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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