Writing Through Your Imposter Syndrome: Three Steps to Share and Publish What You Write

I hate the term Imposter Syndrome. It’s like you’re afflicted with this disease… shunned by society and destined to live out your days in the dark forest. I meet so many writers who struggle with it… stopping them from sharing or publishing what they’ve written. Here’s the truth: Every writer is an imposter (or at least has these feelings). We all are. Don’t try to stop feeling like an imposter. Instead, surround yourself with a community of other imposters who are putting their work out too. The advice in this post is pretty simple… Stop Writing Alone. But how?

Why Does Every Writer Feel Like an Imposter?

Most people believe writing is a solitary activity. We have this vision of a solitary writer, alone in a cabin with just a typewriter, silently working on her manuscript for a year before emerging with a perfect, complete book. In 2022, I was fortunate to have author Victoria Schwab speak to my class of writers. The past several years for her have been, to put it bluntly, unbelievable. Her work has garnered awards, praise, movie adaptations, and recurring spots on bestseller lists. She’s one of the top fiction writers today. As she joined our Zoom chat, I casually asked her how she was doing. “Better,” she said. “I spent the last two hours sobbing on my floor. But I’m better now.” The look on my face was quite telling. You were sobbing about your manuscript? You have doubts about your books? Victoria explained that she’d submitted the final manuscript to her publisher for a new book and she was convinced it was terrible, but she had a deadline and a contract. So, she submitted the revised manuscript and sobbed for two hours. This is from the woman who has had her books nominated for at least ten Goodreads Reader’s Choice Awards. When I asked her about advice for other writers she said, “If you're struggling with a story or struggling with creativity, it's not a reflection of your ability, it's a reflection of the fact that this is hard.” Victoria shared how she pushed through these feelings: She wasn’t writing this alone. She had others help her. Her parents had read it. Her editor had read it. Her peer authors had read it. And all of them encouraged and helped her to continue. Victoria doesn’t write alone.

The Science of Overcoming Imposter Writing

Two leading thinkers on distraction – Cal Newport and Nir Eyal – offer the same advice and guidance about beating imposter syndrome and distraction: Accountability. We are our own worst enemies. We believe what we’ve written is terrible. We believe we’ll be judged. We believe no one will care. And it turns out we are terrible judges of these things. Now, this isn’t to say that your fears aren’t rational. They are. Your brain is wired to mitigate risks. We’ve survived this way as a species because our brain is looking for that lion who could eat us or that cliff we could fall down or that berry we could eat that poisons us. Humans are wired to use fear to survive. But that same fear that helps us survive often prevents us from thriving. And that’s why writers need community. You need a system to help. Here are the three steps to build your community, create accountability, and share more of what you write with others.

STEP 1: Identify Your Who

You’re not sharing what you write with everyone. Start there. Building confidence in your writing starts by selective sharing. Picking the right people to start with is key. Be strategic and thoughtful, and you don’t need to post a draft of your unfinished book idea online or email a first draft of a blog post to your entire contact list. You just need to get the right people involved in your writing. This is the power of pacts. Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, highlights the power of pacts in combating imposter syndrome and distraction. Pacts are loose or informal agreements we make with others to hold us accountable. They aren’t usually formal, firm contracts (“You commit to writing 1,000 words a day”). Pacts operate more subtly, often playing on our personal feelings of guilt (“I’m going to get you a new chapter to read this week” or “I’ll get you a draft of my introduction by the end of the month”). And the secret of leveraging pacts to create accountability to move beyond imposter syndrome often comes from choosing the right people to help us. Pacts are the secret to accountability. As humans, we’ve been wired for them – these informal agreements between us. But not all accountability is created equal. Research finds that simply posting our goals online doesn’t create real feelings of accountability for most people. Two main types of accountabilities help writers improve and publish:
  • Professional accountability.
  • Peer accountability.
Professional accountability are people who have expertise in what we are looking to do or accomplish. In most cases, professional accountability is something you pay for such as a professional editor, a writing coach, or someone from a publisher. These are people who understand the craft. Peer accountability is people who know us as humans. They may or may not be experts in the profession, but they are people that we know – or at least believe – have our interests at heart. Often a brother, sister, family member, close friend, or peer also goes through a similar process. These are people who understand the person. My advice for aspiring writers is to have at least one professional accountability partner and at least two peer accountability partners. For me, I work with a developmental editor for my fiction writing, and I have two writer-friends who serve as my peer accountability.

