Bryan Collins relies on a simple system that captures notes and ideas that flow directly into his projects when he sits down to write.
His writing routine doesn’t take all day yet achieves significant results. Find out how he works and test it out.
When you combine that with his simple system for collecting inspiration for all of your writing projects, you’ll be on your way to completing a full manuscript.
Ready to do the work and write the truth?
Learn from Bryan:
- how to “green-light” yourself
- how to capture ideas with easy, daily systems
- the magic of building your body of work in a surprisingly small pocket of time
- how to find time for writing—even during hectic seasons of life
- how to regularly review your notes from other sources alongside your own ideas
- how to break out of writer’s block
Meet Bryan Collins
Bryan Collins is a USA Today best-selling author whose books include The Power of Creativity, This Is Working, I Can’t Believe I’m A Dad! and a best-selling series of books for writers.
He was a journalist and copywriter for years and has contributed to publications like Forbes, Lifehacker and Fast Company.
Today he runs his website Become a Writer Today, with the help of a team of writers, attracting several million visitors each year. And he hosts a popular writing podcast by the same name, where he deconstructs the writing processes of New York Times best-selling authors like James Clear and Daniel Pink.
- Become a Writer Today, Bryan’s website
- Become a Writer Today, Bryan’s podcast
- I Can’t Believe I’m a Dad, Bryan’s book (affiliate link to paperback)
- Bryan’s interview with me: Self-Publishing vs Traditional Publishing with Ann Kroeker
- Zettelkasten System
- Day One app
- ambient noise on noise-canceling headphones (to minimize distractions)
- brain.fm (for focus and flow)
- otter.ai, rev.com (for transcription/dictation)
- Wattpad for fiction
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (affiliate link for 30th anniversary paperback ed.)
- Twitter for microblogging
- Story by Robert McKee (affiliate link to Kindle ebook)
- Choose Yourself, by James Altucher (affiliate link for Kindle ebook, on sale at the time of publishing this interview; about green-lighting yourself)
- Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (affiliate link to paperback ed.)
- Inspiration: singer Nick Cave (here’s his interesting website) and author Stephen King
Listen to the interview, or read the transcript below.
Bryan Collins Interview
This is a lightly edited transcript.
[00:00:00.190] – Ann Kroeker
How would you like to develop a simple writing routine that doesn’t take all day to achieve significant results? And what if you could combine that with a simple system for collecting inspiration for all of your writing projects?
Today I have Bryan Collins of Become A Writer Today on the show, and he is sharing his one-two punch of a system-routine combo that turns out an impressive body of work.
I’m Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach. If you’re tuning in for the first time, welcome. If you’re a regular, welcome back. I’m sharing my best tips and training skills and strategies to coach writers to improve their craft, pursue publishing, and achieve their writing goals.
Bryan Collins is a USA Today best selling author whose books include The Power of Creativity this is Working, I Can’t Believe I’m a dad, and a best selling series of books for writers. He was a journalist and copywriter for years and has contributed to publications like Forbes, LifeHacker and Fast Company. Today he runs his website, Become A Writer Today with the help of a team of writers, attracting several million visitors each year by the same name, where he deconstructs the writing processes of New York Times bestselling authors like James Clear and Daniel Pink.
Let’s hear his practical advice for writers.
Ready to do the work and write the truth?
[00:01:32.770] – Ann Kroeker
Well, we have Bryan Collins on the show today. He is a podcaster and an author and a writer, and I cannot wait to ask him all kinds of really practical questions that we can pass on to listeners today. Bryan, thanks for being on the show.
[00:01:45.590] – Bryan Collins
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
[00:01:47.450] – Ann Kroeker
Thanks for taking the time. We’re in different time zones and I am excited to hear more.
Would you share with listeners a little bit about your own writing, your own writing past and what brings you to today?
[00:02:03.090] – Bryan Collins
Sure. So, ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer and earn a living from the written word. I was a big fan of Roald Dahl back in the day, children’s author, and I figured the best way to do it was to become a journalist when I became 18 and it was time to pick something to study in college or university.
But I went to journalism college and spent more time going out to parties than I did actually taking notes. And I found it really difficult to find paying work. So I kind of drifted in and out of various freelance writing gigs during my 20s. I’m 40 now, by the way, for some context.
I got really frustrated with writing and I wasn’t a very good journalist, if I’m being honest. So I drifted into other careers that really weren’t suitable for me. But I still want to earn a living from writing, so I took a series of creative writing workshops that made a big impact on me.
