How to kill creativity

Word count: 749 words

Reading time: About 3 minutes

Today’s column is five-step guide on how to kill creativity. Follow these steps carefully, and I guarantee you’ll never be able to avoid writer’s block ever again!

There I was, sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for my appointment. Actually, it was much later than my allotted time because the doctor was outrageously tardy. Staving off boredom, I methodically went through all the messages on my iPhone — even Tweetdeck — then I started looking for something new to read. Fortunately, the slush pile of magazines included the hidden gem of the December 2009 Psychology Today.

An article titled How to Kill Creativity immediately grabbed my eyes. Brilliant! First, let’s talk for a minute about why this headline is so effective. Number 1, it tells you exactly what the article is about. If you’re not intrigued by the topic, you’ll skip by it; if you are interested, you’ll know to read the article. Keep in mind that eliminating readers who won’t be interested is just as valuable as attracting readers who will be. We’re all busy people and don’t have time to read things we don’t care about.

Number 2, “kill” is a sensational, attention-getting verb. Good verbs almost always lead to good writing. Number 3, headlines beginning with the words “how to” generally attract readers because they know the article is almost guaranteed to be specific and practical. Number 4, it’s a negative headline (who would ever want to kill creativity?) The five-year-old in all of us gets a big chuckle out of negatively. As well, the more mature 25-year-old in all of us understands that negative lessons are just as valuable as positive ones.

In fact, the headline was so good, I’ve borrowed it for my column today.

Okay, now let’s move on to the text. I’ve taken the five ideas expressed in the original magazine article, and added my own comments, focusing strictly on why they kill creativity in writing.

Know exactly what you’re doing before you get started. Writing is the act of discovering. It’s not so much recording as it is working things out. This is exactly why I am so wildly opposed to making outlines. Outlining presumes that you can figure out every idea in advance. Instead, I encourage you to mindmap — a much more freeing and less nailed-down approach — and then be open to whatever changes occur when you write. As a friend of mine likes to say: “Changing your writing is an opportunity, not a root canal.”

Be careful not to offend. I worked in newspapers for a long time and I can guarantee that whatever you write will almost always offend someone. If you’re working for a client, I’ll admit it usually doesn’t make sense to offend him or her. But remember: You’re not chiseling your words onto a stone. Your work can (and should) be changed later. But, for now, turn off that censor inside your head and write whatever you please.

Get permission. We writers are delicate little flowers. We need sun, water and nutrients. A rough wind can ruffle our blossoms. The last thing we need is permission to bloom. Writing and publication are two separate matters. Don’t mix them up! Just as you shouldn’t worry about who you might offend, you should never get permission to write anything. Write for yourself and worry about the necessary permissions when you edit.

Run it by everyone first. I’m old fashioned this way, but I don’t show my writing to anyone until I’m 99% satisfied with it. I didn’t show a rough draft of my book, 8½ steps to writing faster, better to anyone — not even my husband — until I had a rough draft finished and self-edited. At that point, I sent it to a dozen trusted friends and colleagues for comment. Then, and only then, I sent it to a professional copy editor. That’s the best order to follow.

Criticize yourself at every step. We all have our own internal editors. And they are almost always our harshest critics. They seem to especially enjoy being abrasive when we’re writing. Stop and think about how you talk to yourself when you write. Do you say things such as, “This is so bad, I’m embarrassed to show my writing to anybody.” Do you berate yourself with, “I’m not making any sense here” or even worse, “This sucks”? Your internal critic does have an important role to play — but not while you are writing — only later, when you’re editing.

When you’re writing, of course you don’t want to kill creativity! Instead, you want to breathe life into it.