STEP 2: Create Pacts

The bigger the writing goal, the easier it is for your inner critic to rear its ugly head. That’s why the secret of pacts is to think smaller… much smaller. Whether it’s a professional accountability partner (like an editor or writing coach) or a peer accountability partner (like a friend or another aspiring author writing their own work), I like to think about writing by time, not words. Many writers think about writing a thousand words or five hundred words or, heck, ten thousand words. We often think in word count because that’s how we’ve been trained to think about our writing – submit a 10-page essay or a 3-page paper. Research finds that we overestimate what we can accomplish early in learning any new skill:
  • We overestimate how much of a puzzle we’ll complete
  • We overestimate how much editing we’ll complete on our first videos
  • We overestimate how many words we’ll write when we start
This overestimation problem manifests a disappointment problem. If you thought you’d write 1,000 words and only wrote 300, you must not be a good writer or must not be motivated. Create pacts built around time. “I’ve got two hours blocked off to write this week. Can I send you something to read from that?” Here’s what you’ve done with that sentence:
  1. You’ve set aside the time. Here, you’re committing to two hours of writing. We know humans are better when they work for a set period of time. We accomplish more in less time than if we set an output goal.
  2. You’ve scoped your deliverable. You’re not committing to a word count or a form factor. You’re going to send them “something.” And that “something” is being done in a two-hour block of time over a week-long period.
  3. You’ve limited your feedback loop. You’re not spending six months, but you’re spending a week. You can play with these dates – two weeks, five days, or even up to a month. But much more than a couple of weeks can create greater expectations. You’ve told the person you’ll send them something this week. Their expectations should be lower (as should yours).
This is a writing pact that is built for success. You’ve made a loose commitment to your coach, editor, or friend, but you’ve scoped it for success by limiting expectations.

STEP 3: Gather Feedback

The first two steps are the most important in this process – truthfully, a substantial portion comes from building this feedback system. But the third step is important to build this into a compounding process. You’re putting yourself out there – even in this small way to this small group – and there’s a risk that they could accidentally make your imposter syndrome worse, even accidentally. You can ask for this feedback in person or over a video call or written. But often, I’d suggest early on making this a live conversation to get context. Don’t assume people know how to give productive feedback. Ask for feedback in the way you’d like to receive it. Here’s how:
  1. You don’t want them to edit your work. This may be the most important thing: tell them you are not looking for feedback or changes to the text. There are spelling issues, grammar issues, etc.
  2. You’d like them to identify two or three things they liked about the piece. You want to hear what concepts resonated, what stories landed, etc. You’re looking for insights about what worked for them. Not generalities (“I loved it”), but specifics (“I liked how you…”). And if they don’t offer them, push them on this.
  3. You’d like them to identify one or two things you could improve. Limit the scope to one or two things for them, and again make them specific. Sometimes people will hesitate, so you can guide them as “where could I have gone deeper,” or “what was unclear,” or “what would you add?”
Here’s a specific sentence you can use when you send a piece to someone: “This isn’t a polished piece so I’m not looking for editing on grammar or spelling. I’d love to know 2-3 specific things that worked for you and 1-2 specific things that could be improved in the next draft.” Here’s what I’ve found from this process: I’m always excited by their critical feedback because it means I know what to do to improve.
Writing gets stuck when we’re writing alone. Putting yourself out there is hard. It is. And it's the single reason so many ideas, stories, manuscripts, and concepts never see the light of day. The myth of the writer is that it’s a solitary endeavor. While it’s true you do spend a lot of time with just you and the keyboard, everything significant I’ve written is touched by lots and lots of others before it’s published. I sent the unpublished draft of my first book in The Pennymores series to more than 1,000 people. Part of that was to improve the book and the story. But a big part of that is accountability. I need others to help me push through my imposter syndrome. Remember, you don’t need 1,000 people… but you need a couple of people, often someone who is a professional and someone who is a peer. Find the right people, build the right system, and week over week, you’ll gain confidence in yourself and in your writing. It’s not a light switch that you go from imposter to not an imposter. It’s a process where you get the confidence to share or publish what you write despite feeling those imposter thoughts.
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.
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Six Core Actions to Define Your Book Category Before You Write

To Make a Book That Changes the World (or your corner of it), You Must Reject a Current Premise.