I started by writing short stories and then entering short story competitions. I made a few mistakes. I spent a lot of time writing the same short stories rather than getting feedback.
[00:03:05.670] – Bryan Collins
And after about two or three years, I got frustrated with that and I was about to give up on writing altogether. But then I said, I’ll try something else. What if I try blogging and writing about the one thing I do know something about, which is the craft of writing?
So I had a technology blog that wasn’t getting a huge amount of traffic, which taught me the basics of WordPress and writing online. So I transitioned that site to become a writer today.
For a long time it was like a hobby. This is around 2014, so it would have been in my early 30s. For a long time it was a hobby, something I did around the side of a job.
I was surprised, or pleasantly surprised, when it turned into a part-time and then later a full-time business.
And then to give a bit more context, I did find work. I was working as a copywriter for a British software company. So I did get paid to write. And more recently I’ve left that job. I was there for about eight years, so now I’m working on my own business full time.
So that’s an overview of some of the ups and downs of my writing career to date.
[00:04:05.670] – Ann Kroeker
Would you describe the work that you’re doing through the podcast as part of your full-time work that you’re doing as a writer?
[00:04:13.470] – Bryan Collins
What I do today is I have a site for writers, and I used to write all the articles. Now I commission freelance writers to produce the articles, and then I have a set up a couple of other sites in different niches, or niches, as you say in the United States. I don’t write content for those, but I kind of replicate what works for my site for the other sites.
So I guess the business is a content publishing business and one of my jobs is to edit articles, so I’m using some of the skills I learned along the way in the business.
I self published books, so I was big into self publishing for a few years and I self published a parenting memoir last year, which was my fifth or sixth book.
And then I like podcasting because I get to talk to authors and experts like you. And as any writer or listener can attest to, writing can be quite lonely and isolating; you’re by yourself in a room, which can send you a little bit crazy.
That’s why I podcast. It’s to talk to people and to connect with other writers and share stories or anecdotes about what’s working or not working.
[00:05:19.350] – Ann Kroeker
Thanks for sharing that.
Do you feel like looking back at your journey there’s any one decision you made or one avenue you took that made a big difference?
[00:05:32.290] – Bryan Collins
Yeah, like said, it’ll be deciding to write online.
I think anytime during my writing career where I’ve sought permission from somebody, it’s never worked out well.
By seeking permission, I mean going to an editor and asking them to hire me as a reporter. A few editors did hire me and then they let me go. Or going to a writing competition and asking a judge to pick my story over to hundreds or thousands of others who are trying to get a book deal, all of those kind of things.
Whereas any time I pick something that doesn’t involve gatekeepers or permission, such as self publishing—such as writing online or starting a podcast—I’ve always felt more comfortable with it personally, and I’ve had more luck with earning an income from us and finding readers.
[00:06:20.150] – Ann Kroeker
I love that that’s something becoming more and more of a path for people that is no longer stamped with the stigma of vanity press. It’s becoming a valid, legit path versus sticking around, waiting for people to say yes and green light your project. Green light yourself!
[00:06:39.650] – Bryan Collins
Exactly. There was a great book a few years ago by an author called James Altucher. I don’t think he writes about these topics anymore, but it was called Choose Yourself. It’s kind of like a manifesto for side hustlers.
I know side hustlers get a bad rap, but for somebody who’s doing something online, side hustling can actually turn into something amazing. And the key piece of that book is: Don’t wait for someone to pick you. You pick yourself.
So start your own site, start your own podcast, create your own course. Employ yourself.
[00:07:10.970] – Ann Kroeker
That’s great. I was looking at some of the notes you had sent me and I saw that you have a way of managing all of the information that you’re using in the writing that you do. A note-taking system. I would love to hear more about that.
I’m pretty passionate about that and I think it’s absolutely necessary. No matter what kind of writing we do—whether we’re pursuing traditional publishing, self publishing, writing online, whatever—we need ideas, we need information, we need topics, and then we need to be able to find that when we need it.
And you have a system. Tell us about that.
[00:07:44.390] – Bryan Collins
So when I was a journalist, I kept hearing about the importance of research and organizing your ideas and notes. A lot of journalists keep notepads on their desk or Post-It notes or memos. But I wanted to get a bit more organized with it.
So like many people, I started reading articles and just clipping them into Evernote. I’m thinking that: Now I clipped my articles into Evernote, that’s it. Now that’s my research done.
