How a Structured Writing Environment Makes You More Creative

How important is adaptability to a writer’s creativity?

I thought I’d stick with freelance writing full-time. That was my plan, when I set my 2017 writing and career goals. Then I accidentally got hired to write full-time somehow (impostor syndrome, is that you?) and realized I had a lot more to learn about writing than I thought.

In my mind, creativity required as much freedom as possible. I needed to be able to work when or where I wanted, with weekly deadlines and not much direction.

I look at creativity a little differently now.

In the beginning of this new branch of my budding career, part of me secretly wondered if I was making the wrong choice. Because working for a media company meant stricter, more frequent deadlines; more restrictions on what I was allowed to write about; a tighter pitching process, more self-editing, and having to follow a very specific set of guidelines for every single thing I wrote.

A small part of me thought, “Will this take away my freedom? Will it make me less creative?”

What they don’t tell you about working full-time as a writer online is that things change constantly. Every week we have to adapt to new strategies, test new ways of structuring our articles and headlines, do what we do best with a slightly altered — and usually more effective — set of guidelines. At first, this threw me off. I got worried. Because, after all, a strict number of pages per article, a weekly and monthly production quota, coming up with the perfect pitches — that was going to stifle my creativity. Right?

Quite the opposite, actually. Thankfully.

Because sitting in front of a computer, with no direction as to where you need to go with a piece, it’s very easy to fall back into your go-to way of doing things. You launch into autopilot, you write without really thinking about it. While that works sometimes, it won’t always. Readers get bored. They want to see something new, something worth clicking through.

Sitting at your computer with a checklist, you know where you need to start and where you need to end up. But everything that happens in-between, you have to actively think about. How can you make your subheadings less mundane? How can you present a fact or statistic in a way that’s hard to forget? How can you take something that starts out as a boring, skeletal frame of a piece of writing, and turn it into something worth reading? That takes creativity. It forces you to do something different than what you’ve done before, every single time.

I don’t like linking to things I’ve written outside this blog. But I’ll make an exception here, for the sake of showing vs. telling (see what I did there?). If you’re interested in seeing an example of what I’m getting at, look at this article. It’s meant to be informative, and it is. But it tells a story at the same time. It took a lot of brain power to figure out how to make it work. It took all the creative energy I had to structure it in more than just a formulaic listicle — and it was a worthwhile (still challenging) experience.

You have to be creative to stand out. Which might seem obvious … but autopilot isn’t always detectable.

Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way. Maybe I just thrive on structure and checklists. This definitely isn’t the right environment for everyone. But if you’re really looking for a challenge, something that lets you write but keeps you on your toes and pushes you past your perceived limits, this kind of structured environment will force you to think outside the box while sitting cross-legged inside one. Adhering to a formula, to make your product unique, you have to be able to create something that stands out. Even, from the outside looking in, that seems impossible.

How do you find writing environments like this? Write a lot. Create an online portfolio, freelance, make good connections. Someone I worked with during a magazine internship sent me a link to a job posting I never would have applied for otherwise — which is how I landed my first full-time writing job. The more experience you have, the more marketable you are — as long as you’re willing to build a versatile skill set and adapt to change, that is.

If you’re looking for freelance writing jobs, read this first.

Always remember that creativity isn’t always about doing what you want, the way you want. It’s about doing something different within a set of boundaries. If you can accept that, if you can learn to thrive with that mindset, it’s not going to take you long to start climbing the success ladder. I mean, it’s still a pretty big ladder, don’t get me wrong. You’re just going to be able to figure out how to climb it faster than a lot of other writers in your niche.

What do you think? Is adaptability essential for creativity? How do you blend structure with creative freedom? Do you, have you ever, or do you ever plan on working in an environment with more structure? How does it compare to writing your own blog, or novel, or working with freelance clients, all on your own time? Do you have a preference? Sorry. That was a lot of questions. (:

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

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3 thoughts on “How a Structured Writing Environment Makes You More Creative

    1. A lot of things you’d typically submit your writing to (a potential client, a submission response, an email to an editor, a job application) will ask you for writing samples. Instead of attaching multiple Word or Google documents to an email, a great way to showcase your work is to link to things you’ve published collectively in a single web page — a portfolio of content anyone can access online by clicking on a link you add to your application or email. It’s great for anyone who has multiple publishing credits. And you’ll typically have your name attached to it, because sharing a writing portfolio assumes you want other people to see your work. So I’d say no to including an anonymous blog, if you want to keep it anonymous. You also wouldn’t typically include ghostwritten work, unless you have permission to display that/are applying for more ghostwriting jobs and that makes up the majority of your samples. Wow, that was a lot – does that make sense? :)

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