Creativity on demand?
A look at the Planned Accidents blog authors' idea generation and writing process
In this third post in our creativity series, blog authors Jenny and Jana answer questions about the blog writing process. Read our inteview below to learn how they come up with new ideas, how they research and organize their work, what their writing process looks like, and how they deal with creative blocks.
A new blog post is published every two weeks. How do you keep up with this schedule and what keeps you going? Do you ever get stuck? If so, what are your methods for getting unstuck again?
Jana: We started the blog because we think it’s important to offer not just a software program, manual and tutorial videos, but to also to share our experience with users. From our own experiences in college and graduate school and through our work in the Citavi support team, we know what difficulties and questions tend to come up when writing. We want to share the strategies we’ve developed for ourselves or heard about from others. When you’re doing research, a goal is to build on the findings of others, and we think it’s also important to learn from the experiences of others. This goal motivates me when writing.
Of course, there are days when I’m sitting in front of a blank Word document or re-typing a sentence for what feels like the 10th time, until I’m satisfied. In these moments, it helps me to remember my goal when writing. I’ll sometimes look back on past blog posts for inspiration and will then suddenly have a new idea or can see how a previous post relates to the current one. On days when a deadline is looming and I’m feeling stressed, I often need this additional motivation.
Jenny: The pressure of a deadline is good for completing a blog post instead of editing it to death, but I find coming up with ideas more difficult with a tight deadline since stress kills my creativity.
I do get stuck when writing. If a deadline is looming, then I try to skip over the section giving me trouble, write all the other sections, and then come back to the problematic section once the first draft is done. I always have a rough outline before I sit down to write with headings and a few key sentences, sometimes even a draft of the introduction. That helps me stay focused.
How do you come up with new ideas for the blog “Planned Accidents”?
Jana: In over three years of the Citavi blog, we never had the problem that we couldn’t think of ideas for new blog posts! As part of the Support team, I get a lot of ideas from the questions asked by our users. When my colleagues talk about some of the problems they helped customers with, that can give me new ideas as well. I also get a lot of inspiration outside of work from books, series, or even music. For example, right now I’m thinking of a satirical song from the German-language singer Rainal Grebe. There’s a line that translates as “Science is an opinion that everyone must be allowed to say”. We’ll see if that ends up in a new blog post!
Jenny: Usually a new idea will come from something I’ve read or seen – I almost never have trouble coming up with topics, since I keep up-to-date on higher education news and other academic blogs. I also read books, articles, and essays on many different topics, and I watch a lot of documentaries. Often you can apply something from another field to academic work. For example, a lot of the productivity strategies aimed at business professionals can be applied to academics, too. And when you start researching a topic there are always new facets that are interesting. Sometimes I plan to write about one thing and during the course of the research I find a completely new topic. For example, our post about the phrase “Standing on the shoulders of giants” was originally going to be about why we cite in the first place and why citations are so important.
When I’m thinking about possible topics, one strategy I use is to think about what questions I personally have about a topic and that I think other people might ask themselves. Often the basic, fundamental questions that a child would ask are very good. For example, “why is citation important?” To answer that question you need to learn about when citation practices started being used, the culture and the values of the society at the time it became common practice, how those values influence the present day use of citations, and how the practice of citation has changed in the present day. And then during the research process you just have to notice where other questions come up and what seems fascinating to you. Those questions can then guide the structure of the post.
Are there any special creativity techniques you use?
Jana: As far as I know, I haven’t used any special creativity techniques, at least not consciously.
There is one that I definitely want to try, though, and that’s the perspective shift we wrote about in the first post in our creativity series, for example, asking yourself a question like “What would this topic look like if Disney made a movie about it?”.
I will say that my environment has a big impact on my creativity. I need a clear desk and head in order to have space for new ideas. Cleaning up my desk is the easy part; to free up my head I need to finish all the other urgent tasks first. For that reason, I do not have any time or capacity for creativity in the morning. Only in the afternoon do I have the necessary mental energy, peace and quiet and time to write.