But that’s just replacing or trying to replicate what the Internet does. The Internet is a repository of all that information.
What’s far better to do is to take interesting anecdotes that you can use from courses or podcasts or articles and save that into your note-taking system and then summarize it in your own words. Maybe describe how this piece of research you’ve come across relates to another piece of research that you’ve come across.
Let’s say I listened to an interview about how to grow a podcast, and the interview was two hours long. I actually did do this. It was an interview Tim Ferris gave, and I wouldn’t save all of the transcripts into my note-taking system.
What I do is I just extract two or three key points that means something to me, and then I write about I’d summarize it in a sentence, and then below what, I describe how I could apply this idea for my own podcast.
[00:09:02.910] – Bryan Collins
And then I link the notes up with each other.
If I was using a digital system—
The method I’m using is called the Zettelkasten method.
I’m still refining it. It’s not something I came up with. It’s a German sociologist from the mid-20th century. His name is Niklas Luhmann. He wrote dozens of books during his career and published hundreds of papers. He’s seen as a really prolific sociologist and author, but he used a series of index cards to do this.
Basically, it’s a form of progressive summarization in your own words. The idea is that you’re always engaged in the act of writing and research, and you’re summarizing all the information you come across continually and reflecting on it and reviewing it.
Because if you think back to the Evernote issues that I described, there’s no point having hundreds of articles saved into Evernote or whatever your app is, if you don’t actually read them and reflect on them and review them.
And that’s where the Zettelkasten method comes in. It’s a German word which translates as slip box.
[00:10:07.230] – Ann Kroeker
Which described his method with his little cards.
[00:10:10.620] – Bryan Collins
Yeah, he used those index cards.
He had one idea per index card in his own words. And then he would have the source for the idea in case he needed it, because he was an academic—in case he needed to go and find the source.
If you see a picture of his slip box, there are thousands of index cards that he kept in giant wooden filing cabinets.
You can replicate this now with digital tools, obviously. That’s the system I settled on. I mean, there are other ones. Like when we were talking before the interview, you mentioned Ryan Holiday’s, the Commonplace Book. I did try that, but I personally find that I prefer a kind of digital system that works quite well for me.
[00:10:49.170] – Ann Kroeker
Well, I have been experimenting with this myself and like you, I have tried Ryan Holiday’s Commonplace Book—which is a misnomer because there are commonplace books that are more like journals, and his is actually this big plastic box that was used for scrapbooking or something.
He has all these index cards in there and then he sort of randomly plucks from them trying to make connections. And that really appealed to me and I didn’t think that the digital approach could do that for me.
But what I feel like the Zettelkasten method does, that you’re doing now, is you’re already finding the connections. As soon as you find something that you’re interested in as you’re taking your notes, you’re summarizing it, you’re already finding the connections right away.
Is that what I’m understanding? You go and you find what you’ve already written about that and then make some connections?
[00:11:40.570] – Bryan Collins
It is, yes.
I did use Ryan Holiday’s method, and I found that I had hundreds of index cards, which were quite hard for me personally to manage.
The tool isn’t really that important, but I use Day One. It’s a journaling app, and I use it because I journal regularly. But there’s other tools you can use.
I just give each note a hashtag. So, for example, I have a series of notes on podcasting. So if I type “podcasting” into Day One, all of the podcasting notes will come up. And if I was writing an article about podcasting, for some reason, I could see all of my research into the topic and all of my reflections on the topic of podcasting, and that works quite well for me.
I try to remind myself that the tool is less important than the process.
Have one place for your notes, whether it’s Day One or Evernote, or index cards or shoebox. When you have one system and you stick with it and you use it, you’re putting stuff in there regularly and you’re taking some time out to review your notes as well.
[00:12:42.440] – Bryan Collins
And that’s actually why I use Day One because I journal a lot. I find that’s really helpful for creative writing and I just enjoy it. So it was just natural for me to start using that for a type of Zettelkasten or slip box.
[00:12:54.200] – Ann Kroeker
That’s so smart because now your notes from outside sources merge with your own ideas.
And I love the idea of the hashtag search, pulling from all of that and creating a cohesive set of ideas and notes.
How often do you actually do that? How often would you do a search on that? Every single day?
[00:13:18.530] – Bryan Collins
I’m working in my business full time now, so I get more time for this.
Bryan’s Note-Taking Routine
- I try to start in the morning by recording five to ten notes into the Zettelkasten based on a book I’ve read or an interview I’ve listened to. That’ll take me about half an hour.
