There Is A “Best” Pattern for Creative Work – Find Yours

Creativity is a much-studied activity that no one truly understands. And some of what we don’t understand about it includes:

  • How it occurs,
  • What triggers it, and
  • How we can control it.

So in this post I’m intending to write entirely about my own experiences doing – and not doing – creative work.

Creativity Is A Flow

One of the first things I noticed about my own creativity is that it just flows out of me. I can have a creative thought in the shower, at dinner, walking along, chatting with friends, reading a book, watching TV or a film, listening to music, even falling asleep.

I’m not really able to turn it off. I have given birth to creative thoughts in the strangest places, at the least appropriate times, in the most difficult circumstances. Over the years, I learned to write down a lot of this stuff, because when the creative fever passes, I often can’t recall what I was thinking while I was in its throes.

I Can’t Force Creativity

Although creative ideas flow out of me with astounding regularity, the flow is not under my conscious control.

As I said, I’m not able to “turn off” my creativity, and – symmetrically enough – I’m not really able to “turn on” my creativity, either. Although I haven’t ever tried this experiment, I’m willing to bet I can’t meet the challenge of coming up with a certain number of creative thoughts in a certain period of time.

Sure, on demand I can come up with quite a few random thoughts, and you might even be generous enough to call them “creative.” But I wouldn’t honor them with such a highfalutin rubric. Most of them will probably be silly, stupid, childish, crazy, or some combination of all four.

For me, trying to fill a quota will generally not produce creative thoughts that (as they should, in my view):

  • Meet a need,
  • Point toward a purpose,
  • Exhibit relevant meaning,
  • Feel satisfying, or
  • Spark a lot of enthusiasm in others.

I Can Make Creativity Happen

Nevertheless, I have found ways to “set the table” for creativity, so I can sit down and wait to see if any ideas show up to feast.

These ways include:

  • Setting forth a clear purpose for the creative ideas I’m anticipating, which could be anything from “selling breakfast cereal” to “explaining the motivation of a character,” and beyond.
  • Sitting quietly without distractions and waiting for inspiration to hit.
  • Avoiding other activities, such as sharpening pencils or straightening my desk. If I’m there to write, I’m there to write – and do nothing else.
  • “Piggybacking” or building on any creative ideas that do show up, as a method of generating more ideas. Maybe the character needs money. (Yeah, that’s a good idea!) Maybe she needs it to pay for her mother’s life-saving surgery. (Yeah, that’s another good one!) Maybe she needs to borrow it from her boss. (Yeah, that could happen!) You get the idea.
  • Avoiding any judgment of my creative ideas. That process comes later. For now, during the “idea generation” process (part of which I described in the previous bullet), there’s no room for negativity, objections, rejections, or rebuffs of any kind.

I understand that I am very lucky to have some kind of a creativity muscle in me that has performed so well so far. I recognize that many people feel they don’t have one. I hope they are wrong. In fact, I am pretty sure they are wrong.

In my view and experience, most people of average or better intelligence can tap into a wellspring of creativity if only they have the courage to try and the techniques to support their creative efforts.

I Can Exhaust My Creativity

If you will join me in considering creativity to be much like athleticism, as in the metaphor of my having a creative muscle, you will readily see that every creative effort I make is going to require a commensurate effort at recuperation. I breathe in, I breathe out. I exert, I rest. I strain my brain, and then I make an attempt to soothe my brain.

What’s more, as with athletes, the quality of my performance as a creative person has exhibited good seasons and bad seasons, good days and bad days, even good times of day and bad times of day. There are periods when the ideas come thick and fast, then other periods when I have nothing creative to contribute. Of course, there are many periods that fall in between these extremes.

Just like an artesian well that brings fresh water from hidden sources, my flow of creativity seems to exhibit its own pace. I have never tried to plug it up, but I imagine if I did the urge to be creative would build up pressure until it would overflow.

I have occasionally tried to drain my creativity too much, and I have then found myself in a period where my creativity ran dry. Fortunately, this has lasted only for a relatively short period of time. But I have known people who have come to the end of their creativity.

It seems sensible that the creative juices can thin out and even dry up as the creative person ages – not always, of course, but often enough to warrant notice. In the same way that athletes “lose a step” in the latter part of their careers, creative professionals may similarly find themselves coming up with fewer or weaker ideas. I honestly don’t know if this is happening to me. So far, I don’t perceive any such changes. But if and when it begins to happen, I’m hoping I’ll accept the changes with grace.

You Can Find and Nurture Patterns of Creativity

All these attributes of the creative flow lead to an inescapable reality: creativity exhibits patterns. I have mine. I would expect that you have yours.

