How to Create Consistently Great Content for the Long Haul

Image of Twyla Tharp Book Cover

Want to know a powerful secret weapon you can use in your quest for better creative output? Think of it as an industrial-strength antidote to resistance, creative blocks, and stale ideas.

This amazing secret weapon is called a habit.

Developing better creative habits is one of the most valuable things you can do as a content creator.

Legendary Choreographer Twyla Tharp’s practical book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, is a ground-breaking guide to becoming a calmer, better balanced, more productive creative professional.

Ms. Tharp’s book actually gives readers a system for facilitating peak creativity, without the craziness. The key is developing the right habits.

Let’s talk about some of this legendary choreographer’s suggestions for becoming a creative professional …

A storage system for creativity

When Ms. Tharp is starting a new choreography project, she begins with a box — a simple, cardboard box from an office supply store. She says,

I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

Tharp’s boxes help keep her organized — each project has a box (or eventually, a series of boxes). Everything related to a particular project goes into the box, and each box is a stake in the ground that represents her commitment to that project. If she needs to put a project on hold, she can always come back to the box and pick it up again, because she knows all her ideas are in one place, waiting for her to pick them up again.

When I start a new article (or when I was writing my book) I used a combination of Word documents, Delicious bookmarks, and file folders to keep all my ideas organized. Any system can work for content creators, as long as it’s flexible and sturdy enough to hold all of your ideas. Physical or virtual boxes (or a combination of the two) are both fine.

Evernote is a great tool for writers, as it allows us to tag and categorize information as we catalog it — making it easy to find later. Post-it notes are easy to use and incredibly flexible. Index cards are a tried-and-true writer’s tool.

The specifics of your holding bin don’t matter — what matters is that you have a system. Your boxes need to hold all of your research, mementoes, inspiration, newspaper clippings, flash drives, blog post links, and so forth. You also need to make sure that your system is sturdy and flexible enough that you can start (or restart) a project at any time by starting a new box or returning to an old one.

Powerful ways to get new ideas

When Ms. Tharp needs a new idea for a project, and she’s digging around for inspiration, she calls the process “scratching.”

The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.’


… Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going. I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won? That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging though everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Do I really need a system for finding inspiration? I’m a blogger. I create blog posts on how-to topics. My writing isn’t terribly creative.”

But here’s the truth we don’t often talk about — writing really miraculous posts absolutely, positively requires inspiration. My favorite examples of miraculous posts are Jon Morrow’s gorgeous essay on fighting for your ideas, Brian Clark’s moving post about the aftermath of his snowboarding accident, and Sonia Simone’s list of the bad habits of insanely productive people. All three are examples of great ideas, perfectly executed on the page.


We need inspiration to write compelling posts that resonates with our readers. And if you haven’t been struck by inspiration lately, you might find yourself “scratching” around for a new toehold.

So how can we facilitate the process of searching for our next great idea?

  • Free write. Just pull out a piece of paper (or open a new document), set a timer for 20 minutes, and free write. Keep your pen moving for the entire time, and don’t edit – just see what bubbles up. Read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within for more information on the concept of free writing.
  • Read. As writers, we should read a lot — it makes us better at our craft. But reading someone else’s work can often help us uncover our next great idea, too. So if you’re stuck, pick up a book and sit down in your favorite reading chair. And remember to make time to read outside of your usual topic.
  • Soak in someone else’s work of art. Visit an art museum, go to a dance performance, or attend a musical. Get inspired by watching the creative efforts of a fellow artist.
  • Be creative in a different way. Are you a musician, painter or singer, as well as a writer? If so, try immersing yourself in the other side of your creative life for a little while — you might be surprised at what rises to the surface.
  • Enjoy nature. Getting out of the house and watching nature can be a potent boost for your creative self. Try walking the dog, hiking, skiing, swimming, biking — or just go out and sit in the grass for ten minutes and watch the clouds.

The Creative Habit gives more killer exercises for scratching — make sure to check it out if you’re stuck for an idea.

Get (and stay) in shape

Ms. Tharp also emphasizes the importance of staying in our best possible creative shape. To do that, we need to make sure that we pay close attention to the details of our craft.

[Powerful creators] have mastered the underlying skills of their creative domain, and build their creativity on the solid foundation of those skills.

As content creators, we need to have strong writing skills in our toolbox. If our toolbox is well stocked, we can easily implement our killer ideas when inspiration strikes.

What are the best ways to stay in your best writing shape?

Read a lot. Immersing ourselves in great writing — magazine articles, blog posts, fiction and non-fiction books, plays, and poetry — gives us a solid foundation of grammar, syntax and rhythm that we just can’t get anywhere else.