- The note is literally just a single one or two lines, and then my reaction, and then just a link to the source and then potentially a hyperlink if I want to link the notes to each other.
- Then I’ll write a journal entry and that’s about 45 minutes. And then I’ll move on with whatever I need to do that morning.
- And then once a week then I’ll go back and review some of the notes in the Zettelkasten.
- And then every few months I’ll go back and review all of the notes from the previous year.
- And then if I’m writing an article, I’ll just search for the topic in Day One.
I find it’s amazing what I forget. Like many people, you read something and think that’s a great idea and you’re not quite sure what you’ll use that for and then you come across this anecdote or metaphor that you can use for something later on.
[00:14:18.160] – Bryan Collins
So I find that’s quite helpful too.
[00:14:19.990] – Ann Kroeker
So you follow that nudge or that impulse to write it down even if you’re not sure how you’ll use it.
[00:14:26.110] – Bryan Collins
Oh yeah, I’ll always be writing things down. If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen.
[00:14:31.610] – Ann Kroeker
That’s great, that’s good for the digital age. We all can, well, you talk about grabbing this time, you can work full time when you maybe couldn’t before, and you’re a busy father of three.
How do you fit writing into life? And do you have any suggestions for listeners who might feel themselves crunched for time as well?
[00:14:51.230] – Bryan Collins
So when I was trying to make a living, writing like our kids were quite small. Now I have a 16-year-old, an eleven-year-old and a three-year-old, but at the time I think they were all under five. I wasn’t bored, but it was difficult to do with a corporate job.
What I used to do was just get up early before work at 06:00 a.m. and write for an hour or an hour-and-a-half.
I recognize that’s not possible for everyone, so I also tried writing in the evenings, but what I found is that I was always tired after work and I was more likely to procrastinate or pop things off.
So I asked myself: What could I give up?
And I stopped playing Xbox and PlayStation games, and that’s how I was able to get some writing done.
And then I also kind of stopped watching television during the week and then you confine it to the weekends.
I don’t get up that early now because I can do it full time. But if somebody is having trouble finding time to write, I would say rather than trying to write for four or five hours on a Saturday because you feel like you have a full free day, try and slot 15 minutes into your day every day.
[00:15:54.460] – Bryan Collins
Fifteen minutes is often enough to write 300 words.
And if you write 300 words for six or seven days a week, chances are you’ll hit 3000 words—chances are you’ll go over, because some days will just go better than others.
If you do that for a month, or you do that for three months, you’ll have the first round of a book, you’ll have a series of articles for your site, or you’ll have more than enough articles that you can use to build a writing portfolio if you’re a freelancer.
It’s tapping into the power of small daily wins. And I think most people can find 15 minutes.
We have more tools than ever for writing today:
- You can dictate on your mobile if you’re on a commute.
- You can write on your commute.
- You can use your tablet or whatever works for you.
[00:16:37.910] – Ann Kroeker
Yeah, these tools are making it possible to do things we couldn’t do before. People who maybe they’ve had surgery can’t type. We can now dictate or record and transcribe, just as you said.
And the 15-minute chunk—surely we can dig out a little bit of time to pull it off.
I love your examples, but at the same time, I know you encouraged the idea of getting into creative flow and the flow state sometimes takes a little time to get into.
So how do we merge these two ideas, that we can actually write a book in 15 minute increments every day because it will pile up and it will accumulate. How do we do it in a way where we feel like we’re tapping into that deeper place that happens during creative flow?
[00:17:25.010] – Bryan Collins
You can write in 15 minutes, but if you want to get into kind of a deep state of creative flow, I’d say you need about 30 minutes. So still not a huge amount of time. Depending on how busy your day is, maybe you can find 30 minutes to do it.
There’s a few kind of techniques you can use to get there faster. So you can use a set of these noise-canceling headphones and listen to ambient noise like rainfall and that can quickly help you eliminate distractions.
Or there’s a service called Brain.FM. I interviewed the person who created it. It’s designed to help you get into flow state faster. So that’s another technique that you can use.
But what’s really key is to be in an environment where you’re not going to be distracted for about 30 minutes. So take your phone out of the room. Ideally there’s no other distractions like a television on or games console.
Now, I recognize that’s not possible for everybody, again, depending on where they live. So perhaps you need to write at a time when your house or your apartment or where you live is quieter.
