Write When Inspired

In writing four books and an unknown quantity of articles and blog posts, I’ve discovered the simple secret to maintaining quality. I share it with you here in mnemonic nursery rhyme fashion:

Write when inspired; rest when tired.

Whether the task is writing, design, or hanging a picture straight, it is obvious that we do our best work when healthy, rested, refreshed, alert, and eager to do the job for its own sake.

But anyone who has done professional work also knows that we must often work late into the night at the behest of deadlines. There are jobs that call for us to push ourselves, not merely creatively (which is exhilarating), but physically—even when our bodies need rest, our minds are dimmed, our concentration dented, and our inspiration nonexistent.

Therein lies our conflict, and one key to the difference between good and great.

Design is a hurting thing

Work is work, and we must do what we must do. But when quality matters most, the old saw about “good or fast—choose one,” holds true. Pushing through to the finish line when you have nothing left inside you is great for marathon runners, but not so hot for creative professionals. In particular, if you’re trying to write clearly and well, it’s better to let a deadline slide by a day than to “just finish up.”

I call out writing in particular because if you push out a design when you’re exhausted, the details and balance will suffer, and it won’t be as great as it can be—but the public has such a low expectation of aesthetics in web design that you might get away with it. Only you and a few of your designer friends will recognize the sloppy, ill-considered bits that make your work good when it could have been great. Of course, your designer friends will think less of you, and you’ll cringe every time you see the site, but if you don’t have a taste for masochism, you shouldn’t be in design, because the hurt will kill you.

Night of the living deadlines

There’s a reason they call them deadlines.

With design that could have been great but was ever so slightly bungled due to exhaustion in the face of ridiculous deadlines, it is only the designer and the rare armchair aesthetician who know.

But when writers push themselves to make a deadline, everyone knows, because the passages where they cheated are unclear, unpersuasive, ineffective. A reader needn’t follow the exact art and subtle science of kerning or vertical grid building to recognize when a sentence isn’t clear, or fails to make a convincing point, or doesn’t seem to entirely belong with its older and younger brother sentences.

When I let a publisher’s deadline push out a piece of writing before it is ready, it is like thrusting a helpless preemie into the cruel world. And it’s not just external deadlines that can wreck my work. Say I’m writing here, where there are no deadlines. I get nearly to the end of what I want to say, and then I’m called away by work or family. When I return to the blog post hours later to wrap things up and publish, I’m distracted, and the powerful emotion and single idea that initially led me me to write has flown over the garden wall. If I just bang out a finish, the whole piece will be weakened. I know because I’ve done it.

Will no one think of the readers?

Currently I’m working on the third edition of Designing With Web Standards, and in addition to mentally approaching it as a new book in order to truly rethink and reinvigorate it, I’m also sticking like epoxy to the discipline of holding back chapters until they are ready. This sounds like what a writer would always do, but trade publishing is like a slave galley in a Roman galleon—if the sufferer beside you collapses under the whip, you need to row harder. You won’t get that placement at Borders if you don’t finish on time. Amazon won’t give you that special promotional push if you don’t turn it in six weeks earlier than your contract says you must, &c.

Never mind the bollocks. You are not writing for Amazon, or to fit a staff proofreader’s vacation schedule, as important and real as those considerations may be. You are writing for readers, a duty as sacred, in its way, as parenting. If you don’t believe the previous sentence, if you think writing is mainly about getting paid, I’m sorry you wasted your time reading this page, and I hope you find another way to earn a living soon. The world is already choking on half-considered, squeezed-out shit. There’s no need to add to the pile.

If you want to be great, or at least to be better, start by breathing, taking breaks, and working intensely when the mood is on.

[tags]writing, inspiration[/tags]

120 thoughts on “Write When Inspired

  1. That’s why I think that a 9-5 shift is not good for designers – or anyone working in the creativity field. Sometimes you need a bigger lunch break to rest your mind or maybe working during night might get you better ideas.

  2. Great advice, as always.

    Quality writing is a craft that requires a tremendous amount of effort. Simply pecking away on the keyboard and pushing the Publish button doesn’t cut it.

    Effort from the writer equals reward for the reader.