To stay in shape and hone our craft, we also need to write a lot. We should write every day, if possible — even if it’s just for a little while.

As you become a better writer, you’ll not only get better ideas, you’ll be able to execute better when you do get inspired. It’s like being in shape as a dancer — if you take classes every day and keep your body in great shape, you have virtually no limits on what you can do physically. You will be able to handle the best choreography in the world, which makes you a great artist.

The same goes with your writing skills. If you know the rules of grammar and have an insane vocabulary, you can do anything you want when you sit down to write.

So write a lot. Then write even more. Make “working out” every day a part of your creative process.

Make creativity a habit

Being creative isn’t easy — it requires luck, skill and perseverance. But we can make our lives significantly easier by developing concrete habits that establish a solid foundation for our creativity.

As a writer, I know that good creative habits give me something to lean on, and they give me reassurance that even if I’m temporarily stuck, things will get un-stuck soon — because they always do. My habits are my creative security blanket — and that’s fine by me.

Henri Matisse said, “Creativity takes courage.” Admitting that we need systems and habits to facilitate our creativity also requires us to be brave. What are your best habits to help you through this crazy life as an innovative content creator?

About the Author: Beth Hayden is an author, speaker, and social media expert who specializes in Pinterest marketing. To find out how to get more traffic to your website or blog using Pinterest, grab your free copy of Beth’s e-book, The Definitive Guide to Driving Traffic with Pinterest.

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Comments

  1. Great insights and practical tips. I also use Paperless by Crush Apps to capture ideas and topics. Mark Levy wrote a great book on Freewriting called Accidental Genius. Also, I find that it’s helpful as Steven Pressfield would say, you’re a writer when you call yourself a writer. And, because of “turning pro” in our minds, we are in a writer’s mindset and will notice ideas, stories, topics everywhere. Having this mentality helps me fight through the resistance and get more of what I’m focused on. Thanks!

  2. Freewritimg—I first learned to freewrite from my 11th grade English teacher who made us do it on a regular basis. It was in his class that I first realized that I actually could write. 28 years later I still use free writing to work through blocks, brainstorm and uncover new ideas.

  3. The first time I tried freewriting I was amazed at how hard it is! You don’t realize how much stopping and starting you do while writing until you try to not stop and start. But it’s great for getting ideas out (some great and some terrible) and being okay with whatever comes out. No one says it has to be perfect the first time around.

  4. Stacks of notebooks in piles of boxes, mostly untouched, form the foundation of my creativity. I rid myself of a lot of toxic emotion and honed my writing skills in those notebooks. They are not for public consumption, but every once in a while I take a peek to confirm my progress as a human being and as a writer. Unlike Tharp, I don’t scratch through them for ideas now, but for confidence. Sometimes I need that ‘way more than creativity.

  5. Hi,

    This is a great post for a Friday!

    You know what they say about all work and no play, right?

    Sitting in the home office day after day can become stale, and you risk becoming a stale content writer. Knock off early one day during the week and do something fun like doing arts and crafts. Make something out of toothpicks or popsicle sticks. Get creative, get funky, and get jiggy with creativity. It will do your content creation good.

    *I like to take a break fro writing. Why? Because I need to refresh my mind, body, and soul. If I don’t take time to recharge, my writing becomes dull and boring. Plus, when I see the sun shining (I live in the Midwest), I have to take advantage of it and get outside. :)

    Do something fun and different this weekend? It will do you and your content writing good.

  6. Great piece Beth. I really needed that. My creative habit is connecting with people who are in different disciplines. It may be via Skype or in person but I really like to get to the people who are doing it.

    It’s cool to get an understanding of what their routines and habits are; as well as get an understanding of what they struggle with and how they overcome it.

    Thanks for the post. Look forward to meeting you at #SMMW13 and turning #HashtagsToHandshakes

  7. As a dancer, Twyla Tharp may have taken this for granted: physical exercise wakes the brain. My morning run is critical for getting my brain properly humming.

    • Max – Twyla Tharp does a workout at the same gym every day. She talks about her workout routine a lot in her book, and how it helps her get started with her day. Good stuff!

  8. I think this is the most helpful creative article I’ve read in a long time. As the daughter of a “scattered” designer, I believed for the longest time that creativity and inspiration just fell out of the sky like snowflakes. I wasn’t taught any habits or processes, and I assumed that none were needed.

    I keep my own hand in a few different creative endeavors, mainly writing, crafting, and graphic design. My favorite excuse for procrastination was ” I just can’t sit down and work, I need to be inspired.” And then it became clear that starving artists often become that way because they just don’t produce and ship on a regular basis. They’re waiting to be inspired. Bad idea.