[00:18:27.000] – Bryan Collins
Or maybe you could go to the local coffee shop or the park and write there for 30 minutes or 60 minutes or whatever it is.
You also don’t need to get into a state of creative flow for hours. While that can be fun and productive, 30 minutes is often enough. And then you can get up and take a break.
If you have time, you can get back down and do another 30 minutes. And then depending on how the day goes, you may go for two or three hours.
I find more than two or three hours gets exhausting. There’s a great book about Flow by Mihaly…I’m not going to attempt to pronounce his last name, it’s called Flow. But he basically says more than three hours is really difficult for most people and that’s often enough to do what you need to do.
[00:19:08.630] – Ann Kroeker
I think that’s great advice and very doable. I love the noise-canceling headphones. I used those when my kids were young and safe and didn’t need my monitoring, but I didn’t need to hear their noise. That’s a good trick.
How about other ways we can be creative and pull out a more creative mindset and tap into different creative tools? Do you have advice for that?
[00:19:33.530] – Bryan Collins
Yeah, when you’re working at a computer, sometimes it can feel confining and limiting. We’re all relying on these tools to write books and self publish them or build sites or publish articles.
If you’re working on a first draft or you are thinking about a project, consider going for a walk and bringing your phone with you and using a set of earphones and dictating the first draft using an app like Otter.AI or Rev or Dragon, or other new ones.
Often dictating the first draft is a lot faster. Plus, you’re outside. You’re getting the blood moving and you’re getting some fresh thinking as well.
And sometimes just to change environment is enough if you feel like you’re stuck on a particular project.
It’s also good to mix up your tools. So if I’m working on a book, sometimes I’ll use index cards, even though I have all the book writing software, and I lay all the index cards out on a table. And then because I can physically move the index cards around, it’s a way of kind of zooming out and seeing the structure of the book as a whole and where each section fits in the book.
[00:20:39.160] – Bryan Collins
But I find that quite difficult to replicate on the computer. I know Scrivener has index cards, but again, it kind of feels like I’m trapped inside of the app, which is great for focusing on a sentence or a chapter, but not so great when you need to look at the manuscript in its entirety.
[00:20:54.410] – Ann Kroeker
Mixing up analog and digital, that’s genius. I see other people doing similar things. They print off and cut up their pieces of paper and rearrange. There’s something about that. I don’t know. Maybe we’re just as humans, we need to have a little tactile experience in addition to the digital tools that are a fingertip away.
[00:21:14.030] – Bryan Collins
Yeah, I’m a big fan of whiteboards and lists. You can’t see it here, but there’s a whiteboard to my left. Sometimes I’ll just write down lists on a whiteboard or mind map on a whiteboard and I find that’s quite helpful as well.
[00:21:26.710] – Ann Kroeker
Nice. So if somebody’s listening and they’re just getting started and they would like to move toward publishing, whether that’s self publishing or traditional publishing, do you advise any kind of first steps to finding their voice, to try to get their ideas out, to start sorting through things, to see what they even want to write about and what they want to be known for?
Those initial questions. They’re just getting started. What would be your advice to them?
[00:21:54.560] – Bryan Collins
Yeah, those are difficult questions.
Many new writers are afraid of what people will think. What will a family member think if they start writing about depression or sex or some real personal problems they have?
I worried about those things when I started writing nonfiction, but I quickly discovered that your biggest problem isn’t what people will think, it’s actually capturing the attention of readers in the first place.
So much content out there and so many books, it’s really hard to connect with who your ideal reader is. So get into the habit of publishing your work and submitting it.
Try different genres or niches—or niches—until you figure out one that resonates for you.
If you’re writing nonfiction, you can use a platform like Medium to try different genres or niches, write for different publications and potentially earn a few dollars each month from the Medium Partner program. And you’ll learn more about writing online through using Medium.
Now, I don’t write much fiction, but you can use services like Wattpad if you’re writing fiction, to do something similar.
Twitter is also quite a good microblogging platform.
But that said, I would always at the back of your mind be thinking, what can I build as my own?
[00:23:05.200] – Bryan Collins
While you can build a platform on Medium and Twitter, you’re still subject to their algorithm rules. So it’s always a good idea to have a part of the internet that’s your own home base. Whether that’s a site about your business or a site about you, it’s a way for readers to find who you are.
Once readers start to visit your site and hopefully join your email list—because you want to give them something for free—you can start emailing them and asking them questions about what do they like about your work or what kind of problems that they have.
