What Powerful Behaviors Do the Most Successful Writers Share? Todd Henry Knows.

Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to feature this interview with author and creative systems pro Todd Henry as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.

Todd is the founder of The Accidental Creative, a haven for creative professionals seeking practical inspiration for breakthrough ideas.

Follow Todd on Twitter @ToddHenry. Follow Accidental Creative @BeAccidental.

Matt Gartland: Your creative work concentrates at the epicenter of brilliant idea generation. One of your wonderful mantras for fostering one’s next great idea is “serendipity through structure.” Being a successful author in addition to a creative professional, how should writers struggling with preemptive writing blocks adopt this ideology into their lives?

Todd Henry: It’s critical to have a system for your writing. You need to have regular times when you do your work, and you need to at least sit down and churn out work at each of those pre-assigned times.

I’ve known of some writers who are able to write when they feel like it, but I’ve found that most of the great ones I’ve encountered treat their work like a job. They show up at an assigned time each day regardless of whatever else is happening in their world. This is especially critical when working on a long-arc project.

When I was working on The Accidental Creative, I would get up, walk to the local coffee shop, and write from 5:30a-7:30a every morning, and on Sundays from 6a-noon. I found that when I got my work out of me first thing in the morning, it cleared the creative pipeline throughout the rest of my day.

It can be in the evening, or at lunch-time too, but your mind needs some predictability about it in order to do its best work.

MG: Your first book, The Accidental Creative, was traditionally published by Portfolio to great success. You also have a strong digital presence with your podcast and community, and are empathetic to the causes of creative revolutions. Given this vantage point, what do you foresee for the future of writing and publishing?

TH: There are many people offering advice about “the future”, and I’m certainly not in a position to be able to accurately say what will be happening in publishing in five years. Truthfully, I think there is a lot still up in the air and we’re very early in the transition to digital.

The one thing I can say confidently is that great work will get read. It may be by a smaller, more niched audience of rabid fans, but it will get read. The challenge is that with platforms available for anyone wanting to share their thoughts, finding the really great stuff – the role the publisher has traditionally played – will be the responsibility of the reader.

Curation will become more important than ever. I believe that traditional publishers can still be at the heart of that world regardless of the transition to digital.

The thing that concerns me a bit is that there are companies dictating the future of publishing who care little about the quality of the content being published. Amazon is willing to take a loss on digital books because they are mostly interested in selling Kindles. (This is the same thing Apple did with the music business.) I think it’s creating a seismic shift in the way the publishing industry works, and in the long run it could make it more challenging for writers to make a living at their craft. Access to the entire world of readers is fantastic, but when everyone has that access it’s much more challenging to be found. Curation becomes critical.

MG: Many say a great writer is a voracious reader. Do you agree with this premise, and if so, what do you consistently read to keep your writer’s edge sharp?

TH: Absolutely.

I think it’s very difficult to write well if you don’t read. At the same time, I don’t think you need to read within your genre. The important thing is to immerse your mind in the flow of language, the pace of the written word, and to commune with great minds. Great writers remind you of things you already knew but couldn’t articulate. I find that these insights are invaluable to the creative process.

MG: You’ve had the opportunity to interview many uniquely skilled and accomplished authors via your Accidental Creative podcast. What is the most profound trait or behavior that they all share, which can be attributed to their skill and success?

TH: The most profound trait they have in common is an unexpected one: generosity. They are all willing to share their insights unselfishly and go to great lengths to share their fascination with their subject area.

Here’s the thing that’s a profound mystery: many of the most successful people I’ve interviewed or spent time with are also the ones I know who would be obsessed with their craft even if they weren’t getting paid.

If you are writing because you want to say you’re a writer at a cocktail party, you’re chasing vapor. You’ll be deeply disappointed. But if you can fall in love with your craft—deeply, madly in love—then you’ll never be disappointed with what it gives you in return.

MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to writers who seek to establish a useful, effective and sustainable writing routine that yields brilliant work?

TH: Decide what you’re going to do, then follow-through on it. Set time aside, set a daily word count, whatever works for you, but follow-through. Each time you let it slip it’s like a crack in the dam. They add up over time and eventually you’re entire writing life crumbles.


Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewee.