Here, I’m going to describe, in as much detail as I can, how I work. The goal is to provide a portrait of how I get things done, specifically things which require research, writing, and production of some kind (be it video or audio). This is a highly practical outline: what order I do things in, what tools I use, and some explanation of why I work the way I do.
I offer this for two reasons:
- First, a number people have asked for it
- Second, to discourage you from using it
There is no one way to make things. We must all find the specific combination and arrangement of forces, tempers, situations and circumstances which enables us to work. Being creative professionally is an ongoing–read: never goddamn ending–exercise in bending the fabric of the universe to meet you where you must be in order to see your ideas through. That process will vary between people. It’s my hope, and assumption, that seeing how one person does it will give you a sense of how arbitrary (and absurd) it is. Hopefully this painful exposition will provide some inspiration for your own, different, and probably better, process.
• Part 0 – Creativity is Labor
Making things is tough. Inspiration is nice, but unreliable. I’ve heard it attributed to Richard Serra but I have a feeling this is one of those quotes that a dozen people have “said” throughout history: “Inspiration is for amateurs”. This is the base level assumption I find it most important to work with and from: in order to make things, you must start making things. And if you’d like to keep making things, once you’ve started: don’t stop.
It sounds obvious, but is devilishly hard. It’s easier to make nothing. Drinks can be had; brunch eaten; video games played; books read in place of any actual making of things. You can be not ready, not practiced, not sure except for the fact the things you’ll make won’t be right or good. You may think it’s better to make no things.
This isn’t the case. It’s never better to make nothing. It’s always better to make the thing. Make any thing. Creativity is a muscle, and like any other muscle, it must be exercised. Like exercise often is, the process may be difficult or painful but ultimately it’ll be rewarding. And then you’ll be able to direct your friends to the gun show.
• Part 1a – Schedule
I work best to deadlines. I need requirements in order to work. In the recent past I’ve become better at setting my own deadlines, and requiring things of myself. Before then I needed an outside force to motivate my work. That usually took the form of a collaborative project. I spent many years working only on things with other people.
However I’ve done it – requiring things of myself, or finding others to require things of me – I work on a strict schedule. I block out certain hours every day for certain types of task. I work better when shifting between several different projects over one day, and different types of tasks at different times of day: writing for one project in the morning, researching for another in the afternoon, editing in the afternoon and evening, writing again late at night. I’ve figured this out through trial and error.
Multiple overlapping jobs and tight deadlines sometimes mean I don’t have the luxury of working on a few things. Sometimes I have to focus on one. My work suffers when this is the case – but sometimes there’s no choice. I’ve worked with many people who are the opposite, and would rather focus on one thing until it’s done.
I work in four week chunks – I’ve arrived at that number because it seems to be how far I’m able to comfortably plan ahead day-to-day. Every four weeks, I sit down with my calendar, and chart out what I’ll do for the next four weeks. I place work tasks (“Reasonably Sound research”, “Drip writing”), project focus shifts or sub-deadlines (“Start RS Edit”, “Research Complete”), meetings, to do’s and reminders in my calendar. I use Google Calendar. I also have a physical day planner in which I sketch out rough scheduling ideas.
Things shift as those weeks progress. I try to be as consistent in my schedule as possible. I like to get into a rhythm, and I like that rhythm to be reliable. Like physical exercise, even if you skip a couple days because something came up, getting back in the swing can be hard. But that doesn’t mean you have to maintain your schedule with monastic rigor. If someone wants to meet during planned work, for example, be flexible. If you’re having a rough day and things aren’t working out, blow off your self-imposed plans and go for a walk in the park (but also: schedule walks in the park for yourself; they’re the best (seriously)).
• Part 1b – Ideation
Having ideas is an outcome of making things. If I’m consistently making things (read: following my schedule) then I’m consistently having ideas for new things while working on current things. I’m learning what does and doesn’t work in current projects, and planning how to tackle those things in new projects. There is no better method for having ideas about what to make than making things.
Make sure you write your ideas down when you have them. Stuff a moleskine in your back pocket; I use Wunderlist to keep track of my ideas (sometimes I have to stop myself from getting distracted by unread texts on en rt to writing my ideas down, though). Always carry a pen. Write on your hand if you need to. But copy it to your moleskine, or an app. It might rain! Treat your brainstorms with respect; give every idea chance.
• Part 2 – Research
There are two kinds of research: specific, and general. General research never stops. Reading, listening, watching, playing, etc. In the way it’s important to always be making, I find it important to always be consuming. Zach Weiner – actually, this time, but it’s a paraphrase – says ‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block, just insufficient input.’ In order to have ideas, you must have experiences. More experiences means more ideas.
Specific research is related to specific ideas – these are things that turn into Idea Channel or Reasonably Sound episodes. I start this process by listing things I know, and a list of questions I have, about the subject I’m interested in. Then I’ll google around trying to confirm my assumptions, and trying to answer my questions. This gives me a sense of how many people have publicly confronted this topic, and what their approach has been. This normally takes a morning, and provides a general path forward: do I want to agree with, disagree with, or move perpendicular to work others have done? A good number of ideas get cut, or their scope changes, at this point. People will have covered the area I’m interested in; I’ll find there’s no good story; I’ll see the story is greater than my available resources.