Then you can use that to inform what you’re going to write and publish next.
[00:23:37.130] – Ann Kroeker
So I hear at least three great pieces of advice that they need to stick with. One is: don’t worry so much about what people think; worry more about capturing reader attention, like being findable, but then having them stick with you because they like what they read. That was one thing you said.
Then you said, what can I build that’s my own?
Even though we have access to something like Medium—because it’s there and it’s an easy way to publish and distribute our words—still be careful and try to create something that’s our own and then just maintaining that reader attention, even once they’re in your space.
Whether through a lead magnet/freebie thing or whatever brought them into your space, try to maintain that attention and even ask them for ideas. Is that a pretty good summary of what you said?
[00:24:24.970] – Bryan Collins
It is a fair summary.
While you need to go out and build relationships with your readers, it’s also good to have a way of having a direct relationship with your readers, as well, so you’re not overly reliant on Twitter or Medium or whatever—or even the Amazon algorithm—to show your content to them.
As an example, it was really easy to self publish a book years ago on Amazon. It’s still easy to self publish a book, but it’s much harder to find readers unless you go and invest in paid advertising. That’s just one way that the rules have changed slightly, but those authors who have an email list are less subject to having to use paid advertising.
[00:25:04.250] – Ann Kroeker
Yeah, so that’s a whole world. I have a membership program and we talk about all of this, setting the whole system up for people to be able to get into your ecosystem, if you will, your sphere of influence.
But this idea of, to use Seth Godin’s term, to “ship” content out there, to get in front of readers and get their input and hopefully get them to like what you’re writing…do you feel like that is the best use of social media right now, to just kind of get your ideas out there fast and then see what sticks? Is that a spaghetti approach?
[00:25:39.710] – Bryan Collins
It can work, but if you’re going to go out and just start publishing links to all of your content, the algorithms tend to favor keeping people on their platform. So posts with links don’t work that well.
If you engage with somebody naturally or authentically on Twitter or Medium, that tends to work much better. In other words, if you’re on Twitter, you’re writing content for Twitter and not asking people to leave Twitter to join your site, but if they’re interested, chances are percentage will come and find who you are anyway.
[00:26:10.190] – Ann Kroeker
Which platform is your favorite?
[00:26:12.770] – Bryan Collins
Well, these days, to go back to your question about finding time to write, I actually reduced my social media usage for a long time because it’s hard to write and find time for social media.
But these days I use Twitter quite a bit. I find it’s quite good. I particularly like Twitter threads.
I used to use Medium quite a lot when I was freelance writing. I’m not using it so much anymore because there were a lot of changes to the algorithm and how content was surfaced and.
To be honest, I found my site was starting to get traffic, so it was better publishing content there. I’m starting to use YouTube a bit for informational videos from my own side as well. So they’re probably the three main networks at the moment.
[00:26:53.440] – Ann Kroeker
And would you suggest those as a starting point for somebody? We kind of covered that already, but would you say, “Yeah, go ahead and start doing video!”
[00:27:04.730] – Bryan Collins
Yeah, I guess somebody would have to ask themselves what network they’re most comfortable using.
If you’re a writer and you write nonfiction, then I really encourage you to check Medium out if you haven’t done it already. And Twitter as well. It’s naturally geared towards writers and microblogging, and it’s gotten much easier to use than it was a few years ago, and more relevant for people who use the written word online.
So probably those two, they probably take the least amount of time, whereas video can be quite involved.
[00:27:37.070] – Ann Kroeker
That’s great advice. Do you feel like if somebody is stuck…So we talked about beginning writers—what about people who are feeling stuck? They’ve got writer’s block or something like that. I know that’s maybe a term that some people argue that it doesn’t exist, but they’re feeling blocked in some way. Do you have any tips for how they can break free from that?
[00:28:03.530] – Bryan Collins
Writer’s block is often an input problem rather than an output problem.
So if you feel like you have nothing to say, ask yourself what types of books are you reading or courses are you taking and are you kind of documenting your notes and learnings from those books and courses?
Writing about what you’ve learned is a great way of conquering writers block.
If you’re writing something that’s more creative, I recommend checking out the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. It’s fantastic. Get the audio version because she narrates it herself and she’s amazing.
But she describes a practice called free-writing, which is really helpful for writer’s block.
Basically, you write for a predetermined period. You don’t stop to edit yourself, and you just write about whatever is on your mind. And if something strange happens while you’re writing, you would just write that down as well. Or a dog barking, you just write that down as well.