Why do certain books spread while others languish in obscurity?   It’s the question most authors wrestle with at the start of their book journey — and a question that often causes paralysis among writers. You could argue that it’s the writing, it’s the author, it’s the topic, it’s the timing, or it’s the combination of all of these that cause a book to spread.   We believe books that spread nearly all define a new category. The trick is designing a book that defines yours (don’t worry, you’ll have help!)

What is Category Design?

Category design is an emerging business strategy companies and individuals have employed to stand out and gain market share (rapidly) in large, crowded, competitive markets. Often confused with ‘going after a niche,’ category design is best described as a holistic approach to examine at a narrow initial opportunity through a brand’s products, culture, storytelling, and business model. By beginning with a narrow initial opportunity, category designers can quickly grab market share and expand rapidly. Per Wikipedia, Category design was first proposed in the book Play Bigger The book lays out a justification for why category creation is an important strategy and includes a step-by-step guide to applying design thinking to category creation:
  • discovering and defining a category problem,
  • creating a clear story (called a point-of-view) that explains and sells the category idea,
  • defining a category blueprint,
  • driving the category strategy across a company's stakeholders (mobilization),
  • shaping customers' thinking (lightning strikes).
The concepts tie back into recent writings about how our brains work, particularly cognitive biases as described by Daniel Kahneman. The good category takes advantage of cognitive biases such as the choice supportive bias and group think bias. An example of category design in new products is Dr. Squatch soap and men's products. Seeing a gap in the market for men’s soap, Dr. Squatch has built a rapidly growing, multi-million dollar business by designing a category around soap for men. They successfully built their business with storytelling, hyper-targeted internet advertising, and an expanding product suite of extension products. This approach of designing a category has led other mass-market soap companies to ‘follow’ their lead with new products. Dr. Squatch did not ‘go after a niche’ (as it did not necessarily exist), but they holistically developed a category around an underserved or underappreciated market. Dr. Squatch defined a new category by rejecting the current premise that soap is soap.  In particular, category design is critical because it enables an upstart to stand out in a relatively crowded market. What we know from category design in business/innovation is that there are usually a set of ‘winners’ in newly defined categories (the ‘law of six to ten’). Wikipedia goes on to say: Data research shows that "category kings" (companies that dominate a market category) that go public when they are between six and ten years old create most of the value among all VC-funded tech companies. Companies that go public sooner than six years old often lose value; companies that IPO after ten years old create little value for shareholders. The reason is thought to be that categories take around six years to develop, and most of a category's growth happens in that six to ten year timeframe. After ten years, a category is established and growth slows, so share prices level off. This was discussed in a Harvard Business Review article titled "How Unicorns Grow."

What Is a Book Category?

First, let’s talk about what is not a Book Category: the category or subcategory your book is listed under on Amazon or shelved under in a bookstore. While those are categories , . . they are not designed categories. We define your book’s designed category as a niche the author owns (or attempts to own). If this were an Amazon category, you’d be the only book in it (or one of a small handful) . . .and if it were a category in the bookstore, yours would be the only one on the shelf (or one of a very few).   Second, the best way to think about defining a book category is to fill a meaningful gap in the knowledge market. Books that offer an unconventional, underappreciated, or new approach to a substantial problem can define a new category of thinking. Category-defining books often elicit a reaction from their early fans of “I always thought that too . . .” We typically find books that define new categories are based on two distinct approaches:
  • Defining a type of person
  • Defining a type of action

Type of Person

Category-defining books often describe a new type of person, a person who your readers may aspire to be or become. Examples include: Originals by Adam Grant; Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell; Untamed and Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle; and even the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins defined a new fictional character persona through Katniss Everdeen (the pure heroine).

Type of Action

Category-defining books often describe a new type of action, an action your readers may aspire to do or do more. Examples include: Start with Why by Simon Sinek; Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; Daring Greatly by Brene Brown; Atomic Habits by James Clear; and even novels like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline defined a new action in virtual reality, and They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera defined a new YA story genre about living vs. dying.   To be clear, these are not the only reasons these books did well, but by defining a new category it enables them to capture an underserved niche quickly. Most of these books mentioned above have had ‘fast followers’ of other books similarly themed and designed to capture the momentum they created.  

How Can You Design a Book Category?

