less likely you are to do it. So this is why, often, when you have financial problems, advisors recommend that you freeze your credit cards, because thawing a credit card out of an ice block is a very time consuming process. Therefore, you're less likely to actually spend using the credit card. So what Shawn figured out is that he wanted to practice the guitar. And just the act of putting the guitar outside of his closet on a stand, instead of in the closet, drastically increased the amount that he practiced. So how does this apply to writing? I set everything that I am going to use for writing, I set it all up the night before. So when I wake up in the morning and I get to my desk, my notebook is there. Just the act of having the notebook there drastically increases the likelihood that you'll actually write. And if you're not somebody who enjoys writing physically, here's how you can do it on the computer. I use distraction-free writing software. One that I use is called MacJournal, but there's Scribner and there's a whole bunch of other stuff. What I do is, or what you can do with a computer is you can actually set it up so that, before you close your laptop, you actually have the software open, so the first thing you see in the morning is a blank screen with, you know, green text. You can even put a quote on there, which is another thing, because your brain accelerates towards a goal based on the progress that it thinks it's made towards it. Again, you know, gotta give credit to Shawn Achor for that one. So sometimes, when I wanna really trick myself into 1,000 words, I'll actually have a quote and I'll set up the quote the night before. I open the laptop, the first thing I see is this black screen, green text and a quote, and I just get to it. So that's one of the most effective things that I've done in the entire writing process.
Yeah, I love that for writing and I also love it for the music side too. I've just gotten my trombones out of their cases and up on stands so I can do the exact same thing for that as well. So that's awesome. I wanna talk a little bit about your podcast as well, because you're a prolific podcaster and a prolific reader as well. You're constantly talking to people, you're constantly engaging with an amazing influx of ideas and messages. How has producing your podcast affected your writing?
Yeah, that's a good question. I think, one, it's exposed me to a wide variety of people and diverse ideas. I mean, you've been on our podcast, you know, and people, I heard in the audience, I'm very pleased that they didn't know who I was but they knew who the unmistakable creative was. That makes me really happy. So one of the things, I think, that becomes a byproduct of that is, you know, I wish I were better about it when it came to my reading habits, because I tend to read a lot of nonfiction books, but I think what it's done is really, exposure to such a wide diversity of ideas has allowed me to have sort of a distinctive, you know, voice on the way that I write. Because, you know, I've worked really hard not to sound like any one writer, but I've definitely borrowed elements from each and every one of these people that I have interviewed. I was just talking to Chase actually, and he quoted Austin Kleon. He said "When you steal from one person, that's plagiarism, "when you steal from a lot of people, that's research." And, so that's kinda the way I think of it. A lot of ideas that I've gotten in the podcast absolutely have shaped my writing. I mean, the entire sort of thesis of the book that's coming out in August is unmistakable, which, you know, if you look at the people that we've interviewed, what's interesting about them is they've chosen specifically to do things and share their work in a way that nobody else could have done but them. And that's really kind of our sort of entire ethos.
Brilliant, I love it. All right guys, I wanna give you an opportunity to pick Srini's brain. This is a huge opportunity. So who's got a question? Britt.
Hi Srini. The question that I have is, when you're writing in the mornings, do you have a, are you just freeform writing for all those words or do you keep in mind what your audience might be looking for?
So, this is a good question. When I start, it's completely freeform. So there's really, you know, no direction to it. It kinda goes in a million different directions. But I've found, at least in my own process is that, as I go through it, there's a certain point, it might happen in 10 minutes, it might happen in 20 minutes, it might happen, you know, 45 minutes, you hit flow. There's another piece I wrote on Medium titled Why You Should Never Stop Working the Moment You Hit Flow, because when you hit flow, suddenly, you can produce a lot more output and the quality of the output goes up. And you can do it in a lot less time. So, you know, somebody told me, I think it was Amber Ray, she said, you wanna accumulate pages, not judgments. And most of us tend to be incredibly judgmental about our own work, even though nobody's gonna actually see it. Like if you read my moleskins, you would be like, wow, this guy's getting paid to write books? This is horrifying. And that's really, I think we're so afraid of that idea of creating things that are not very good, even though nobody's ever gonna see them. So, you know, 90 percent of what I write never sees the light of day, but like, if I go through a typical writing session, so for example, this morning I was writing, it was all over the place, I couldn't get to anything, and I was just like, this is really annoying. And suddenly, for some reason, I started getting obsessed about this idea of calendars versus to-do lists, and I was like, oh, I wanna write a post about the science of what calendars are more effective than to-do lists. So then I was like, and so, what happens is that, as you write, just the process of going through it, you have to be process-focused, not product-focused. I think that's really the key. You're not focusing on the outcome as much as you are just the repetitive motion, because what'll happen is, inevitably, you will get to an outcome that is somewhat favorable. I mean, everything I've ever read about writing pretty much points to, the evidence is, Adam Grant, who recently wrote a book called Originals, said, in his research, he found that the greatest predictor of creativity and originality was actually quantity of ideas. And quantity of output. So hopefully that helps.