Jenny: Like Jana, I need to have a good block of time (2-3 hours) without distractions in order to write. Afternoons or evenings often work best. I find I enjoy writing up blog posts the most on Sundays since my head is clear then and I don’t need to worry about being interrupted.
As for creativity techniques, I brainstorm a lot with a pen and paper or sometimes on the screen in a blank Word document. I also try to keep any “generative” activities like coming up with new ideas or writing out a draft separate from “analytical” activities such as bringing ideas into a rough outline or editing a draft. It was very helpful for me to learn about divergent and convergent thinking, which I’ve mentioned a lot in the blog. I used to the be the kind of person who would want to perfectly craft each sentence before moving forward, but I now find it more efficient and less stressful to stay in one frame of mind for each task. Of course, it’s not always that simple and a lot of times more analytical tasks will trigger new ideas and then all of the sudden you’re writing a new paragraph, but in general this is how I try to approach all the writing tasks for a blog post.
How do you keep track of ideas for the blog? Do you use any special tools?
Jenny: I often find that ideas come when I’m engaged in work that doesn’t require as much thought, such as corrections to the online manual. I find it important to note down ideas as soon as I have them or I’ll forget them. For blog ideas I use a personal Asana project to list potential blog topics. I’ll add any links that made me think of the idea and a few thoughts about what the blog post could contain. Then, when it’s my turn to write a post, I can look at my list. Sometimes I’ll use a topic I save there, and sometimes what’s there will trigger an entirely different idea.
Jana: So that our colleagues can contribute their own ideas, we created a group in Mango, our Intranet app. It worked well at the beginning, but no one uses it anymore. Instead, we now often get ideas in talks with our colleagues or that are emailed to us. Our shared ideas are in an online “Idea Backlog” Excel table. There we also have recommended topics from our blog questionnaire from last year. We’re always happy to get suggestions and new ideas from our readers!
What does your writing process look like?
Jenny: Messy and full of stops and starts! I always start with an outline, but it often has little tangents and questions written in the side margins and interesting points at the bottom that I might want to include but that don’t yet fit. When I go to write, I usually start from the beginning. The introduction is usually pretty easy to draft (although it often gets changed later on when I’ve written the whole thing), but then I’ll usually run into problematic sections after that. As I write, I’ll see where I didn’t yet understand something I’m writing about or don’t have enough information. Often, I’ll try to just keep writing, though, and will put some notes in brackets so that I can get a first draft done. I’m a much better editor than a writer, and I find that work most enjoyable, so the goal is always to get the painful work of the first draft finished as soon as possible. Then, I can go back and look for additional information to fill the gaps or I can think more about how two sections fit together. It doesn’t always work like this, of course. Like anyone, I sometimes get to a point where I simply don’t know what to write. I’ll usually try to force myself to sit with that uncomfortable feeling for a bit until it subsides and I can continue, but if I’ve been staring at the screen for 20 minutes or more, I walk away from the computer and take a break. When I later sit down to work again, my head is no longer looking at the problem in a divergent way, and it’s suddenly much easier to see how I could join two sections or re-word a confusing sentence.
I love the editing process, since no matter how bad my first draft is, I can then see the shape of the piece and the rest is just a process of refining and re-reading in multiple passes. For me, this work is very rewarding, and the time just flies by.
Another thing I should mention is that we always review each other’s blog posts and sometimes get input from other colleagues as well. Jana’s feedback is invaluable; she’ll often point out an aspect I hadn’t thought about, which I’ll then add to the post. It’s also great to have someone else look at the flow and structure of your work. We always let each other know if a section is confusing or could be better worded in a different way.
Jana: I hardly ever create an outline. I just start writing without overthinking the process. Over time sections will start to take shape and it’s then possible to add headings. Every post is different. Some need a lot of research before I can write a single word. Others start with a handful of main points that slowly grow into a longer text. The editing phase is very time-consuming for me. That’s because my first drafts don’t always contain sentences that are ready for publication. For example, I often need a lot of time to find synonyms that sound good.
