5 Questions to Help You Find Your Creative Writing Sweet Spot

Filed in Uncategorized by on January 22, 2018 • views: 1147

As a writer, you get to choose your projects.

You also get to choose when you’ll work on them, where, and how. With all that freedom, you’d think that finding your creative sweet spot would be easy.

Unfortunately, it often isn’t. It’s that thing about knowing ourselves. As ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus is quoted as saying, “The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”

Yet if you can find your sweet spot, you’re more likely to create an impact with your work. Let’s look at five questions that can help you can zero in on it.

1. How much freedom/constriction do you need?

Scientists have determined that some structure is better than none when it comes to creativity, but too much can be stifling.

In a 2014, for example, researchers reported that creative performance benefitted from structure, but mostly for people who preferred having that structure. In other words, if you thrive under structure, make sure you have it in your writing projects. But what if you don’t?

Here’s where you need to get to know yourself. Sometimes just a little structure is all you need. Take a recent 2017 study for example. Researchers presented participants with a challenge. They had the option of choosing from two sets of instructions:

  1. Version A stated they would take part in “an idea-generating task involving various commonly found household items” such as “a 14-inch nonstick-cooking pan or wooden door stoppers.” It also stated that 25 percent of the responses would be reviewed, and that the participants would receive compensation “within 48 hours of completing this task.”
  2. Version B stated they would take part in “an idea-generating task involving household items” such as “cooking pans and door stoppers.” It did not specify how many responses would be reviewed, and stated that the participants would “receive compensation within two days.”

Examine these two instructions. Which one would you select? You may notice that both are pretty similar, but there are some differences that make A more specific and structured than B.

Researchers found that “less specific contracts increased task persistence, creativity, and cooperation, both immediately and longitudinally, because they boosted autonomy and intrinsic motivation.” In other words, option B generated more creative responses from most of the participants. The researchers noted that “finding the right amount” of structure was the key.

How can you tell how much structure you need? When you’re working on something, if you run into trouble, ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I restricting myself too much? Do I need to let go a bit more for the sake of my creativity?
  • Do I need a bit more structure? Should I adhere more closely to the rules of my genre?

Try writing a chapter both ways—with a bit more structure, and with a bit more freedom. Even if you’re a “freedom” junkie to start with (a “pantser,” in other words), you may be giving yourself too much rope and end up hanging yourself mid-way through your novel. Here, getting a bit more specific on your genre could help you.

If you’re a stickler for genre, on the other hand, you’ve already outlined your book, and you run into trouble, it could be that you need a little less structure and a bit more freedom. Maybe you can stray from your outline a bit, or mix genres to get closer to what your creative self really enjoys writing.

How much structure or freedom you need may vary from project to project. You may be a pantser on one, and need an outline for another. Be open to finding the structure sweet spot for each writing project that you do.

2. When is your brain most ready for writing?

When you’re scheduling your writing time, it’s not always possible to take advantage of your high-energy periods, but if there’s any way you can—even if it’s only for a couple days a week—it’s worth it, as that’s where your creative sweet spot is more likely to exist.

Here’s something to consider: studies show that right after we wake up, the prefrontal cortex of the brain (essential for creative activity) is most active. You’re still sort of in the dream state at that point, which is helpful for dropping into your make-believe world. As the day goes on, the analytic part of the brain (the “editing brain”) gradually becomes more active, which can make writing more difficult, but editing easier.

Your natural circadian rhythms, however, may make it easier for you to write at night, when you’re groggy right before bed, perhaps, or after dinner when you’re full and relaxed. The most important thing is to manage your time so it doesn’t manage you.

In a 2010 study, researchers discovered that creativity was tied to time management. In other words, those who were good at time management found it easier to be creative. (For more on time management, see Overwhelmed Writer Rescue.)

Try different times of the day and night for your writing, and keep track of your word count and quality of writing at each. Then choose your most creative time and use it as often as you can to get to that creative sweet spot more often.

Another tip: Anytime you get a creative idea through the day and night, jot that idea down and the time when you got it. After a couple weeks, review your information to find out what times of day and/or night you had the most creative ideas. Also note anything you were doing at the time of the creative idea—exercising, taking a shower, driving, etc. Then do more of these things when you need inspiration!

3. What projects truly energize you?

Your creative sweet spot exists in those projects that not only energize you when you’re doing them, but that fuel your other projects throughout the day. If a project is draining you, it may be time to rethink the time you’re spending on it.

You may have had this experience: After working on your novel, you felt a “high” that stayed with you for hours afterwards. That is your creative sweet spot.