To make a book that defines a new category, you must reject a current premise. We define this process as establishing the book’s tension statement. A tension statement is how your book will reject conventional wisdom. It’s a challenging proposition, but also core to defining a new category.  For example, Dr. Squatch had to reject the proposition or premise that soap is soap is soap. Instead, Dr. Squatch has made every aspect of its advertising, marketing, branding, and storytelling around the idea that modern men should reject the premise that soap is soap (if you watch their advertising, they go after body wash, non-masculine scents, and chemicals).   Similarly, Simon Sinek rejected that you start with how, Adam Grant rejected that originals are risk takers, Brene Brown rejected that courage is rejecting fear, and even Suzanne Collins rejected that young heroines need saving in Hunger Games. That’s why the core of designing a book category is explicitly attacking conventional wisdom:

Nearly everyone thinks or believes _____.

And in fact _____.

But based on my research, experience, hunch, and interviews, I believe _____.

I saw this in my own life when ______.

And you even see this in the experiences of ____ and _____.

For example, in Super Mentors (Koester, 2022), the tension statement is that “nearly everyone thinks you need a mentor, but I’ve found you actually need a project.” In Pennymores (Koester, 2022), the tension statement is that “nearly everyone thinks you cast magic with a wand, but in Pennymores, you write magic with a quill.”

How Does the Positioning Process Help You to Define Your Book Category?

I find there are six important steps in the process of defining and validating your book’s category.  
  1. Define your tension statement, and test it through conversations and sharing elements of the tension statement on social media for reactions.
  2. Research stories of others who ‘fit your category.' Through that process, you'll work to identify 20-30 stories from podcasts, interviews, TED Talks, panels, and articles of individuals who also reject convention and operate in this unconventional manner.
  3. Interview individuals who ‘fit your category.’ You’ll learn from conversations and discussions with experts in the field.
  4. Write personal stories that align to the unconventional aspect of your own story.
  5. Write your introduction to make the case for this new category.
  6. Define the sub-elements of the category through your working Table of Contents.
The important thing about defining a category for your book is recognizing that it is not about being completely ‘unique’ — meaning just because others are offering a similar thought process or thinking. It’s not about finding a niche — looking to tap into a specific audience. Defining a category for your book involves rejecting a current premise, and making the case why you’ve spotted this trend early, and soon others will see this too. You don’t need to be the only; you need to be early. * * * This process is challenging, but thankfully, we’ve been able to help hundreds of authors do just this . . .leading them to meaningful early success in their categories and for their businesses. We describe this process as helping ‘orient your compass.’ How will you know your book has the potential to define a category? You need to understand conventional wisdom, have a clear way to reject it and propose a different path, framework, or way of thinking. Then you’ll need to build evidence of this future state through research, interviews, conversations, and stories. You’ll need to write the book . . . and spread the message to others who feel similarly, relying on them to continue to spread it for you.   You will write a category-defining book. But defining a new category through that book requires conversations, collaborations, speeches, writing, book tours, products, and much more (that’s the fun and challenging part). But you must start with a process to write a category-defining book first . . . otherwise, you won’t have the opportunity for it to help you define a new category.
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.
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Master Story Gathering: Four Steps to Research Story Ideas for Any Nonfiction Book

Think about any of the most popular nonfiction books: Atomic Habits, Braving the Wild, Tipping Point, Start with Why, or Lean In. What percent of the writing in these books are stories? Most people will guess 25-30% Wrong. When we analyzed the best-selling nonfiction books, 70-80% of these books are story driven It’s not just facts, figures, frameworks, and teachings that matter. Stories are what lead to exceptional nonfiction books. Stories make us care, tap into our emotions, and help us learn. And that’s why it’s critical to master the art of story gathering when writing a nonfiction book. 

