James Clear is a productivity expert who uses behavioral science to help nearly half a million newsletter subscribers optimize their habits. He recently sat down with bestselling author Steven Johnson for a conversation on their writing processes and how they’ve evolved. Steven is the author of ten books, including Where Good Ideas Come From and, most recently Wonderland, which highlights the influence of play and innovation on the movements that shape history.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view James and Steven’s full conversation, click below:
James: I am in the middle of finishing my book and I really struggled with the balance between research and writing processes. I got into this research spiral where I thought, “Okay I’m writing a book on habits and human behavior so I need to read everything that’s been written on habits and behavior.”
There’s a balance. I want to feel like I produced something that contributed to the conversation. I’m curious how you deal with that problem of over researching and balancing preparing with getting ideas that are good enough to ship.
Steven: My philosophy is a minimum viable product kind of idea. Research enough so that you know the general structure of what you’re going to write but have lots of holes—and know where they are—to cover eventually.
“Research enough so that you know the general structure of what you’re going to write but have lots of holes—and know where they are—to cover eventually.”
Research as you write. Roughly, research 40% of the book and then if you get to a point in the book where you really need to understand the history of trade with the East Indian Company in the 1650’s, for example, stop for two weeks and go figure that out. Once you’re in the middle of the book, every little unit of information that you uncover with your research is so much more efficiently deployed because you know where it goes.
James: I’ve already seen that. I’ve finally crossed that threshold and said okay, that’s enough of just research, the book needs to be written now. For example I read an article last week, and immediately I could part that into three different pieces and insert it into three different chapters. You don’t know that if you don’t have the structure. I’m curious what that outline format looks like for you.
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Steven: You have to know something about each chapter. What sometimes happens is over the course of writing it and researching, another chapter appears to you and you’re like, “Oh wait, there’s a whole other section that I should add.” That’s an exception. You want to have enough just to get going and have some hooks that you can work with.
The other thing that happens is there’s a great procrastination urge in writing to re-read everything you’ve written. You sit down like, “Okay I’m here with my cup of coffee ready to write. I’d better read all 7,000 words of this chapter before I start to write word 7001.”
That takes 55 minutes of your time and then you start writing. Then you do it the next day, reading the next 7,500 words that you’ve written right after. It wastes a lot of time.
But it’s really bad because by the time you sit down to read the final version of the book, your first draft, you have read almost every word 30 times because you’ve been re-reading every day. You’re sick of it and everything seems obvious and everything seems boring. It’s like a pop song you play too many times.
James: It loses its magic. You only get to read something the first time once. You don’t want to over-edit certain parts.
“You only get to read something the first time once.”
Steven: Exactly. I sit down, remember where I was, write my work for that day, put it away, pick it up the next morning, figure out where I was, write—and then at the end of the chapter I re-read it once and I tighten it a little bit. Then I put it away and don’t re-read the whole book until it’s all done.
By that point, there are whole sections that I have actually re-written. There’s sections where I’ve forgotten that I’ve written something earlier and I’ve found that I’ve written almost the exact same paragraph twice.
James: I’m curious how you deal with the structure of what I would describe as the hierarchy of ideas. Any book has its one idea that is the whole narrative arc, and then there are other ideas that are maybe big enough for part one, and then there’s another idea that’s good enough for a chapter, and then there are some things that are just supporting details that goes into the chapter. I notice that I struggle for a while to figure out how important this idea is. Should it be a chapter? Should it be a supporting detail?
Steven: A tool that I’ve used that has changed the way that I do this is Scrivener. The problem with every other word processor is that it’s a scroll, a linear thing; basically it’s a, b, c, d…
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James: [Which] makes moving chunks very difficult.
Steven: But not just moving: ideas are nested. You read something that’s interesting, you have a little fragment, a little hunch of your own, something else is interesting, you’re not sure why and you have all these little fragments and you keep reading and you’re like, “Oh wait of if I take this fragment and this hunch and this hunch and I put it together, that forms a cluster of something that’s coherent. It’s just a point. It’s not the whole argument—but if I put this point with this point and this point, now I’ve got an argument. That’s a chapter. It’s exactly that nested structure.
Now, when I start a project, I toss in all these fragments and quotes and things; there’s no real structure to them. Then I start forming little folders as those ideas get bigger. To your question, how do you tell an idea is really a big one? It’s almost like gravity. There’s a little folder with this interesting idea, and I drag this quote into it and this little hunch I took and it starts to attract more and more things…
“How do you tell an idea is really a big one? It’s almost like gravity.”
James: If half the book is in this folder, maybe this is the book.
Steven: Right. You can see what the biggest object is in this solar system.
James: Have you ever thought, “I thought this book was about this but it turns out maybe it’s about something else.”
Steven: I wrote this book called The Ghost Map about a cholera epidemic in London, which was a case study of an idea that changed the world, because John Snow came up with the theory of where cholera was coming from. As I was writing this book, I started to think maybe there’s a larger, more theoretical book about idea creation in the first place. I was thinking about the collaborative nature of creation and the ecosystem metaphor—which was a little bit less trendy in 2005 when I was doing this. I thought I would have a big metaphor of ecosystems or ideas, which became a book about where good ideas come from.
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I was really interested in where the scientific concept of ecosystems came from in the first place and [thought that] maybe that’s one of the stories I [could] tell. I started to dig around and it turns out that the concept of ecosystem partially derives from Joseph Priestley, the British chemist who also was a political radical and best friends with Ben Franklin. I was like, “Oh this is great. I’ll start my book about ideas with this story about this guy Joseph Priestley.” Then I started researching more about him and I was like, “Oh, this is a whole book.”
James: [With] all of these additional fascinating threads.
Steven: All these crazy things. I had this awkward moment where I called my publisher and said, “Hey I know you’ve got me under contract to write this big book about where ideas come from, but I think first a book about 18th century chemistry would be the right thing to do.”
That book became The Invention of Air. Then it became a trilogy. The Ghost Map, The Invention of Air, both case studies leading into Where Good Ideas Come From.
James: So eventually you wrote the book.
Steven: Eventually, but I had to stop and write this other book in the middle. I had a very patient publisher.