If I find some novel area to cover, my next step is a library. I am lucky enough to have access to the NYU library, but I use the Brooklyn Public Library and NYPL too. I check through journals and the book catalog for any sources that have come up during my first round of research. I’ll go through the works cited on those, and see if there are good sources I haven’t encountered yet. I limit the amount of time I do this to between 4 and 8 hours – any longer and I’ll have a research stack larger than I’ll be able to deal with (remember: schedules! deadlines!)
ASIDE: Talk to your librarians! They’re amazing. If you’re not sure what you’re looking for, or need help finding your place in some area of study, ask a professional!
Now’s the fun part: reading. There are no shortcuts to this. The more you read, the faster you get and the better sense you get for what sources are good, and what you can skip. Try to be thoughtful. Take your time. Take notes.
I prefer digital sources to physical ones. I live in NYC, space is limited but also: I use Papers 3 to organize my research library. This allows me to search for papers, authors, phrases or citations, to create portable collections of sources, and create searchable highlights that sync across devices. While reading, I keep notes in a Google doc, Evernote or Papers itself. Most of the time I use Google Docs; that’s what I will end up writing in.
Around now, I’ll start talking to people about what I’m researching. I’ll ask if they’d humor me and let me try to explain something I’ve just learned. I’ll test ideas to see reactions. I try to not spend too long inside my own brain. It’s very easy to get tunnel vision. Seek reality checks from friends, loved ones, and internet mutuals.
• Part 3 – Outline
I outline before I write. Going into research, I know roughly what I want to make. Coming out of research, it’s clearer but still not crystal. Outlining helps refine the flow of ideas into something that can eventually become a script.
Unless I’ve developed a very confident progression of ideas during research, I start outlining with broad sections. This means a sentence or two about the purpose of each larger section. I structure most scripts in three or five acts. Idea Channel used a four act structure for a while.
After the broad sections are described, I outline the steps leading from one section to the next. My outlines look like poorly written drafts – full sentences, fragments, unresolved ideas, and weird indenting. They’re not easy to read nor are they succinct. They’re almost stream of consciousness: helping me get everything I’ll need, and many things I don’t, onto the page. They’re weird, but they help.
There is one trap I often fall into. If I get lazy, I’ll permit myself “[TRANSITION HERE]”, not knowing how two sections meet. This is a warning sign: there’s no natural connection between two ideas I’ve put in sequence. Later, while writing, I may realize a connection exists. But just as likely, the lack of connection announces larger, structural problems. This could mean I have to rewrite, or worse: re-research.
I often remind myself that outlines aren’t for making future work easier. They’re their own form of (often difficult) work.
• Part 4a – Writing
Writing is never easy but it is often fun. There are endless guide books and classes for advice on how to write. I won’t spend a ton of time here except to say that, as is the case with the making of any thing, the best way to get better is to do it more. Write as much as you can. Read the writing of others as much as you can. Develop opinions and have goals for yourself.
It took me a long time to learn that, even if I was writing things I didn’t like, it was still important to write. I was embarrassed to write anything, even privately, that I wasn’t proud of. But who is there to be embarrassed for? No one will ever see your drafts (unless you let them) (and I never did). Just follow your outline, do the work, try to solve the problems and work as much as you can. Don’t work so much you begin to hate yourself, or the project. Go for a walk in the park. Pet a doggo.
Some people say its important to flush the bad writing out of your system, as if the good writing is a sediment at the bottom of your words keg. I think all writing is useful, if not valuable. Bad writing can be turned into good writing; no writing can’t be turned into anything.
ASIDE: What about writers block? We’ve talked about Zach Weiner and insufficient input. However, there’s something that looks like writers block which is really self delusion. If you’re writing and come to a moment where the piece doesn’t progress, this is often a sign you want it to be something it is not. It’s a sign there are structural problems, thematic contradictions, etc. The point I get stuck is either 1) the point I’ve realized those problems and/or 2) the point those contradictory chickens come home to roost in the work itself. Procrastination is often the fear of progressing through work with an uncertain, difficult, or potentially disappointing outcome. In ten out of ten cases, when I experience “writer’s block”, it’s self-delusional procrastination stopping me from confronting problems in my work. Problems will not solve themselves; the only solution to not being able to write is writing more – possibly after another walk in the park.
• Part 4b – Editing
I edit while I write. If I get stuck, and can’t find a solution in my outline, I go back to the top of the document and work my way to where I’ve stalled. Often this feels like building up momentum. The hope is that when I reach the wall I’ve encountered, I’ll just break right through it. In the course of writing something 5 pages long, I’ll do a full document edit 3 or 4 times before writing the final word on “draft 1”.
Reading aloud helps me edit. It also helps maintain my voice – if it doesn’t sound like something I’d say, why would I write it? This is a personal creative choice; there are lots of reasons to write things in a way different from how you’d say them. Anyway, reading aloud helps me catch errors I’d skim over while reading silently. It helps identify the boring parts, too. When I begin disassociating, reading aloud with no conscious thought towards what’s on the page, I know that’s a problem section.