    My favorite suggestion for a way to get your creative mind working for writing is to put active thought into things you do every day. If you wash the dishes every day, try describing the process in your head as your doing it, but from the point of view of someone else. It can spark a fictional story idea, or help you find a problem that you can solve for your readers that would make an amazing post. When you have the idea, write it down immediately. So many good ideas are lost when the phone rings or something else gets your attention.

    • Great suggestions, Joanna – thank you! And if you haven’t read it already, get Twyla Tharp’s book – it sounds like you would really enjoy it.

  9. Great tips Beth! I would even go a step further and say that another way to build your creativity is to take really good care of your creative instrument: yourself. When your properly nourish your body, your brain and your life, you’ll be an unstoppable creative force because you’ll finally have the energy, clarity and focus you need to perfectly execute your ideas. Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. “Be Creative” and “Grope in the Dark” are those legitimate quotes for a free writing. When I started to write, I used to write in a piece of paper. Many papers went into the dustbin; and finally it came out well in the end.

  11. Hey Beth your tips are very practical. Writing a lot keeps us stay in shape for sure. Writing is just like exercising your muscle. Initially it hurts and it is not very pleasant. But when you get used to it, the benefits are great.

    Also, yes I find myself to be very creative whenever I pick up a book that is outside my topic :)

  12. The first two years that I blogged, I posted daily. I didn’t care if I had followers or awesome SEO. I simply wanted a way to hold myself accountable for writing something every day. It was a terrific exercise in creating a habit. I ended up taking four years of posts down and starting a new blog. I extracted similar posts, cataloged them and put them into folders on my hard drive. I just published my first e-book and that content was an invaluable resource!

    When your job is driven by creativity on demand, it’s crucial to learn how to stay inspired. Great post, thank you!

    Cheers,
    Madge

  13. Beth, this is such a wonderful post!

    I have decent writing habits, but I know they could be so much better. And your post came at the perfect time when I was primed for such inspiration. :-) I was just thinking about how hard I’ve worked and focused to create better habits this year for eating better and exercising. And in a year, I’ve become pretty good at something (yoga) that a year ago I wasn’t even considering doing. Why? Habits and just doing it day after day after Namaste-saying day. Now imagine applying that elsewhere in my life and think about the gains in a year, five years, ten years.

    The power of habit is SO underrated. We so often think in terms of quick fixes as opposed to long-term patterns of behavior that will lead to slow but steady growth … but that growth is what sustains and is meaningful. And the tips you’ve provided here are SO useful for people trying to cultivate better creative habits. Excellent work!

    • Hey, Jerod! I agree that habits are totally underrated. And I love your yoga comparison…what could we do a year from now if we practiced these creative habits on a daily/weekly basis? Good stuff!

  14. Awesome article Beth. I was completely fed up in writing, but this post totally motivating 4 me. Thanks !!!!!!!!!!

  15. Beth,

    I loved this post. In fact I read it twice. I love the practical advice and suggestions on how to keep track of my ideas and stay creative.

    I am using a similar system for my ongoing projects. I keep everything for each project in its own bin. But I still need to improve on the other habits. It is hard to form good habits, but I seem to fall naturally into bad habits.

    Also, thanks for reminding me of how much I love Twyla Tharp’s incredible choreography. She is truly an inspiration. Check out her work in the movie Hair and in Nine Sinatra Songs.

    • Thanks, Clara! I need to go and watch some of Twyla’s work – I haven’t see any of her stuff! But man, did I love this book. I’m reading it again, this time with a highlighter in my hand.

  16. Hi Beth,
    I couldn’t agree more with you about this. I read somewhere- I can remember where but It might have been a post- that WRITING IS A MUSCLE! And, of course, this muscle needs to be trained everyday! It makes complete sense and I am not one of those who believe in the MUSE CALLING…::) I just think it’s an excuse not to face the blank page or sheet.

    I like the ideas you give regarding creativity! At the moment, I am developing my own creativity tools and they are very simple! Depending on my mood, I choose to write longhand! Staying away from the computer helps you use the creative side of your brain and since I can’t resist clicking here or there, it works for me!

    I am also using some form of drawings for article outlines and E-books for clients! I can’t draw really well ( in fact it’s quite horrible for someone to see) but I like using paper and crayons! It changes the way you decide what to write about and ideas just flow!

    When I brainstorm, I do some mind mapping but there again, no computer! I have bought myself a nice drawing pad and it’s now part of my writing arsenal! I used to dictate too since I once worked in a law firm and used this method quite a lot! It’s good when you have quick ideas but a pad can do to!