If, on the other hand, when you finished the project you felt ambiguous, discouraged, or drained, those feelings were likely to stay with you, too, and that’s not good. That isn’t to say that every writing day should be bliss, but in general, your projects should give back some of the energy you put into them.

The key here is to look for the projects that “bleed” into the rest of your life. These are the ones that get you excited about what you’re doing, and that help you feel motivated about your day in general. And the project could be anything. Maybe it’s a novel or short story, but on the other hand, it could be a podcast, a website, a speaking opportunity, or even writing for a non-profit organization.

“Research shows that finding what you do interesting and believing it has inherent value is likely the single best way to stay motivated despite difficulty, setbacks, and unexpected roadblocks,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., social psychologist and educational consultant. “Additionally, interest in your work doesn’t just keep you going despite fatigue, it actually replenishes your energy.”

Is your project still energizing you? Do you look forward to working on it? If so, you’ve found your creative sweet spot. If not, it’s time to ask yourself: What can I do to fix this? Or should I choose something else? Your answer may lie in the next tip.

4. Where do your skills and interests intersect?

You may love fantasy books, but when it comes to world building, you struggle. It just doesn’t come naturally.

Or you may love romantic comedies, but when it comes to writing humor, you stall—you’re much more likely to lean toward the dramatic.

As writers, we have to realize where our strengths (and weaknesses) lie. Your creative sweet spot exists in that place where your skills and interests intersect. That means if you’re trying to be something you’re not, you’re going to have trouble.

When thinking about what interests you, go broader than genre. Maybe you’re interested in thrillers or sci-fi or whatever, but what if you don’t have the legal know-how or scientific background to make these stories work? You can expand a bit—what is it about the genre that interests you? Is it the excitement of a thriller? The futuristic feel of sci-fi? The answer to that question can help steer you toward a type of writing that you may be more suited for.

If writing romances comes naturally, for example, but you love sci-fi, maybe you can put a bit of a futuristic spin on your romance story. Maybe if you like the fast-pace of thrillers, but you’re a natural at literary prose, you can step up your pace a bit to keep the pages turning.

You can go beyond writing stories and novels with this, too, and extend your thinking to marketing. We often think we have to do all the marketing we can possibly do, but your efforts are likely to yield better results if you use your creative sweet spot instead.

What facets of marketing are you interested in? Start there first. Maybe you enjoy giving away books, or sending out e-newsletters. Maybe blogging is your thing, or public speaking, or book signings. Maybe you are more social, and would enjoy presenting a webinar or running a survey.

Then think about your skills. What are you naturally good at? If you’re a practiced blogger, you can focus on guest blogging to get the word out about your book. If you’d prefer talking about it, shoot for podcasts or radio shows.

Combine your interests and skills, and your creative efforts are likely to yield better results.

5. Where can you have the most impact?

This is likely the most important question to ask yourself when it comes to your creative sweet spot, but it can also be the toughest to answer. It may take time, but it’s important to keep it in mind.

Many writers write strictly for themselves, but most of us would admit that we are most fulfilled when our work meets readers that appreciate and enjoy it. It feels like our careers come full circle when what we’re doing has real impact on others.

How do we find that place? How can you determine that unique value that only you bring to the table?

Author Todd Henry (Louder Than Words) has a great article on this over at “Accidental Creative.” I’d recommend you read the entire post. But one thing he says that makes a lot of sense is:

“Your sweet spot is discovered through active contemplation, not passive reflection. The broader your base of experience, the more patterns you will be able to discern. Some people think that their sweet spot should be obvious, and as a result they waste a lot of time trying to ‘find their passion’ or figure out their optimal career path before diving in. Instead, great contributors begin by adding value wherever they can, then spend time sorting the results later.”

How many writing projects have you said “yes” to? If the answer is “not many,” you may be limiting yourself. I know when I first started writing, I never in a million years expected I would become a health writer. But when I was handpicked to focus on the health materials for the corporation I worked for, I took to it easily. Equally important was the fact that I received positive feedback from others. It’s not something I would have found on my own, but it’s ended up being a huge part of my writing career.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. Writing is not just about novels and short stories. There are so many things you can do if you write well, and so many areas in which you can use that skill. Ask yourself when you feel compelled to write. What subjects or issues make you want to respond? With what do others come to you for help?

Realize that the area in which you can have the most impact won’t necessarily be an area of work that is always blissful. Here’s another great quote from Henry:

“Many people think that once they discern their sweet spot, work will be perpetual bliss. Not so. Often, the place where you are most effective requires doing something that you don’t find personally thrilling, but that allows you to have massive impact. I know many prolific writers who – gasp! – don’t enjoy the process of writing, and many great entrepreneurs who find building a team a bit of a grind. However, they also recognize that they are uniquely capable of adding value through these activities, and they are more in love with the results than they are with their temporary comfort.” 