Once I’ve done a few passes on a full document, I’ll do an editing pass where I cut as much as possible. If you’re going to show self restraint in one place only, it should be your writing. Take Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice and murder your darlings. I then do an editing pass where I match tenses, and one where I cut adjectives and adverbs (unless its a piece like the Ontology of Boys, where the wordiness is part of the fun).
It’s important to give yourself a day or two between sets of revisions and major editing passes. Let the work breathe, try to forget about it, and return with fresh eyes, a fresh mind, and full cup of coffee. Keep this in mind when building your schedule, too.
• Part 4c – Being Done Writing
No project is ever done. I’ve never looked at a finished project and thought “there is nothing left to do on this to make it better.” I’ve only reached the point where out of frustration or necessity I’ve needed to move on.
How do I know when I’m done writing, or editing, then? It depends. Sometimes I know I’m done because I have to be. By planning a few weeks in advance, if I have a strict deadline I can be careful through the research and outlining process. I’ll make things clear for myself and know there’s no room for “[TRANSITION NEEDED]”. An hour of planning can be worth a day of work.
If the deadline is less strict–Ontology of Boys, a Reasonably Sound episode, a personal YT video–I know I’m done when I stop editing and start shuffling. The difference between editing and shuffling is that an edit improves the piece, whereas a shuffle just moves bits around. This distinction is hazy, but you can sense idle work. It’s usually a symptom of self-delusional procrastination. If I’m shuffling, it means I’m nervous about the next step, usually production and release. If I’m scared, I often take that as a good sign; it means I want people to like it. If I’m upset or overwhelmed, that’s bad. It means editing isn’t fixing the problems I’m encountering, and something isn’t right and should be fixed. Rewrites may be in order.
• Part 5 – Production and Post-Production
Production is usually the fastest part of my process. There are a lot of elements to production, and many different ways of doing things. Like writing, there are books and classes to tell you everything you need to know. I’ll keep this brief.
If you’re making a podcast or a video, you’ll have to edit it after you record it. You’re gonna have to go through the footage, find the best performances, and string ‘em all together. I’ve always used this as an excuse for to try things: different performance styles, speeds, voices, mannerisms, tones, and even setups. Especially when I started, I would generate lots of footage. This makes editing tedious, but going through that footage is helpful. You see what works, what doesn’t, what would work if you tried a bit harder. Over time, you learn what you like, and what you’re good at, and over time you have to shoot fewer minutes to get stuff that’ll cut together. If you don’t try it all, you may never know what shines.
Once you’ve shot / recorded, post-production can be a lot like script editing: if you get stuck, try to build momentum. Give yourself time. Show restraint. Murder darlings. Be wary of creative blocks, and be open to the possibility of dramatic music rerecording, if all else fails. Your edit will never be done; stop working when you start shuffling.
If you’re curious about the nuts and bolts: I edit video in Premiere and audio in Protools. For video I use a Canon 60D (on IC we used a Black Magic Cinema Cam), a ZoomH6 with a Rode shotgun (on IC, a Sound Devices 722 and Schoeps shotgun). For podcasting, a Shure SM7b mic, a GAP Pre-73DLX, Focusrite Saffire Pro 24, Adam A7 monitors, Sony MD7506 headphones. I have a MacBook Pro, a Dell display and Glyph hard drives. I stand at a GeekDesk.
• Part 6 – Distribution
I like to wait. Finish something, and then wait. Even a day is good, to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Think about the title.
Once I feel ready, I budget half a day for release. Between export, QA, upload, metadata, several watch throughs, publish, social media and Customer Service (being around after release to address problems and chat) … it’s easy to spend 3 to 5 hours pressing “Publish”. I don’t believe in ideal release times. I say release when you’re ready, not when the algorithm says is best. But that’s me. I’ve worked with people who experience great success following the whims of The Software. The two places I upload most often are YouTube and SoundCloud.
You may feel weird about self promotion. That’s good. It means you’re self aware. You should ignore those feelings anyway. Don’t think of it as self promotion – think of it as helping people who like your work (or who may like your work once they see it for the first time) find it. It’s like you’re doing the world a favor. Maybe that makes you feel worse than “self promotion”? Think about it whichever way makes you cringe less. Or just don’t think about it!
Share your work far and wide, however you can. I, an Extremely Online Person, have never thought “This person who wants me to see their work wants me to see it too much”; I have only ever thought “This person is clearly proud of the thing they keep sharing. I should at least check it out.” And then I do.
In addition to social media and places like Drip, and Patreon, I sometimes reach out directly to people who I think may like something I’ve worked on. People do this to me all the time (“Hey! I made this and I think you might like it!”) and I always appreciate it. Make it short and sweet; don’t be pushy. Just invite people to check it out and if they don’t – that’s ok. They’re probably busy. This is the first step in what could, again, be a whole book on audience development. The main secret is: listen to your people, treat them like individuals, engage with them directly. Be earnest, honest, thoughtful and thankful.
Make things you care about, and then care about the people who care about the things you make. <3