Good writers know they must write for their readers. Writers of all stripes — advertising copywriters, content writers, bloggers, journalists, novelists, and even poets — have a clear image of their ideal reader in mind. I’ve written here about reader-focused content and how to write it. It’s a vital practice for success. But taken to the extreme, it can have a crushing effect on creativity.
Commerce vs. creativity
We make much these days of so-calle ‘writing to market’. It extends the idea of writing for a specific readership. When writing to market, you analyze what readers have already enjoyed and create a similar product.
But each reader is a unique individual, and you can’t write something unique for every reader. So, you develop a mental stereotype which sums up the most common traits of the readership. The danger in this approach is that it stifles your creativity and mutes your imagination. When you write to market with a stereotypical reader in mind, you produce stereotypical writing. You round your writing to the lowest common denominator.
This tendency prevails in the world of self-publishing and online writing. The Internet is a plagiarist’s paradise. The search engines serve up an all-day breakfast of hundreds of millions of pages of under-cooked, rehashed copy 24/7.
You can have your cake and eat it
But it needn’t be this way. You can write with commercial objectives and still allow yourself the freedom and creativity to produce fresh, surprising, original work. The rest of this story will show you how, using a science-based approach based on the psychology of playfulness. It works, and it’s fun.
To develop playful creative writing methods takes time, effort, and dedication. As Buckminster Fuller wrote back in 1967, “All children are born geniuses and we spend the first six years of their lives degeniusing them.” While considered controversial back then, current scientific thinking supports his proposition.
Science-based playfulness and the creative process
In this Live Science article by Rachael Rettner, she cites several studies which concluded that in post-school adulthood our creativity declines as we become preoccupied with following established protocols and trying to get the ‘right answer’. Dr. Lin Kok Wing discusses longitudinal studies on divergent thinking (meaning creative thinking) between children in kindergarten and those in later, formal educational contexts. They found that 98% of kindergarten kids scored as geniuses. The score went down the further along the education highway children traveled. By the time we reach adulthood, we care more about conformity than creativity. So, as adult writers, trying to rediscover the playful geniuses we were as children takes time and a bit of ‘unlearning’.
Image by congerdesign from Pixabay
The creative writing process
You can define seven steps in the creative writing process. I’ve based these on an idea first described by Alex Osborn in his book, Applied Imagination. Here’s my version adapted for creative writers:
- Defining: What story do you want to write? What genre? Who are the audience?
- Researching: Read and analyze other work that may be like what you want to write
- Generating Ideas: brainstorm ideas for character, story, plot, setting, etc.
- Drafting: create scenes and a rough first draft — or multiple preliminary drafts — of your book, including alternative scenes, subplots, viewpoints, styles, etc.
- Refining: select what works and what doesn’t; developmental editing; revision notes
- Editing: focused editing to elaborate the best possible version of the story
- Learning: send to beta readers; your agent; get editorial feedback; reader reviews, etc. and evaluate the results
Even though every writer will have their individual ‘take’ on this process, most will recognize it. In practice, it’s often not linear. So, most novelists, for example, will loop round steps 3 and 4 several times before moving on to step 5. Others will run several steps at the same time.
That’s the formal, generalized process we go through to travel from a first notion to a final piece of work. But as we’ve already noted, it’s an idealized model based on observations of how writers work, rather than a prescriptive protocol to which you must adhere. And it’s not very playful.
Creative reasoning and a child-like approach
Adult experience is both useful and necessary when planning and executing a writing project. But the expectations that come from experience can also limit the range and depth of your thinking. Logic and creative reasoning are the most powerful tools in the professional writer’s mental tool-kit, but several stages in the creative process thrive on less rigid, more fluid and surprising approaches.
For example, young children never procrastinate. They act on ideas at once. The fear of failure and criticism which causes so-called ‘writer’s block’ begins only when taught to us by other adults. Self-criticism, doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure are the death-knoll of creativity.
Child-like thinking focuses on solving the problem in hand by making free, intuitive attempts, and repeating modified attempts until you get to a solution. ‘Free repetition’ is a bedrock of many progressive education systems and acknowledged as a fundamental creative process. As most children are born ‘geniuses’, so they are born with an instinctive willingness to experiment and explore and are driven by curiosity.
Child-like approaches — openness, playfulness, intuition, experimentation, exploration — are most useful in the earlier stages of creative writing when you generate ideas, devise worlds, create characters, etc. So, when you’re looping round stages 3 and 4 of the model creative process. When you move on to stage 5 and beyond, then the logical, experience-based approaches associated with more formal creative reasoning are useful. But child-like processes can help at any stage if you feel ‘stuck’ or ‘blocked’.
Image by Rudy Anderson from Pixabay
Three keys of child-like creativity
Scientific studies show that it’s possible to recover child-like creative processes and suggest that creative people of all types including writers can rediscover and develop their child-like qualities by playing games, working physically, and using multi-sensory techniques. For example: randomly selecting images of people, places, and objects and then making a story out of them, or playing ‘fortunately/unfortunately’; planning and ideation using a large-size white board and colored marker pens, or voice-recording ideas as you walk or run; or playing music, speaking aloud in character, ‘dressing up’, and role-play.
We can define three core aspects of the child-like mentality to develop to help you in your creative writing. They are playfulness, daring, and having fun. Let’s look at what they each mean, how to cultivate them, and how they’ll help you write better.
Emotional sincerity, empathy, and responsiveness define the idea of playfulness. Several studies show that preschoolers who spend a lot of time play-acting — the classic games of ‘Cowboys and Indians’, ‘Doctors and Nurses’, ‘Cops and Robbers’, and ‘Families’, for example — have higher creativity, are better at analysis, are more secure, and better at seeing someone else’s viewpoint. These are all qualities that the best creative writers