That doesn’t mean you should do something you don’t enjoy doing, but it does mean that the area of writing in which you could really thrive—your creative sweet spot—could involve hard work, and some difficult days. Think about projects you could seriously commit to, and in which you think you could be truly effective.

When you do try something new, ask yourself these questions to determine whether this is an area you should continue to pursue:

  • Does this writing-related task open you up to new opportunities?
  • Does this task challenge you without overwhelming you?
  • Does this task stimulate your creativity and get you excited?
  • If you don’t yet have the skills to complete this task, do you feel confident you could learn them?
  • Does this task fit in with your interests and passions in life?

Finally, don’t stop exploring. The great thing about writing is you can do it for as long as you want to, so there are always new ways you can expand your career. Be on the lookout for them, keep challenging yourself, and you might be surprised at what an impact you can have.

Have you found your creative sweet spot?

Eric F. Reitzschel, et al., “Task structure, need for structure, and creativity,” European Journal of Social Psychology, June 2014; 44(4):386-399, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2024/abstract.

Chou EY, et al., “The Goldilocks contract: The synergistic benefits of combining structure and autonomy for persistence, creativity, and cooperation,” J Pers Soc Psychol., September, 2017; 113930:393-412, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28447836.

Wilma Koutstaal, “Finding and Making Sweet Spots in Your Creative Process,” Psychology Today, September 21, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-innovating-minds/201709/finding-and-making-sweet-spots-in-your-creative-process.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, “The Secret to Feeling Energized at Work? Autonomy,” 99U, http://99u.com/articles/16677/the-secret-to-feeling-energized-at-work-autonomy.

Leonidas A. Zampetakis, et al., “On the relationship between individual creativity and time management,” Thinking Skills and Creativity, April 2010; 5(1):23-32, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1871187109000716.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Sharon Schnelle says:

    This was fascinating! I hadn’t thought about sweet spots or what it is that opens me up creatively. But now, thanks to your article here, I have found my sweet spot to be – emotion! When I look back at my writing work, I found that it was stuff that hit me emotionally, drew up emotions from deep inside me, and flowed out to share with and inspire others.

  2. Jeri says:

    I’ve fought my writing tendencies tooth and nail over the years, and the result has been not producing nearly as much as I should. I finally sent in a piece for publication and it will be in the March issue of Idaho Magazine, so that felt really good. I’ve always told myself I’m a night writer, but really after a day of sitting at my computer editing manuscript, etc. I struggle to get that writing in. I also told myself I had to exercise in the morning, but I HATE exercising in the morning. So much so it tends to mean I get started later than I’d like on my projects for the day. Now that I’m going to the YMCA for evening classes, I am getting to work earlier. As for the writing, I’m making the shift toward morning time, but right now I still am tending to get it in at the end of the day, around nine or ten at night.

    • Colleen says:

      Congratulations, Jeri! That’s awesome. I hear you on the struggle to get everything in. I’m a night owl, but working on my stuff (as opposed to freelance) first thing has always worked best for me. I tried to go back to night a few times too but the end result was low production. Good luck landing on your sweet spot with everything!

  3. Oddly enough, I may have found my genre sweet spot in historical fiction of the Illinois frontier and westward when all I ever intended to write was contemporary crime fiction.

    My writing time sweet spot has turned out to be two one-hour sessions, one about 9 am and the other around 11:00 am (with a dog walk or playtime in between), but I don’t do that every single day. Those hours are also my sweet spot for coffee/breakfast dates and errands.

    My creative space sweet spots are in my office at the computer, in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen, or sitting outside in my lawn chair in the warm sun to think.

    These days, now that I realize I have interests and skills in a new genre track, I’m also taking another look at short stories and articles. I see how easily I placed myself into a creative niche and locked out other opportunities for years. Thanks for an enlightening post, Colleen.

    • Colleen says:

      Interesting, Pat! That’s a change of direction for sure. Now I’m wondering exactly how you found that different genre. I think you’re talking about your latest novel, which makes me wonder if the dream that sparked it was what led you to the new genre?

      • Yes, the dream got me started, but it still took a long time to realize I’d found my voice. My critique group kept telling me, and I wasn’t listening. Perhaps I should have recognized it at the time as a message from the Universe…or at least from my deep subconscious. Some of us take a long time to find our way. 😀

        • Colleen says:

          So fascinating, and I can completely relate. We get in our own way so much don’t we? But I guess that makes it all the sweeter when the path finally opens up!