The mindset of a successful writer

I guess most of us who write got into the game with some sort of vague, inchoate idea that we had a story to tell, and wouldn’t really be at peace with ourselves unless we tried to tell it.  Some may have wanted to write the Great American Novel, or whatever their national version thereof might have been, but I think they’re few and far between.

I’m sure many of us encountered discouragement from our family and friends, too, as Scott Adams recently illustrated.

Dilbert 20 July 2020

(The following day’s cartoon, on the same subject, is also amusing.)

Be that as it may, I found a recent article on the BBC to be a useful primer on the mindset for success as a writer (and almost anything else, for that matter).  Here’s a brief excerpt.

Whenever you read about the secrets of success, you’ll no doubt come across that well-known quote from Thomas Edison, that “genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration”.

While inventing the lightbulb, we are told, he tried 3,000 attempts before finally finding a suitable filament that would glow without immediately burning out. The story is meant to be the inspirational reminder that things like natural creativity are often much less important than dogged determination.

There’s no doubt that passion and perseverance are essential to reaching your long-term goals. But it’s important to remember the strategic process that Edison went through to reach his goal. He didn’t just haphazardly move from one failed design after another, after all, but constantly adapted and refined his ideas. “I would construct a theory and work on its lines until I found it was untenable,” he told Harper’s magazine in 1890. “Then it would be discarded at once and another theory evolved.” At each step of the journey, he was making intelligent decisions that learnt from the failures and built on the small successes.

. . .

The construct – called the “strategic mindset” – describes the tendency to question and refine your current approach in the face of setbacks and challenges. While others diligently follow the same convoluted path, people with the strategic mindset are constantly looking for a more efficient route forwards. “It helps them figure out how to direct their efforts more effectively,” says Patricia Chen at the National University of Singapore. And Chen’s new research shows that it may just spell the difference between success or failure.

. . .

To find out, Chen and her team of researchers put together a questionnaire to test the strategic mindset, and you can try it for yourself below. Simply rate the following statements on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (all the time):

  • When you are stuck on something, how often do you ask yourself: “What are things I can do to help myself?”
  • Whenever you feel like you are not making progress, how often do you ask yourself: “Is there a better way of doing this?”
  • Whenever you feel frustrated with something, how often do you ask yourself: “How can I do this better?”
  • In moments when you feel challenged, how often do you ask yourself: “What are things I can do to make myself better at this?”
  • When you are struggling with something, how often do you ask yourself: “What can I do to help myself?”
  • Whenever something feels difficult, how often do you ask yourself: “What can I do to get better at this?”

The higher you score, the more likely you are to have a strategic mindset.

There’s more at the link.

I found this a useful exercise in examining my own writing and working habits.  I’ve already identified several areas where I can improve them.  Also, Edison’s approach to failure is a useful approach to plotting, too.  Getting blocked in one direction?  Try another, and another, and another.  Don’t stop tinkering with the storyline.  Sooner or later, something will work.

Consider the “strategic mindset” in relation to your own creative and writing and working style, and let us know what you think in a comment below.  I figure we can all stand to improve, no matter how experienced or successful (or not!) we may be.

12 thoughts on “The mindset of a successful writer

  1. I was going to say that implementation matters, too. You can’t just ask yourself these questions. You have to do something about any answers you come up with.

    Then I realized that point goes to perseverance, which we all recognize matters.

    So, on the original question of mindset, I sometimes have to gain detachment to see that something isn’t working. I might be fond of a notion, a cover, a course of action, at an emotional level. Separating from those feelings is helpful to improving one’s work.

    The other part of the strategic mindset is taking in feedback. I have wonderful beta readers. They’re honest. The worst thing ever is when they tell me something I don’t want to hear and I know they’re right. But if you get the honest feedback and the reader part of your brain screams at you that the feedback is right, you may need to do something about it.

  2. One of my books close at hand is the Clifton StrengthsFinder. Wound up being less worth than I originally expected, but it does have words for and descriptions of 30+ positive qualities observed in humans.

    One of the interesting qualities on the list is Strategic. One way it is interesting is because it can be broken down into a couple of habits, and potentially improved by taking up those habits. One habit is making plans, another is analyzing plans, and maybe a third is tracking how one’s plans go, and making revisions. It is harder to make a strategy around a process that one knows so little about that one doesn’t know it exists, or how it could be carried out.

    When I first read the book, Strategic was one of the ones I didn’t know if I had to any useful degree. On the for side, I do have a habit of study and analysis, and this includes other people’s plans. On the against side, I lived significant chunks of my life too ill to really do much of my own planning.

    I like to play strategy games some times, but I do it them easy mode, and do not like ones that do not permit brute force. What I have discovered is that other players of those games seem to be using mental bandwidth for a lot of thought that I do not put into the games. This seems to apply also to other types of game.

  3. I’m a bit like the Far Side cartoon about the School for the Gifted, where the kid’s pushing as hard as he can on the door marked “pull.” Except I have this bad habit of not knowing that I wasn’t supposed to be able to do Z thing, until after I do it. Oops.

    I tend to step back, snarl, hiss, kick gravel, occasionally whine for a moment or two, then take a deep breath and shift into problem solving mode. “Right, then. I’m ticked, but the mess is right here and it’s not going away. How can I deal with it in order to get on with things I’d rather do/solve it as painlessly as possible/fix it so it goes away once and for all.”

  4. Can boring people write hilarious books?
    Of course! Exhibit A: PG Wodehouse

    A similar approach I’ve heard is “don’t worry about the daily results; improve the process instead, and the results will follow”

  5. Well, I’m moderately strategic in that I’ve found the timing of releases that works, and how to deal with writing blocks. I need to turn it on to Marketing, next.

    Writing-wise, when it stops dead, I have a check list.

    (1) Have I used too many allergy meds? Changed any of my prescription within the last few weeks? Started eating too many carbs again? Too much caffeine?

    No? Then it’s the writing, not the writer.

    (2) Diagram the try-fails in what I’ve got so far. Generally I tend toward too many successes for too few minor failures.

    (3) Get clear in my head what type of story this is (betrayal and revenge/sin and redemption/boy meets girl/local boy does good/impersonation/quest), and where it is and isn’t sticking to that main theme.

    (4) Back up a chapter and write something different. Especially if you killed someone. Your subconscious may have plans for him, somewhere down the road.

    (5) Go read a good book.

    1. Now I want to know who you’ve un-killed. Did Rael kill Kitchen the first time around?

  6. I’ve found that the biggest problem applying this sort of thing to my life is noticing there is a problem in the first place. Once I see it, I set about fixing it – but it may go on for awhile before I notice anything.

  7. Try new techniques. I’m trying a structure to fit my plot in because I’ve found that plots with mysteries in them don’t just flow for me.

    Especially when I know what the character will find in the end.

  8. Looking at that list of questions, I never ask myself any of those when writing. I only ask things like: “How do you blow up a star, and would that solve the problem?” Or: “If you nuked that from orbit, what would that look like?”

    Not a strategic thinker. More of a dreamer and scribbler. I do everything completely wrong. ~:D

  9. I notice that the questionnaire leaves out an essential point: how often are you able to answer those questions? I can ask myself those questions all day long, 24/7/365, but if I don’t have answers for them – and I usually don’t – it does me no good at all.

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