Why authors need to get messy

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If you’re an author, or you’re working with an author, then you may beat yourself/them up for being unable to summon up a laser-like focus on the job in hand. Alternatively you may be exasperated by the way your/their creativity and the immediacy of the writing seem to evaporate as the book progresses. (I speak from experience of both perspectives here.) ‘Just focus!’ you might yell – out loud or under your breath. ‘Stop getting distracted!’

But it turns out that while getting into flow to write a book is a wonderful thing, it’s also important to mix things up a bit. Switch your attention around. Get distracted. Get a bit, well, messy.

This week I spoke to Tim Harford, The Undercover Economist, presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less, and author of Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World.

As you can see from that brief description of his portfolio, Tim spends his professional life working at a range of different scales, modes and speeds.

I asked him about what that means for his writing.

Me: It strikes me that you’re a writer, you’re a speaker, you’re a presenter, you’re a journalist. You’ve got these different modes and scales of communication going on. Do you find synergy there?

Tim Harford: Yes. I am tremendously lucky and very grateful that I am able to express myself in these different ways and they work together very, very well. A newspaper column is a thing you can write in about a day, sometimes you write it tremendously quickly. Sometimes two hours, sometimes it takes longer, but it’s a shortish project. When you’re done, you’re done, and you send it off and you’re proud of it, but that’s last week’s project. A book… Messy took me five years to write including (and talk about multitasking) stopping half way through and writing a different book, publishing it, doing the publicity and then going back to Messy.…

I’m doing those things all by myself, but then when I go into the BBC to work on More Or Less, I’m working with a team of people, a fantastic team of people. That’s a different way of working as well. All of those ways, however, are quite private and as much as you do your work and then you put it out. It’s going to take a while before you get any sensible feedback and the feedback is usually far too late to be useful, whereas when you give a speech, that’s a different type of performance again. It’s live, it’s a bit risky, you immediately get to see, you just sense it, whether an idea is landing or not, whether a story works or not. Those four different ways of communicating, the books, the columns, the radio, and the speeches, they all inform each other because I can take an idea from one and try it in another format and I always learn something. Whenever the idea moves from one thing to another, you learn something and maybe you can bring it back to the previous format.

This is one reason why supporting authors to work across different areas of communication can work so well for publishers. Lou Rosenfeld of Rosenfeld Media made a similar point on the podcast when he talked about how his company supports its authors with the ‘three-legged stool’ of writing, speaking/presenting and teaching:

‘I think you have to set aside your personal love and maybe your emotional connection to that format [the book] in order to be successful in terms of being in the idea business. Some things shouldn’t be books. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work with them.’

So whether you’re an author grinding to a halt in your book, or a publisher trying to coax fresh thinking from an author with writer’s block and a deadline, looking to other modes and different topics – getting distracted from the job in hand, just for a while – might be just what you need. And it might also be the future for your publishing house too.

Alison Jones (@bookstothesky) is a publishing partner for businesses and organizations writing world-changing books. She also provides executive coaching, consultancy and training services to publishers. www.alisonjones.com

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