Mastering the Art of Story Gathering

Modern Authors need to write stories for great books. And to write great stories, you have to gather great stories (or at least gather the raw materials to write into a great story). What kind of story ideas should you look for when writing your nonfiction book? The answer may be obvious — you want story ideas that revolve around real people, places, and events. And learning about them first is an essential part of writing a nonfiction book. As you start the book writing journey, we'll learn and gather content for your book. So, learning before you write is critical: it helps you understand what you want to write about and how your topic fits into the bigger picture. And where to find and gather stories? The great news is that the last few years have unlocked a flood of new story sources: the best I've discovered include podcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, and even social media.   Whenever you're out gathering information, just gather stuff, write up a few notes about it, and you'll be fine. The following example will demonstrate how you can do this as a nonfiction author.  There are usually intersections of things in great books. You might talk about trauma and business executives, or you might talk about your experience, understanding how the male perspective finds happiness, whatever it may be. Let's imagine you're writing a book exploring the intersection of politics and technology.  Sometimes, however, you look at intersections of things, and that's a great place to start. In the case of this book idea, we are going to look at the following:
  • Technology 
  • Politics 
Great books often explore the intersections of two or more things. Let's say the book title is: The United States of Tech: Can Technology Save Politics?. However, as of now, you have yet to decide where to start. You could be interested in understanding how the world could evolve, but you want to understand polarization and new third-party campaigns. Essentially, what we're going to do here is walk you through the following four steps that might help you discover the book's direction and the book's content. STEP 1: Identify Book Keywords  STEP 2: Hunt for Stories (in everyday places where stories live online)
  • Podcasts
  • TED Talks
  • YouTube
  • Google
STEP 3: Capture Intriguing Stories & People  STEP 4: Write Short Notes (Snippets) About Each Thing You Capture

STEP 1: Identify Book Keywords 

As a first step, you will have to define book keywords, which you can use to sort and hunt for books. Keywords are words that describe the topic and central theme of your book. At this point in your book, you may have some theories, ideas, and questions you're exploring. Look at your book description and identify words or phrases. One of the first things that come to mind when discussing technology and politics is the two-party system, third-party candidates, online voting, and social media. Usually, you'll settle on a dozen or so keywords and phrases that are interesting most of the time.  As a result of this process, you can refine things. This is one of those things you will add to and change over time, but you can start by deciding on a few keywords. I like to use the thesaurus, and sometimes I’ll let Google autosuggest help. About fifteen minutes of thinking, exploring, and hunting on the internet can get you a robust list. Example: The United States of Tech: Can Technology Save Politics?
  • Keywords
  • Technology
  • Politics
  • Two Party System
  • Third-Party Candidates
  • Online Voting
  • Social Media
  • Etc.

STEP 2: Research Typical "Secondary Interview" Sources

You’re going to be writing stories.  Next, we'll look at common secondary sources. We're looking for stories. Ideally, we'd like to hear first-hand accounts of events. You will look for someone on a podcast, Ted talk, or panel to share their experiences.  However, you won't be interviewing them one-on-one to gather information, but you will listen to them as if you were. When searching for content for your book, you should consider four primary platforms:
  1. Podcasts (Apple and/or Spotify)
  2. TED Talks
  3. YouTube
  4. Google

Podcasts (Apple and/or Spotify)

Searching on Podcasts is fun and easy. Pick some keywords you think would be relevant, but I suggest picking more specific keyword phrases. In this case, if you just put politics or technology, it will be pretty broad, but if there are some key ones, you should go into those. In this case, we will consider third-party candidates.  There is an idea here about how someone with a third-party candidate could use technology to stand out. So all that we have to do is start by putting that into apple or Spotify.  Example: The United States of Tech: Can technology save politics?
  • Go to Apple and/or Spotify
  • Search
    • "Third Party Candidates"
    • "Two Party System"

TED Talks

The second one is TED Talks. It has an excellent repository of speakers and speeches, and an algorithm that lets you find "what is similar" to a talk you like. Aside from being transcribed, TED Talks are also searchable, so they are straightforward to use along the way. So we just go to ted.com forward slash talks and add those keywords similarly.  Go to: https://www.ted.com/talks
  • Add keywords and search → "Two Party Political Systems"
Find relevant talks (read the transcripts of all the talks) and see what is similar.

YouTube

The third is YouTube, it is a great resource. You'll find a lot of information there. It will require you to do a little searching, but there is amazing content to curate. 
  • Go to YouTube
  • Add keywords and search → "Two Party Political Systems"

Google

Google is the last one, the fourth one here. Although Google is great, it is also vast. Suppose you put a two-party political system. Generally, you're going to get a lot of stuff from it. The trick is to add little words at the end that can help you. 
  1. So the first one is about the two-party political system. You'll see many books when you type them in the search bar. Although I wouldn't suggest reading the entire book, I recommend seeing if anything interesting might be helpful to you. 
  2. The next step is to Google two-party political system speeches. You will have many lectures that have come up and covered this subject here. 
  3. Lastly, go to scholar.google.com, type in two-party IL system, plus add research. You'll see that a lot of stuff comes up in there. 
Use keywords and add:
  • Books → "Two Party Political System" + Books
  • Speeches → "Two Party Political System" + Speech
  • Research (scholar.google.com) → "Two Party Political System" + Research