If you can chart and understand these patterns, you have a fighting chance to nurture them. This will allow you to increase both the total amount of creativity you generate over your lifetime as well as your ability to direct your creativity when and where needed in hopes of accomplishing specific tasks and meeting specific goals.

I’m not telling you what your patterns of creativity might be. I’m merely encouraging you to expect that your creativity muscle is probably subject to one or more patterns, with highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses, good and bad periods, and the like. Look for them, and make use of them so you can more fully benefit from the creative flow that emanates from somewhere inside you.

If and when you find your patterns of creativity, please let me know.

I’ll be glad to hear from you about your creative patterns, not only to help me learn more about my own creativity, but so I can share some of the joy and satisfaction I can guarantee you will feel after you have gained a little more understanding of the profoundly exciting experiences your creativity has provided you – and will continue to provide you – over the years.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.

Keep Your Creativity and Your Business Separate

One of the biggest mistakes that a creative professional can make is to blur the line between creative efforts and business efforts. You don’t expect a doctor to diagnose every person she meets. You don’t expect an auto mechanic to tune up every engine she encounters. You don’t expect a musician to sing every line she utters and never speak.

In the same way, you shouldn’t expect yourself to bring your creativity to every business task you tackle.

It’s Just Business, Not Personal

The brightest line between business and creative activities demarcates the simple fact that lots of people can do business, but only you can do your creative work. That’s why it’s important you learn to recognize when you are doing business, and when you are creating, and that you intentionally bring different traits and skillsets to each of these two categories of activity.

When to Wear Your Creative Hat

Obviously, you’ll want to wear your creative hat when you are fulfilling a creative impulse, or a creative contract. This includes the times when you are actually working, but also such times as when you are:

  • Planning the work,
  • Contemplating the work,
  • Researching or investigating the work,
  • Gearing up for the work, and
  • Polishing the work.

These are among the times when you’ll be drawing on your professional training and experience, tapping into your innate creative resources, and generally “letting rip” your creative powers. You’ll be in or near – or trying to achieve – a state of flow. You’ll be making your own professional choices and decisions. You’ll be enjoying yourself in what will often become a “peak” experience.

During these times, you need not – and should not – be thinking about business considerations.

When to Wear Your Business Hat

But at other times, you’ll want to doff your creative hat and put on that more practical, more hard-headed, more logical and material hat that denotes your emphasis on a “business” frame of mind.

When you wear your business hat, you’ll almost pretend that your “creative” side belongs to another person. You’ll stop trying to solve problems in new ways, stop trying to “send a message” or “deliver meaning” to an audience, stop trying to draw on those creative talents and innovative ideas that others just don’t have.

Instead, you’ll put into practice some basic, simple functions that reflect a well-defined collection of black-and-white guidelines and practical policies that have been shown to maximize your level of success in the world of business.

These include times when you are:

  • Pricing
  • Billing
  • Collecting
  • Marketing
  • Negotiating
  • Networking

Let’s take a closer look at each of these, in turn.

Pricing – As a professional writer, you produce output. This output is worth money. How much money it’s worth depends to a large extent on the value you set for it, and your determination in sticking to that valuation.

Pricing is a purely business function that depends primarily on how much “supply” you can deliver, how much “demand” there is for your output, and what range of values “the market” allows for your work.

For example, if you can crank out a professional-quality piece of work in a day, you’ll probably be satisfied to take less for it than if the same work takes you a week, a month, or a year. What’s more, if you can find only one buyer for your work, you’ll probably be forced to take less for whatever you write than if 25 buyers are clamoring for everything you can produce.

In the same way, the market sets a range of prices for your work based on the number of suppliers, the number of demanders, and other key market factors.

To illustrate: if your competition charges $5,000 to $10,000 for a certain kind of written item, you’ll probably be hard pressed to get $20,000 for something similar that you generate. But you’d almost certainly have an easy time getting $2,000 for it. Pretty much the same situation obtains for work that falls into all different price ranges.

Given all this, the Holy Grail of pricing professional work is to find the price that brings you the most money. This could entail selling lots of lots of material at relatively low prices, selling very few pieces at very high prices, or – for most of us – selling many pieces at prices well within the range established by many other professional writers.

Setting a price entails very little creativity. It is much more like practical experimentation. If buyers are reluctant to accept your price, that’s a signal it may be too high. If buyers snap up your work, that’s a signal you may be pricing it too low. For most of us, the goal is usually to find the “Goldilocks” price that’s just right.

Billing – As a professional writer, you ask for money for your work. This entails not only setting a price, but drawing up an “invoice” of some kind that states the item you are selling, the buyer of it, and the price you’ve established for the work, along with any relevant conditions such as rights or royalties.