  3. Very powerful mnemonic.

    Write when inspired; rest when tired

    Everything you said about writing resonated for me. Whether designing interactive user interface flow or writing code, the same feels true.

    If you’ll pardon the derivative work and generalization, I couldn’t help but think:

    Create when inspired; rest when tired

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. I can understand what you are saying about not rushing articles, blog posts, etc. just to get them out. Especially in your case were there are thousands of people reading them so they need to done correctly and completely.

    I have a few blog posts that are just outlines right now, since they are more practical accessibility how to’s and are not time sensitive. This allows me to work on them when I have time and can go back and refine them more. Plus, a bunch of my posts need code/web page examples to make it easier to explain the idea.

    Good luck with writing when you can with work and your family life.

  5. Your mention that the world is already choking on half-considered, squeezed-out shit and there being no need to add to the pile is kind of ironic if you need a full page to explain that we do better work when we’re inspired.

  6. One hundred times  a m e n. I’ve been following this advice too well of late, some might say, but entirely in the absence of good alternatives.

    As it stands I’m down to rowing harder. Sucks to be me!

  7. I agreewith everything you have written Jeffrey. Although decidedly amateur and less than skilled in all creative endeavour I partake in, I do try to follow this advice. I do have, however, an issue with only writing when inspired, and not pushing for the finish – my inpiration comes in the form of a grand idea or opening, and if I don’t push my way to an often uninspired and laboured finish, it simply never will be completed. I simply find it impossible to either recapture the inspiration, or the rhythm of what I was writing, or as is most often the case, I lose interest in the topic altogether and end up trying to edit what I have written into such a flowery piece of prose that the lack of inspiration will not be evident. Of course this has the opposite effect, and ends up
    in an entirely terrible piece of writing. This is why my new blog is two
    months old and has three articles.

    Wow, that went nowhere, and didn’t actually make any poin whatsoever

  8. Very nice article, Jeffrey. I like especially the part, when you talk about holding yourself until finished. In a fast-pace world this is increasingly harder, if even done. People are screaming at each other, when deadlines are not met, everyone wants you to work harder and harder. Instead of blindly following requests, we need time to reconnect with ourselves and rethink what is truly important to us and how doing a particular job enhances our life with meaning.

    Writing, whether it is on internet or in books is a very responsible activity, especially if readers come from around the globe. If theycan’t find value for their spent time, they will go somewhere else. The quality to reach people and engage them in communication, depends to a great extent on the quality of writing.

  9. The mantra reminds me of Buddha’s own words: When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.

    More: writing is poetry. That’s where the art of writing began. Each and every writer owes a debt of gratitude to the first human beings who decided to shape language to powerful ends and thereby refine our mode of existence.

    Good writing – the effective use of poetics – jolts us out of apathy.

    And we certainly don’t need more bad poetry clogging up the pipes.

  10. Thanks for this. I’m writing something that is starting to feel a bit formulaic. And after a good night’s sleep it reads haltingly and slow and dull. I think you say something we all know, but we need to be reminded of. Your nursery rhyme will be placed on my computer screen, right next to the clock.

  11. Very nice article, but your title is misleading. A writer can’t just write when inspired—inspiration is an acquired trait that comes from writing a lot of shitty first drafts. But you don’t have to publish those.

  12. I’ve written a couple dozen books, thousands of articles, millions (?) of blog posts, and while there’s validity in what you say, it treats writing as something perhaps too precious.

    I got an undergraduate B.A. in design, where it’s taught as an academic expression of formalism in art instead of a commercial thing. The conflict between inspired design and design on deadline is part of what creates great design.

    Writing has much in common, I’ve found oddly enough, making my living as a writing instead of graphic designer. You have to have the basic tools to produce words even when you’re not inspired. Inspiration is a lovely thing, but the muse deserts. You need to produce workmanlike prose just as any craftsman in a shop finishes up the table leg without producing something of exceptional beauty, but something that expresses competence in the field.

    Inspiration is even; work must be even.

    And there’s always revision. Once I have words on the page during a dull point, when I revisit it I nearly always find a way to say it better, clearer, with greater communication.

  13. I am reminded of John Medina’s excellent Brain Rules one, seven and eight.

    If tired, stressed and uninspired then you must sleep, exercise and try to relax. If you don’t, you’ll end up feeling gut-wrenchingly uninspired while pulling stressful all-nighters just trying to catch-up. A truly vicious cycle.

