The desk and the window: two writing modes you need to harness to write great non-fiction
Updated: Feb 10, 2022
Writers are often advised to develop a writing habit that runs like clockwork: to produce at least a thousand words a day, or to be at their desk at exactly the same time each morning. Routines can be useful, but writing encompasses several different kinds of activity, and you need to be able to switch between them. What works for one mode of writing may not work for another.
Non-fiction writing requires imagination and vision, just as fiction does. To decide how to frame a topic requires you to have an angle on it, and to be able to tell a story about it. Finding out what’s really important to you about an area of knowledge and working out how to approach is rarely done by applying a set formula. You need to be able to detect the glimmer of an idea and give it space to develop, whenever and wherever it occurs to you. This is an iterative process that might happen gradually over a few days, weeks or months. It often requires an alert but unfocused, and not particularly goal-directed mindset; the kind you might have while gazing out of the window. The insights you need may emerge gradually; if you can allow your mind to gently roll the ideas over one another, a shape will begin to form. It's an important process, and it doesn't always fit with fixed 60-minute writing 'sessions'.
This is often what people associate with ‘being creative’: releasing the constraints and limitations on your thinking and seeing what emerges. In fact, it’s only half the story. Being open and flexible on its own does not lead to creative progress. Combining it with a set of constraints and conventions is what does. Without this second mode, your writing will be directionless and unfocused. Non-fiction writing (and arguably some fiction writing too) is not primarily about self-expression, but about communication. Even if your topic and approach is highly innovative, successful communication depends on working with, not against. your audience’s expectations of how information is structured and presented to them. As Samuel Johnson wrote, the writer’s task is to make ‘the new familiar and the familiar new’.
Successful writing depends on being able to place boundaries around your ideas, like the edges of the desk. Once you've begun gathering material and ideas, in your 'window' phase, you do need to start defining the shape of the container that they will be placed in. How long will your book be? How many chapters should it have? Then, when you have written a first draft, there are the tasks of editing, polishing and refining, which also require switching into 'desk' phase, the critical, narrowly focused gaze.
An important skill to develop when writing is learning to switch between the two modes when you need to. If you are in a highly critical, focused mindset when trying to develop ideas, you may miss interesting, unexpected connections between your ideas. In a highly open, flexible mode, you'll find it difficult to nail down your draft into a final form. The other thing about the writing process is that it is itself non-linear and not completely predictable. It is not necessarily the case that you will do all your open, blue-sky thinking at the beginning of your project and then move into a focused writing and editing mode that faithfully transmits your ideas to the page. In practice you will have to move between these different modes throughout your project as your ideas and writing evolve.
Here are few practical methods for effectively harnessing these two modes of creativity in your writing.
Gain insight into how you operate in the two modes
Start becoming aware of these two modes of creativity and how you use them. Do you have a bias towards one or other of them? Do you tend to assume that one of them is ‘better’ or more valid than the other? If so, why? Experiment with redressing any imbalance in the way that you employ them. You might, for example, find that you are better at focused, goal-oriented work such as editing and fact-checking first thing in the morning, and that you do better at more open, exploratory thinking later in the day. You might find that different locations are more conducive to each: focused writing sessions at your desk interspersed with exploratory thinking while going for a walk.
Capture and map your thinking
While the process of exploring ideas and finding new connections is by its nature unpredictable, it should not be random and without structure. You need to find ways of capturing and developing the insights that you come up with, otherwise they will quickly be lost. New solutions and ideas often pop up when you’re not actively trying to find them – when you’re on the bus or cooking dinner. Get into the habit of carrying a notebook or having a notetaking app on your phone that you can quickly jot them down in. Then develop a routine of looking back over them, ideally soon afterwards. This might work best in a fixed daily 10-minute slot. You'll need some method of recording your ideas and seeing how they relate to your existing ones, including any notes that you build up during your research. There are many ways of doing this, such as mind-mapping, using apps such as Evernote, or the Zettelkasten note-taking method. Experiment until you find something that works for you. The main thing is that you find a way of mapping and tracing the connections between your evolving set of insights about your topic.
Understand that writing is thinking
It is not a case of exploring ideas, choosing the right one, making a plan and then writing everything down. Writing is not the faithful transcription of pre-existing thinking. It is the thinking. It is only when you turn the ideas in your head into written words that you pin down your ideas and can see them for what they are. It is only through writing them down that you will detect ambiguity, vagueness and contradictions. The process of writing clarifies your thought and reveals the holes in it. Having had a stab at writing something down, you will likely have to go off and plug the gaps through further reflection or reading and other kinds of research. This is why the book plan that you initially draw up is likely to change as you begin writing. This doesn’t mean planning is pointless – to start writing you need a direction to head off in – but at the same time your route is likely to evolve as the process of writing reveals new things. Don’t be put off planning, but remember that plans need to be flexible and open.
Understand your genre
Placing the edges around your ideas that are needed to make them comprehensible for others is a key part of the writing process. Knowing where to place these edges comes from an understanding of the conventions of your genre, whether food, business or self-help. Writing with an eye to these conventions does not mean that you are being unoriginal. Even authors of highly experimental novels exist in a tradition and write on the basis of a deep understanding of literary conventions, playing with them in new and unexpected ways. Particularly when communicating a field of knowledge or a set of skills, readers will expect a clear structure and sequence of information. Getting to know books in your own and in related genres will suggest ingredients to include in your own approach. It will be your approach, but it will not come from nowhere and your readers will thank you for judiciously blending the new with the familiar, which is the basis of good communication.
So, even if you don't have an actual desk by an actual window, you'll certainly need to deploy the two modes of writing they represent. Leave a comment to let us know how you get on.