How long does it typically take to write a blog post from start to finish?
Jenny: It really depends. As a general rule of thumb anything that has some analysis or original thought takes a lot longer than posts that are more of a laundry list of facts. Also, the amount of background knowledge I have on a particular topic plays a big role. The posts on topics that I don’t have any expertise in often take a lot of time to research and write, while anything based on reference management or information literacy skills goes much faster. I think the recent post on how academics can become more creative took around six to seven hours to write (from creating the outline to finalizing a draft for Jana), but to read the book and take notes probably also took around six hours. I also read a handful of articles that never made it into that post but were useful for the background information they contained – that probably was another two hours or so. In contrast, the post on getting the most out of the library as a first-year student was one of the fastest posts to write, and it probably only took around three - four hours total – including research – since I already was familiar with most of the services after having led library orientation tours during internships at the UWM libraries.
Jana: It really depends on how much research is needed for a post. For some posts an hour is enough, while others can take up to 10 hours. On average I would estimate that it takes around four hours just for the writing process.
Has writing blog posts gotten easier over time?
Jenny: Yes, I think so. Each post is still a challenge, but there’s less pressure for each one to be a perfect piece of writing, since we’ve now written so many posts.
Jana: For me it’s a clear “no”.
How do you find the time to write blog posts?
Jana: The creative process of writing blog posts is a great compliment to my analytical support work. However, finding the time is not always easy, especially during stressful periods when there’s a high-volume of support questions. We do everything we can to make sure we stick to our bi-weekly publication schedule. Personally, I use reminders in Asana so that a Blog Tuesday doesn’t get lost in everyday tasks.
Jenny: Since I don’t work in support, I have a more flexible schedule than Jana, but it can still be difficult to find the time to write, so I try to take a look at my schedule and plan out all of my tasks at the beginning of the week. I’ll look for an entire morning or afternoon I can write and try to keep that clear of other tasks. However, new tasks often come up and during a busy week I might only have a quiet 1-2 hours at night or on the weekend, so I’ll often end up writing then.
A practical question: how do you organize the publication while working from home?
Jana: We have regular meetings over MS Teams to discuss our current and planned blog posts. To organize all the work needed for the publication and to make sure we don’t forget anything, we use an Asana template project. It contains all the tasks we’ll need to complete, for example, giving feedback on drafts or writing the text and finding an image for the newsletter. The template lets us quickly see which tasks still need to be completed, and we can ask each other questions directly in the task itself. With the template, the publication process is now a well-oiled machine.
Jenny: Yes, the Asana template is a lifesaver since we can also assign tasks to ourselves or to each other and always know who needs to do what by when. It just goes to show that simple list-making is one of the best organizational tools!
Do you use Citavi for blog posts? If so, how?
Jana: I use Citavi to manage the articles, websites and books that I read for a post and to create the list for the “For further reading” section that appears at the end of the post. This way I can be sure that my recommendations are formatted consistently. For German-language posts, I use the “Citavi Basis-Stil” citation style, since it’s comprehensive and familiar to Citavi users.
Jenny: I use Citavi but not for every post. I do use it for any post that requires some background research, and I’ll make sure to diligently add any web links, articles or ISBNs for books I plan to look at in my Citavi project as I’m searching for sources. That makes it much easier later on to quickly generate a reference list or a list of recommend readings for the post. In the English-language posts, I always use the APA style for English-language posts since it’s so widely used in the English-speaking world.
Depending on the topic, I might take notes in Citavi if I expect to be quoting text passages. For example, the post on the history of the APA citation style required a fair amount of external sources, and I also took quite a few notes in Citavi.
If I’m using book sources, I sometimes end up with a bit of a hodgepodge where I have notes for the book either handwritten in a notebook or saved as highlights in my Kindle app in addition to notes on my PDFs in Citavi. For a short project like a blog post, I’m willing to live with this messiness for the sake of expediency.
How did you like our look behind the curtains at the creative process of the Citavi blog team? Do you have any other questions for our authors that you’d like to know? Write to us on Facebook or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.