STEP 3: Capture Intriguing Stories & People 

Third, we'll begin keeping track of the stories that resonate with us.  In this stage, you'll quickly see you have a lot of names already to work with if you've started this work. Using just one keyword/phrase and the first layer of digging, this is all we have to go on. The list will quickly grow if you keep doing this.  Example: The United States of Tech: Can Technology Save Politics?

Podcast Research

  • Ezra Klein
  • Lee Drutman

TED research

YouTube

  • Vernon Bogdanor
  • Sean Wilentz
  • Yanis Varoufakis

Google

  • Books:
    • James L. Sundquist
    • Joseph Romance and Theodore J. Romance, Joseph Pomper, Gerald Lowi
  • Scholar:
    • William H. Riker
We identified 11 people who could be valuable sources of information.

STEP 4: Write Short Notes (Snippets) About Each Thing You Capture

You don’t need to write the story – just write some notes about it. We call this “snippet” writing. Snippet writing is the informal writing authors do early in the book development process. We encourage you to keep snippets on the shorter side (50-250 words) and do them frequently. As you begin writing more, these snippets will often turn into longer stories, research, and chapters. There's no single way to do snippet writing, but here are some examples to guide you.
  • Write whatever comes to your mind, but some common examples of snippets include:
    • Podcasts, YouTube, & Presentation Snippets (notes on interviews, presentations, talks, etc.)
    • Research Driven Snippets (notes on key topics or research on the subject)
    • Personal Story & Moment Snippets (notes on the key moments that matter in your life)
    • Narrative Snippets (notes, ideas, your thoughts)
    • Prior Blogs or Articles Snip (stuff you've written already that can be transformed for the book)
And that’s a wrap. Stories drive great nonfiction books. Most of the best books you’ll read today are filled with insightful, well-written, emotionally-driven stories. You’ve just got to find yours. It’s not just facts, figures, frameworks, and teachings that matter. Stories make us care, tap into our emotions, and help us learn. That’s why it’s critical to master the art of story gathering when you’re writing a nonfiction book.  Stories are what lead to exceptional nonfiction books. Find yours!
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.
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How Design Thinking Can Build Your Writing Process

“So, what do you think of my idea?” When I meet an aspiring author, the most common question they ask me is about their book idea or topic. “Is this a good idea?” “Will readers buy this book?” “Is there a market for this?” Usually, they want to know if it’s a good idea, would make a good book, or could be a bestseller. My response often surprises them. “I’m not concerned about the idea . . . yet, anyways.” I want to know why you’re writing it . . . so we can build a system to write it. Amateur authors make the common mistake of focusing on their idea. Modern authors focus on their writing process. Modern authors talk writing logistics. If you have an amazing idea for a book but no process to write it, you’ll probably never finish the writing. But if you have a writing process that regularly and efficiently gets words on the page, you’ll eventually figure out a killer idea through the writing. 
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there. This year, spend less time focusing on outcomes and more time focusing on the habits that precede the results.” - James Clear (Atomic Habits)
Systems create outcomes. We just have to build yours. Let’s talk about designing your writing process and your writing systems.

Designing a Writing Process

I’m a big fan of the concept of Design Thinking, an approach pioneered by the Stanford D School to help people iterate and prototype new solutions and products.   Why would design thinking have anything to do with a writing process?  
  1. If you’re writing a book, it’ll require a multi-month process. 
  2. It’ll require you to write regularly. 
  3. It’ll force you to get through ‘writers block’ or periods when you just don’t feel like writing. 
  4. You need a process to finish something big. 
Design thinking works because you need to design a process that works for you. The product is your process. So we want to design a solution that will work for you, that can change with you, and that’ll enable you to succeed.   There are five ‘phases’ to design thinking, and we are going to leverage all five to design (and redesign) your writing process:
  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

STEP 1: Empathize

This may seem a little counterintuitive, but you are the audience for your writing process. And as much as you probably think you know yourself, it’s often harder than we imagine to truly ‘know thyself.’ This isn’t about an aspirational or hopeful view of ourselves. We want to focus on the actual realities.  Here are the two key questions to ask yourself about designing your writing process:

When I have typically written bigger things (term paper, thesis, work project), what is my style?