The idea is that you’re just getting out whatever’s on your head onto the blank page, and then later on, during a separate session, you can go back and edit and tidy up and see if there’s something useful.
[00:29:05.870] – Bryan Collins
So those practices can all help a writer’s block.
[00:29:09.650] – Ann Kroeker
Free-writing was so liberating to me, and it wasn’t because of writer’s block that I was using it. I was actually using it in a creative writing class. It was an assigned book back in the day.
That book transformed everything for me, because I had come from a family of journalists and so I had one way of thinking about writing. But then I read what she was saying, that we have to get down to those “first thoughts,” as she called them. And the only way we can do that is when we take away the editor that’s always editing what we’re saying and thinking, and get down to the first thoughts.
And that can only happen when you just keep that pen moving or the I guess you could do fingers. She sort of changed her tune a little bit. She used to say a pen on paper, but now she’s saying if keyboard works better, that’s fine. Yeah, just get the words down.
[00:29:56.390] – Bryan Collins
Yeah. I like free writing.
Journaling is good too. Journaling can work quite well with the freewriting approach because usually a journal entry is for you and you alone. You can write about whatever you want.
[00:30:09.410] – Ann Kroeker
Yeah, you said you used Day One, that’s for your journaling and it’s digital, right?
[00:30:14.930] – Bryan Collins
I use Day One. It’s a purpose-built journaling app.
Sorry, my phone going off there. That’s another tip. Yeah, turn off your phone when you’re writing.
So yeah, I used Day One. It’s a purpose-built journaling app and I particularly like it because it works great on the mobile, and so I can use it on my tablet and I can also use it on the Mac and you can put in photos.
It also has a nice neat little feature where it’ll surface entries from last year or five years ago or eight years ago. So it’s a great way of bringing back up pieces of writing that you may have forgotten about.
[00:30:48.560] – Ann Kroeker
Do you ever worry about privacy with these apps?
[00:30:52.730] – Bryan Collins
Sometimes, yeah. Day One has a pretty strict encryption policy and it’s connected to your Apple ID. And actually when you’re using Day One, if you even tab out of the app, it will automatically lock as well. I guess if you’re journaling, you have the same issues. If it’s a paper journal too, who’s going to unearth it under your bed?
[00:31:14.390] – Bryan Collins
I don’t have state secrets in there. I can’t imagine why somebody would want to hack into Day one. Maybe just be somebody I know would want to read it. But it’s password protected.
[00:31:23.670] – Ann Kroeker
Yeah. And it sounds like you do a lot of the creative work that you’re going to pluck from anyway for your public writing.
[00:31:30.450] – Bryan Collins
Well, that’s it, yes. So a lot of it is like the research and the bare bones hopefully later turned into an article or some sort of chapter.
[00:31:37.570] – Ann Kroeker
Do you see a difference between a personal reflective journal and a writing journal?
[00:31:44.270] – Bryan Collins
That’s a good question. So I guess they’re kind of intermixed.
In Day One, I have a personal journal—traditional journaling about what I did or what I thought about something. And then I have the Zettelkasten, and those are probably the two ones that I have in there. I don’t have a dedicated writing journal, per se. I would consider that the Zettelkasten.
[00:32:06.690] – Ann Kroeker
Okay. And if you had a favorite writing book—we’ve already mentioned Writing Down the Bones. Is there another book that you would say?
[00:32:19.370] – Bryan Collins
Yes, it’s on my top ten list of books about writing.
Story by Robert McKee.
He’s a screenwriting doctor and guru, worked a lot in Hollywood.
He came to Ireland a few years ago, and I went to his workshop, and at the end of the workshop, I was walking up to meet him, and I’d ordered a copy of his book, and he put a statement down and it said: Write the truth.
I think he puts that on every book he autographs.
But basically he provides an overview of how any writer can use Story in their work. And once you learn it, it’s something that can be really impactful. It really helped me. That’s definitely a good book. Even if you don’t write screenplays, it’s still a book that will help you with your craft.
[00:32:58.160] – Ann Kroeker
I have it in the house. It’s really fat.
[00:33:00.610] – Bryan Collins
It is. It’s quite a dense book. It took me a while to go through it, but I ended up reading it three times and taking lots of notes. It’s excellent.
[00:33:09.200] – Ann Kroeker
I’m going to pull it off the shelf, blow the dust off and get started. That’s great.
