Learning from Writing

Day 29: Studies

Copyright Snugg LePup (Creative Commons)

There was an interesting article on Lifehacker the other day with regard to “Four Basic Writing Principles You Can Use in Everyday Life” that I wanted to bring to your attention.  The four principles mentioned were:

  1. Show, Don’t Tell
  2. Simplicity Is Better than Flowery
  3. Read a Lot, Learn from Everything
  4. Focus by Learning What Not to Do

I was immediately struck by how writing can be simplified down to a small set of rules.  Oh, sure, there are other rules like “Spell things correctly” that you need to follow, but creativity-wise these four are critical.  But they are so much more than just rules for writing as they apply to when you create a presentation or when you design an applications architecture.  They apply to almost anything that is creative in nature.

For example, I’m sure that you’ve seen PowerPoint slides where the font is a 10 point font and you are at the back of the room, or a complicated 3D diagram that combines 10 different elements into a single mass of colour and lines.  Oh, speaking of colour, adding lines on a graph that are so close in colour only a machine can tell the difference.  Instead of showing a graph of poverty levels to indicate that something has negative impact (telling people), show them a picture of a child waiting in line at a soup kitchen.  Instead of describing the beauty of a flower, show a picture of how that beauty is affecting people.

For application architectures the motto of K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) has been around for decades and yet we continue to ignore it.  We have an application on site that has so many different parts, so many different machines and so many different parts that need to be synchronized that I am constantly surprised that it is still working.  It does, however, take forever to make changes.  Changes to the application are planned months in advance and take half a year to test.

Throughout all of our application architectures, however, we fail to do one thing:  focus by learning what not to do.  We have plenty of examples of how not to build things and yet we continue to build it the same way.  We know that mobile applications, while perhaps not prevalent in our current environment, not only make sense for the future, but that their design patterns make our existing applications easier to build and implement.  We know this, so why haven’t we learned?

Four simple rules applicable in writing and other creative endeavours.

Creativity in little pieces

Solving jigsaw puzzle

Copyright Yoel Ben-Avraham (Creative Commons)

There is the false assumption that creativity occurs in big waves.  One minute everything is normal and the next minute there is a tsunami of creativity and life changes so fast that the pants you put on in the morning go out of style by noon.

Things don’t happen that way.

Granted, there are sometimes huge changes that overtake us, but they are usually the result of tens, hundreds, thousands of other changes that, combined together, create that tsunami.  I was reading an article from an author recently who talked about how it had taken him “eight years to become an overnight success”.

You’ve seen those buckets that when filled with a certain amount of water tip over and unleash their contents?  Like this one?  Change, as a result of creative influences, is kind of like that.  Each change adds some water to the bucket, but somewhere, sometime, there is a change that makes the bucket tip over and flood everyone.

Creativity does not need to be a big event for it to have a big impact.  Small events can lead up to a big change.  For instance, on a personal note I thought that I would create “A Writing Prompt A Day” for the entire year.  Essentially the first paragraph of a short story / flash fiction / novel.  The writing prompt needed to provide enough information that someone could take it and create a complete story around that introduction.

Approximately 100 – 120 words of creativity for 365 days.  It’s not a lot, but it is forcing me to be creative.  It is forcing me to come up with different things on a day to day basis.  It is allowing me to grow a little bit each day.  Just like adding water to the bucket.  And when that bucket overflows?  Either movie deals or a wet head, not sure which.

Challenge yourself to be creative.  Challenge yourself to do something that stretches your mind for just a couple of minutes, but do it often.  Do it for a long period of time and see what changes occur for you.

How to be more creative

How can you structure your life to be more creative.  John Cleese has the answer.  In his mind there are five conditions, five different things you need to do in order to be creative:

  • Space.  You need to give yourself an environment free of distraction in which you have the opportunity to be creative.
  • Time.  You need to have contiguous time for creativity to percolate.  In his talk he mentions 90 minutes as being the minimum amount of time for your mind to open up and be receptive.
  • Time.  You need as much time as possible between now and when you need the answer.
  • Confidence.  You need to be confident in your ability to be creative.
  • 22 inch waist … err … humour.

Sometimes this is a lonely endeavour (writing a book?) whereas sometimes it can be collaborative effort where ideas are passed back and forth and grow into something that no one expected.  The main idea is to get into an “open” state where your mind is receptive to new ideas.

So, is he right?  Well, if you take a look at various papers in psychology journals you will find a lot of information that seems to back this approach.  Whether his approach is the correct approach is kind of moot.  What John Cleese presents is a series of actions that someone can take, but in my personal opinion the most important thing is being receptive and open to new ideas.  If following the steps that John Cleese came up with enables you to be open then by all means, use the steps.

We are our own worst enemies.  As John Cleese says, we all know that it is easier to do the myriad of little things that we know how to do than to tackle a larger item that we don’t know.  Mankind in general is fearful of the unknown and yet, when we are trying to be creative, we are facing fear head on.  Fear of finding the right solution.  Fear of not coming up with a creative solution at all.  Fear of coming up with a solution, but it not be creative enough.  We put ourselves through a lot of emotional turmoil when trying to be creative, so if there are some steps that you can take so that this creativity is easier (see the items above), then by all means grab on to those steps.  At the very least, try to figure out if those are indeed the right steps.