That bodes well. Lacey.
I'm just curious, you mention that you wrote a book that was based largely on Facebook posts, and then you were talking just now about, you sort of free write in the mornings. I'm wondering if you have any kind of strategy about what gets published versus what you're writing each day. So is it something like, oh I found this idea about calendars and so I'm gonna publish that today or tomorrow, next week? Or is it, do you have a broader strategy behind what you actually put out as opposed to what you're writing in your own stuff?
Yeah, I mean, usually when I, I usually have an idea that, okay, what I'm gonna put out, I'm like, this is gonna be actually useful to somebody, it might be inspiring. The first, literally, probably 500, 600 words are just a lot gibberish and sentences that are disconnected. Sometimes in that 500, 600 words, you'll find a sentence, and that sentence can be the seed for something else. Another thing I do is if I don't have ideas that are fully formed, I will just create an entry in my MacJournal and say, okay, this is an idea. I don't know how to write about it entirely right now, but I'm sure it'll come to me. So think of it this way. Think of it as planting seeds. Another way to do this, Ryan Holiday has this think called the note card system that he wrote about, where he literally takes note cards and puts them in like, four-by-six boxes of quotes, of things that he's read. He said that the idea for The Obstacle is the Way, which now has sold like 200,000 copies, was something that he had four years ago, and he just put a note card in this note file box about stoicism. So I think of it really as planting seeds, because often, an idea doesn't come to you fully formed. So if you plant that seed, you might be able to revisit that same idea, you know, maybe two days from now. Suddenly you're like, oh, I have everything I need for that post, and it'll just, you know, come out, or everything I need for that article, and suddenly you have, you know, you're able to just hammer out everything. So it's weird because I think, here's what I would say, is that your process for how you create things needs to be linear, but the structure doesn't end up being like that. Or, so when it comes to the actual output, the structure ends up being linear but the process is never linear. It's kind of, you know, all over the place.
I love the idea of the notebook system and the way you plant seeds in your journal. That's exactly what I do in my Evernote as well. Lots of empty notes with interesting titles, basically. Do we have one more question? Shannon?
Srini, I have a question for you. So if you were to think about your younger self, like me or some other people that are maybe writing their first book, what's one piece of advice you have for someone that's trying to do this for the very first time?
Boy, that's a good question. Write a book that you'll be proud to write. So here's the way I see it. You can write a book that touches hearts or you can write a book that sells copies. If you do the first, you have a good chance of accomplishing the second. If you try to do the second, you might fail on both counts. And, at the end of the day, if you think about it, this is your body of work. It's stuff that is going out into the world with your name on it, your signature on it, and I think, you know, if you're not proud of what you're putting out into the world, it doesn't matter how many copies it sells. Like I would rather have a book that I looked and said, you know what? That was awesome, even if it didn't sell a lot of copies, than hey, we wrote this book specifically so that it would sell a lot of copies. 'Cause there are a lot of crappy books that have sold lots of copies.
Amen to that. Srini, why don't you tell us about the book you have coming out this fall?
This is the book, it's Unmistakable. It's coming out with Penguin Portfolio. So, the core idea behind this book was sort of driven by all the ideas I heard from hundreds of interviews. And one of the things that really frustrated me when I kept looking at the online world was how often we give into our temptation to mimic or copy things that are really successful. So if you look at something like Humans of New York, what you'll see, if you do a search for "Humans Of" on Facebook, you'll find about 100 other sort of replicas, but the only person who really is unmistakable is Brandon, because he did something that only he could do. And, you know, 'cause any one of us can go get a camera and, you know, walk around our city and take pictures, but what he does is he creates a connection with somebody and he gets them to open up, and that's the part that makes it unmistakable. And so, the sorta core idea behind this book is that, if you can learn to do things that are so distinctive that nobody else could do them but you, your competition essentially becomes irrelevant because your work is so outstanding. And you know, another example of this is my friend Mars Dorian, who, you know, if you look at anything that he does, the moment it rolls through your Facebook news feed, I mean, he doesn't even have to put his signature on it, you can spot it from a mile away. And so, the result of that is when we need something done by him, there's literally nobody else we can go to. So, you know, we've looked at this through the lens of business, we've looked at it through the lens of artists, we've looked at it through the lens of religion. So we've looked across a bunch of different fields about, how do people make their work unmistakable? And of course, it's all organized in surf metaphors.
Fantastic. And where can we find you online?
Unmistakable Creative dot com.
Fantastic, Srini Rao, thank you so much for joining us. This was an absolutely perfect interview to pair with our second step, thank you.
Cool, thank you.