Do you find yourself writing your nonfiction differently because of having read Story? I’m assuming that, based on what you just said.
[00:33:22.490] – Bryan Collins
I try to. I try to insert some personal stories into my nonfiction.
I don’t always succeed in following what he advocates in the book, but he did something that’s always at the back of my mind, because readers will connect more with a story rather than somebody who’s regurgitating information.
[00:33:38.630] – Ann Kroeker
Who’s your creative hero?
[00:33:41.750] – Bryan Collins
That’s a good question. A few. Probably the singer Nick Cave. I think he’s just tried multiple formats, from poetry to books to music.
I suppose Robert McKee’s made a big impact on me, the fact that I was looking off to meet him.
Maybe Stephen King as well, because he’s such a huge back catalog, and he’s tried so many different genres and niches.
[00:34:06.510] – Ann Kroeker
And what’s next on your plate, on your desk? What are you working on now?
[00:34:12.950] – Bryan Collins
Well, I just finished writing a parenting memoir. It’s kind of a lockdown project. So I’m at the final stages of recording the audio book called I Can’t Believe I’m a Dad.
It’s a creative project that’s something that I wanted to write during the lockdown. It’s all about when I unexpectedly became a dad about ten or 15 years ago. It’s something I enjoyed writing rather than a book I wrote because I was going to achieve some goal for me. So that was fun to do. And I spent the past few months narrating the audio version of that as well.
[00:34:41.970] – Ann Kroeker
That’s a big project. And then marketing that, I suppose, is a big part of that. The next steps involved.
[00:34:49.570] – Bryan Collins
Yeah, I need to spend more time promoting it.
To be honest, I kind of wrote the book just with the goal of writing something that’s a bit more honest and personal, because prior to writing this book, I’d written a lot of business books, and I was a freelance writing for Forbes, so I wanted to do something that was altogether removed from that type of writing, and it was just something I enjoyed writing.
All the kind of stories and anecdotes and how they relate to a guy who’s about to become a dad…the thesis of the book is it’s all the information I wish I’d known about becoming a father. It’s something I wish somebody told me at the point when I found out my partner was pregnant years ago.
[00:35:30.450] – Ann Kroeker
Write the truth. You’re doing it.
[00:35:31.620] – Bryan Collins
Write the truth. Yeah, that’s it.
[00:35:35.010] – Ann Kroeker
Well, thank you for your time today and sharing so much of how your own creative process works and even the little granular details of how your card system lives in Day One and how we can use different systems to do our own creative work and step out into the world to be read.
Do you have any final thoughts that you want to leave us with?
[00:35:57.270] – Bryan Collins
Sure. So if somebody is listening to this and they want to learn more, you can visit becomeawritertoday.com. And on the homepage, you can get a free book of writing prompts. I also have a podcast under the same name, and I was looking up to interview guests like Ann about the writing process. And that’s also called Become a Writer Today. And it’s on the iTunes Store, so go check it out.
[00:36:19.640] – Ann Kroeker
You have had some big name people on there, me not being among the top names, who are some of the people you are really excited to have on the show that they might want to go dig around and find?
[00:36:30.520] – Bryan Collins
Yes. I interviewed James Clear when he was promoting Atomic Habits. That was a good one. I interviewed Daniel Pink about his book a few years ago. That was interesting, too.
More recently, I interviewed Mark McGuinness, so he’s well known and as a kind of a creativity coach. And he was really interesting to talk to. And he gave me some advice about how to think about creative work versus work that pays the bills.
[00:36:55.950] – Ann Kroeker
All right, I’m going to go listen to that next myself. I haven’t gotten to that one. So thank you. Thank you for opening up your life and your work to us. And I hope that many people find themselves becoming stronger, better, more confident writers, especially getting to know you and your podcast.
[00:37:15.390] – Bryan Collins
Thank you, Ann.
[00:37:16.430] – Ann Kroeker
All right, you take care.
[00:37:17.800] – Ann Kroeker
I hope this conversation helps you see how you can start building your own system for collecting everything that inspires you. And you really can build your body of work 15 minutes at a time.
Let Bryan continue to inspire you through his podcast, Become A Writer Today. I’ll link to that and to his interview with me, along with loads of resources he mentioned.
Just go to annkroeker.com/becomeawritertoday, all jammed up together. That’s annkroeker.com/becomewritertoday.
Thank you for being here. I’m Ann Kroeker, Writing Coach.