If you have seen recent references to the concept of “deep work,” you have author Cal Newport to thank for it. This unassuming Georgetown computer science professor has become one of his generation’s leading voices on how we can all work more wisely and more deeply. His books are instant bestsellers, and his target audience has evolved just as he has: from writing about the academic lives of high-achieving high school and college students to focusing on how knowledge economy workers can avoid the steady drip of distraction. He has come to these issues as both a researcher and a practitioner, someone who is treating himself as a test subject—and writing about his results on his popular blog, Study Hacks.
We could think of few better authors than Cal to profile for Writing Routines. His writing about the rituals of focused work have enriched the lives of many readers, and he brings to the table both his life as an academic researcher and his work as a widely-read blogger.
When I’m working on a book, my preferred time is first thing in the morning — before breakfast, before getting dressed for the day, just rolling out of bed and into my laptop. I’m a restless book writer, meaning I’ll wander with my laptop all around our house and yard while working on a given morning.
Blog posts are different and much more ritualized. I write one post per week. I do it at eight p.m., right after putting my boys to bed, in a nice big leather chair in my living room with a record on the record player and a drink. That ritual is as much about relaxing me as it is producing writing.
For my books, I write in Microsoft Word, but I do a lot of pre-writing planning and outlining on foot in my moleskin.
I write books in silence but will put on a record when writing blog posts. Jazz, blues or folk seem to work best for the latter to put me in the right mindset.
For the actual act of book writing itself, I like to dive right in — the process of writing tends to warm me up to do more writing. Like an iceberg, however, quite a bit of reading and thinking lurks beneath each written page. For those type of background activities a long walk helps shift my mind into original thinking mode. The harder the book, the more time I spend in the woods talking quietly to myself. For blog posts the whole process is one big ritual (as described above), as that’s what’s kept me posting regularly for the past decade.
For books, the amount I produce depends on how much time I have available that day. A good thousand words can take me anywhere from one to four hours depending on how tricky the concepts are. I probably end up tossing out a quarter of what I write in the first draft of a book chapter. Even though I try to be pretty thoughtful about figuring out what I want to say before I write, you still have to see how concepts play on page to decide if they deserve to stay.
For blog posts, which I find less rigorous, it takes me 90 minutes from start to finish to conceive, write, edit, and publish a post. I have that down to a science.
When I sit down to write, I already know what I want to say and have my sources ready. My attention, therefore, is usually focused on craft. Writing compelling openings, for example, can be the hardest part of an essay.
For book chapters, I actually use the same editing process that I wrote about a decade ago as an undergraduate in my book on student study habits. It rests on three passes. The first pass is when you write the best chapter you can. The second pass comes later once the whole book (or whole part of the book containing the chapter) is done. During this pass, I come back to the chapter on my computer and cut and tighten. The final pass is when I read through a printed version of the chapter on paper. Reading on paper is necessary if you’re going to root out odd constructions or minor errors.
Writing is a classical example of a task well-served by deep work. The more comfortable you are concentrating intensely for long periods of time the more successful and productive you’ll be as a writer. Historically, writers have been great innovators in techniques for training and supporting deep work in their lives.
An important point about deep work that is often overlooked is that it’s a skill that must be trained. Many aspiring writers overlook this reality and find their first forays into the written word frustrating and unproductive. My advice is always to start with training your cognitive fitness before diving into your first big writing project just like you’d train your cardiovascular fitness before trying to run a marathon. In other words, National Novel Writing Month would be a lot more successful if it was preceded by National Don’t Use Social Media Month.
I power through blogs posts relatively quickly. I’m proud of that writing, but it lacks the polish or conceptual completeness I would demand of a book chapter or an essay destined for national print publication.
I read a lot. I’m usually tackling around four to five books at a time, mainly non-fiction. For me to consider a book it must either feature relevant ideas or really good writing (it’s surprisingly rare to get both). At this exact moment, for example, I’ve been working on the following books: The Witches by Stacy Schiff, Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener, The Nature of Mathematics by Philip Jourdain, and Empires of Illusion by Chris Hedges.
Writing is a craft that is hard to learn and demanding to apply. Nothing about it is easy, but like any craft it can be profoundly rewarding.
I started writing for campus publications my sophomore year in college. I signed with my agent at the end of my junior year and signed my first book deal with Random House later that summer — so my transformation from starting writing to doing it professionally was rapid.
My third book was about these high school students who were accepted to elite colleges even though they lived relaxed lives in high school. Right after I signed the contract for the book, my publishing imprint went through a rapid series of consolidations, and the project bounced through something like a half dozen editors in as many months. The result: I could basically write whatever I wanted as there was no one looking over my shoulder.
At the time, I was living on Beacon Hill in Boston, surrounded by landmarks to many of our country’s great thinkers, and the book evolved into this crazy and wonderful philosophical and scientific exploration of the nature of impressiveness — a mash up between Malcolm Gladwell and A is for Admission. It’s probably the most original thing I ever wrote. I’m proud to say it has a small but energized cult following.
My academic papers contain more mathematics than prose so these two worlds remain pretty separate, though I’m known for turning colorful phrases in the expository portions of these papers.
Stephen King’s On Writing.