  • I set aside time every day or multiple times a week and try and chip away at it. (Habit Writing)
  • I don’t work on a set schedule, but usually, I write in bigger sessions — 3-6 hours of intense writing — is how I make progress. Usually, several of those are how I write. (Episodic Writing
  • I get most of my best work done right before its due — sometimes that means late nights or intense pushes, but I get it done. (Deadline Writing)

What makes you most nervous about writing your book?

  • I feel uncertain about the book's direction — as I’ve begun to explore, I have doubts if it’s as exciting as I originally thought. (Boredom)
  • I feel energized during the sessions, but when I’m working on it by myself, I get in my head. (Loneliness)
  • I feel like an imposter — am I qualified to write this, and when it's finished, will it be any good? (Insecurity)
  • I am very busy, and I want to do the book, but I'm nervous I have sufficient time. (Fatigue)
  • I am not sure I can do it. I’m not a great writer and am worried I can’t write a whole book. (Uncertainty)

STEP 2: Define

I encourage authors to combine these two terms to define themselves — you may want to pick multiple categories in each question, but force yourself to pick the answer that is most like you. This creates a simple way to define yourself. I am a Deadline Writer who struggles with Fatigue. I am a Habit Writer who struggles with Loneliness. I am an Episodic Writer who struggles with Insecurity.

STEP 3: Ideate

Now here’s the fun part. You’ve defined how you typically write (not an aspirational version but your reality), and you’ve defined what makes you most nervous about this writing project. What are ways you could potentially solve this? I am a Deadline Writer who struggles with Fatigue.
  • Cut out some activities for the next few months.
  • Scope the writing project smaller and set weekly deadlines to deliver content.
  • Schedule time each week with a writing group.
I am a Habit Writer who struggles with Loneliness.
  • Join a Zoom writers' group.
  • Recruit a friend who has wanted to write a book to write hers at the same time.
  • Hire an editor and do weekly calls.

STEP 4: Prototype

There are endless solutions you could try, and at this point, you want to pick the idea or approach you’re most intrigued or excited about. Remember, this isn’t the solution . . . it’s a prototype, an experiment, or a trial.   I advise people to prototype a new writing process that you can begin tomorrow and try for two weeks.   How do you prototype? Usually, it’s an incomplete or a partial solution based on what you can do quickly — but it may not be perfect. Here’s an example: I am a Deadline Writer who struggles with Fatigue.
  • I am going to schedule time each week with a writing group.
Now you probably can’t find a writers' group that you can join tomorrow, and you don’t want to pay to join a group if you aren’t sure it’s for you. You need to prototype it. How? What does a writers' group require?
  • A group of writers
  • A shared time to write
Consider this idea. Send out a text message to five people in your life. “I’ve got a writing project I’m working on — looking for a bit of shared accountability. Want to jump on zoom (or meet at a coffee shop) this week for some shared writing time?” If one person says “yes” then you’ve got your group.

STEP 5: Test

Now you’ve got your prototype, and you’re going to run it for two weeks. You need something to test this approach against.   Create a hypothesis: I’d like to write an average of 2,000 words each week for the next two weeks. Write this down.  Run the experiment, and see what happens. If it works, great — now you’ve got a new writing process. If it works for a while and then stops working, go back and change something such as a new prototype or perhaps even a new definition.  

* * *

The writing process isn’t some static system. It’ll evolve and change, but the best part is once you have a process, you can use it to write anything! If you have an amazing idea for a book but no process to write it, you’ll probably never finish the writing. But if you have a writing process that regularly and efficiently gets words on the page, you’ll eventually figure out a killer idea through the writing.  Have fun building your writing process. 
Eric Koester is the founder and CEO of Creator Institute, a b-corporation whose mission is to inspire, teach and support tomorrow’s creators — authors, podcasters, speakers, entrepreneurs, corporate innovators and course builders. Through his work he’s coached nearly 1,000 first-time creators. He is also a Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Georgetown University and the school’s only two-time entrepreneurship professor of the year, faculty at Growth University, and the executive director of the Intrapreneur Institute, which researches, trains and develops future innovation leaders.
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