You might also establish other conditions, such as how long you’re giving the buyer to pay, how the money is to be paid, and so forth. Billing also entails communicating this information to your buyer. There’s little or no creativity involved in this work, yet it’s important to do it well, on a timely basis, and to keep track of who you have billed for what.

Collecting – As a professional writer, pricing and billing are only two of the business tasks you’ll need to accomplish in order to receive payment for your work. Collecting is perhaps most important, because without the act of collecting the money you’ve asked for through pricing and billing – particularly when buyers are slow to respond to your routine billing efforts – you may never get paid.

Collecting begins with checking the bills you have sent out and determining your next action on each of them. For relatively fresh bills you’ve just sent out, you’ll probably decide to wait and do nothing extra.

But as a particular bill “ages,” there will come a time when you’ll want to consider contacting the buyer to see how far along she is in paying your bill, then later perhaps sending the same bill again as a “reminder” that you’re still waiting to get paid, and eventually taking more drastic steps. These might include cutting off any further deliveries of your work, charging interest on the unpaid balance, asking a professional “collector” to go and get your money, or taking the buyer to court.

I don’t see any need for creativity here. Do you?

Marketing – As a professional writer, you’re interested in selling your work. Naturally, you can’t sell unless you can find buyers, which automatically brings you into the realm of marketing.

While there may be some creativity involved in marketing efforts, you don’t need to expend any of your own creativity in this area. Very intelligent and creative people have spent many years developing lots of interesting and effective ways to find buyers, and to persuade them to buy. All you have to do is study the world of marketing and emulate what the most effective marketers do.

Marketing itself is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s well within my scope to suggest that you include marketing as a prominent part of what you do when you’re wearing your business hat.

Negotiating – As a professional writer, you’ll regularly be making deals with buyers who want to obtain some of your work. As soon as someone expresses interest, you’re a denizen of the world of negotiation. You’ll want to reach agreement with each buyer on the terms of each purchase, including your obligations to the buyer and the buyer’s obligations to you.

Although there are some “industry standards” for the sale of professional writing, there remains a great deal of latitude within the areas of rights, promises, remedies for broken promises, deadlines, parameters of the work you’re selling and more.

As with marketing, you don’t need to invent any negotiation techniques. Simply study and learn what the best negotiators do, and add those skills and behaviors to the repertoire you draw on when you’re wearing your business hat.

Here’s a link to something I wrote previously about negotiating for professional writers.

Networking – As a professional writer, relationships are frequently central to your success. Relationships bring you opportunities to sell your work, to learn new skills, to expand your creative powers, and more. These relationships have to be started and cultivated, which is precisely where networking becomes important.

As with marketing and negotiating, there’s little advantage to you expending your creative energy on developing new and better ways to network. Simply recognize the need for it and utilize the well-established best practices of networking, which you should do on a regular basis. This is an important task for the times you’re wearing your business hat, and you should consider it so.

Over the years, I’ve found great pleasure in watching talented writers grow from timid souls who feel that the “business side” of our profession is “not their cup of tea” to marveling at the raw power and financial benefits these same writers can produce by putting a little elbow grease into the mechanics of business, without ever compromising their inborn creative capacities.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.


The More Unique and Popular You Are, the More Your Compensation

How much does a writer for your local advertising weekly earn? How much does J.K. Rowling earn?

What’s the reason for the difference?

In my view, there are primarily two reasons.

First, popularity. A lot more people read Rowling than the advertising rag. It’s only natural she earns more.

The second reason is a little more esoteric: uniqueness. Almost anyone who can string 50 words together can write for the advertiser. Only Rowling was able to deliver more Harry Potter.

If you think about it, this same paradigm is pretty much true of pretty much every other career path:

  • Unique and popular musicians earn more than cover bands.
  • Unique and popular actors earn more than extras.
  • Unique and popular visual artists earn more than those who only copy the Great Masters.
  • Unique and popular historians earn more than high school history teachers.

And so forth.

Let’s be clear here: I’m not telling you what to write. I’ve worked with lots of people and I’ve never told any of them what to work on next. I’m just saying that if I like a certain kind of material, and I can get similar material from a hundred or a thousand different writers, I’m going to pay relatively little for the next installment of that material.

I’m going to pay a lot more for the next installment of material I can get only from one writer.

Is this just another argument for you to find and cultivate your own voice? Absolutely. That’s one of the main reasons I encourage you to strive with all your might toward becoming the best version of your creative self that you possibly can be.

Is this another hurdle on the road to success that you have to leap? It doesn’t have to be. Many people I’ve worked with start out fearful that finding and developing their unique voice is a terrible obstacle that’s difficult to overcome. As I’ve coached and mentored and counseled them, I’ve helped them recognize that it’s really an opportunity. In fact, it’s a privilege and an opportunity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.