    Anyway, I have noticed that creative habits improve my writing “muscle” but also prevent me from getting bored because writing on the computer all day long can be a creative killer!!

    Hope my little techniques will inspire some of you.

    Regards,

    Yoan

    • I love these ideas, Yoan! Thanks for sharing. Mind mapping is fantastic for me, especially for large projects. Gives me some structure to hang the project on, and it seems less overwhelming that way.

      • Thanks, Beth! I actually bought Mind Mapping ( the book) by Tony Buzan, who is the absolute authority in the field and it’s incredibly interesting! Leonardo Da Vinci, Gallileo and Einstein already used Mind Mapping!! We can all become geniuses in our own right! I know that many top Hollywood screenwriters use mind mapping too! Apparently the key to a really good mind map is keyword which must match the exact same length as the branch. I am reading it now, so I’ll know more! It’s also important to have TOTALLY NON-LINEAR BRANCHES as this is how our brain is; non-linear!! I can’t stand the long lists anymore!!

        Regards,

        Yoan

  17. Passion, hard work and creative habit are the 3 cornerstones of successful bloggers / blogging.

  18. Great tips, Beth! The nature point you make is really amazing; we have an unlimited resource of inspiration whenever we step outside.

  19. If something isn’t working for me I like to jump into a new doc and just freewrite a load of stuff without the constraints of the surrounding book. Once the paragraphs are edited into shape I can simply cut and paste them into the book and delete the temp doc.

    Must be a psychological thing!

  20. Thanks Beth. This is a great collection of ideas.

    We always need to be reminded.

  21. I am encouraged to know that other people like me struggle to keep pace with their creative work of writing

  22. The post absolutely speaks my mind. I am not an English native speaker so I think I could understand this the best than anybody else. I don’t have such advantage of using the language naturally as you guys but I believe practicing is the greatest key ever to the writing success. Keep practicing until it comes as a habit in your blood and nothing can take it out. That is actually how I learnt to improve my English (in all comprehensive skills not just writing). A great great post Beth!

  23. Pawel Piejko :

    Being creative all the time can be daunting, but I agree that small habits are the key aspect in this case. And I have my own example too. It’s trying to get to work taking a different route (or at least with a different mean of transportation) every day. It’s not easy but fun, every day starts in a different way :)

  24. Ahh yes, habits. Aren’t they amazing? I certainly think so; in fact I think I mention them in almost every single blog post I write!

    I have somewhat of a system, but I’d love it to be more integrated. Evernote continually pops up all over the internet and I feel as if I should make the switch over from MS OneNote, problem is, OneNote is so tightly intertwined with Windows 8 that it’s such a pleasure to use. I don’t own a smartphone at the moment, maybe I’ll have a look into Evernote when I get one. I’d rather go paperless in any situation, of course – that’s just me.

    That’s a really well written excerpt there, going in my ‘findings and words’ box for sure ;) I have a strong belief that anything can be creative (I say anything quite loosely). Even if you’re blogging about finance – you can be creative. There’s no limits.

    I’ve used the free-writing technique before, it’s worked well. These days I sort of provide myself with an outline, whether it be sub-headings or a few quotes – but after that I just type as fast as possible; maybe that’s why I get my blog posts done so fast!

    Thanks heaps, Beth! Really enjoyed this post :)

  25. I was blessed with creativity. It seems to ooze out of me, sometimes so much that I’m overwhelmed because I can’t do all I’d like to do fast enough. It’s a nice problem to have. That said, I still have my days where I sit at the computer with nothing. Your suggestions – read, free write, look at other’s creative work, do a different creative venture, and nature – are spot on. When I feel stuck at writing, I play music, read a book, look at photos, or go out in nature and take photos. It works wonders. That’s why my blog http://www.danerickson.net has such variety of posts. poems, books, music, and photos.

  26. Rachel Michael :

    Great tips and valuable insight! Working from home, it is often challenging to get into a writing “groove” due to external factors like kids, household duties, and keeping things running smoothly. You have good advice and I will definitely use it! I have found that sometimes the things that keep you from being able to write can also be an inspiration for a topic. Thanks again!

  27. Great article, Beth! Thanks for sharing those amazing tips and useful information.

    I agree with you all the way. Creativity is fueled by experiences, sights, sounds and smells. Sitting still won’t bring new ideas in; experimenting and trying new things will jog your creativity.

    We’ve recently published an article on this matter, please allow me to share it with you – http://www.nnc-services.com/blog/how-to-create-more-quality-content-with-the-little-time-you-have/.