  14. Unfortunately life isn’t so kind as to allow most people the luxury to work when “inspired” and there are many examples of works (I can name several symphonies for example) that arrived because they had to be got out on time, while other pieces are more indulgent.

    Most professional writers who write about writing testify to a routine which may be “up at 7, start writing, breakfast and shower at 9, read the papers, answer mail, write from 11-1, lunch” etc etc.
    Others have a routine which is quantitative: “write 5,000 words a day. Anything. Just write.”

    I’ve tried both, and I’ve tried writing when inspired. Let me tell you my experience: With the “write first thing in the morning” approach I got a play written that had been milling around in my head and my MA thesis. With the “x thousand words a day” approach I’ve written a book, several papers, magazine articles and lectures. With the “write when inspired” approach I’ve written… nothing. And usually had to stay up late to meet a deadline as a result.

    The advice I give to fellow academics and students is “just write”. Accept that what you write may be crap but at least it’s out of your head. It’s easier to edit something down than build something up.
    I’d say, if you’re tired, that’s often the best time to write something even if it’s only a few bullet points or the list for tomorrow’s shopping, because otherwise you’ll be thinking of things anyway, and letting them mill around your head over and over and over again just makes you more tired.

    So follow the principle of the “shitty first draft” and away you go.

    But the ultimate advice is this: don’t follow anyone else’s advice. Try a few things out. And change them. And then pass it on but don’t pass it on as the way to write. Because there isn’t a way. There’s only the way you’re doing it, and every other way.

    At the end of the day, the writing/creating/decorating/DIY process to use is the one that works. And when it doesn’t, try another.

  15. I totally agree, but feel there’s a mundane yet powerful point that has not been addressed:

    The viability of dismissing publisher/client/employer deadlines as secondary to end goals is proportional to established notoriety. Creative professionals with a public record of producing quality on a deadline can expect a greater degree of flexibility and professional acceptance than those with less notoriety. So my question: To what extent do you feel this article applies to those who are not Jeffrey Zeldman? Can the rest of us really get away with only working when we’re inspired or do the banal requirements of professionalism require, as Lee puts it, “trudging?”

    It seems to me that “working only when inspired” is the apex of a creative career; the goal for which we all strive. Thanks for reminding us it’s possible, Jeffrey, but let’s not forget we need to earn it.

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  17. I don’t agree. Fatigue certainly impedes accomplishment and requires rest. But if you wait for “inspiration,” you may find that it comes less and less. Graham Greene said a writer should write at least 500 words per day, and my guess is that this goal was required to be met with or without inspiration. If you’re inspired write more; if you’re not, stop at 500. But don’t sit around waiting for lightening to strike.

  18. Book publishers have this nasty habit of trying to establish delivery (and advance payment) schedules based on the percentage of a manuscript the author is to submit. They’ll take the final delivery date, halve the distance between now and then, and demand the first half by that date.

    My response to such proposed contracts: “I don’t write half books.”

  19. A third, better edition of “Designing with Web Standards”? Hooray!

    Annual re-readings of Strunk and White, William Zinsser, and George Orwell help me. And Stephen King’s advice has proven practical, too.

  20. Wolf said: “[…] there being no need to add to the pile is kind of ironic if you need a full page to explain that we do better work when we’re inspired.” [emphasis added]

    This begs the question – how big is a web page? If the, quite long, second to last paragraph had been left out, had Zeldman only needed 90% of a web page? If he had added the entire but cut out section about writer’s block, would he then have used more than a full web page?

    (Since the old question about the length of a stick is solved (even though the answer is surprising), this makes for a good replacement.)

  21. I understand and sympathize with the sentiment. But there’s something better we can do than wait for inspiration; cultivate habits that put us into a state where we are more creative.

    Many artists, thinkers, sportsman and “creatives” in general have rituals to get into the zone. That’s not to say we can get into the zone no matter how tired we are. But there is a lot we can do to actively get creative. Forget the romantic notions of what it means to be creative (starving bohemian etc.), it’s actually quite a practical pursuit.

  22. Reading this early in the morning in the zoomed-out iPhone view, I read:

    Write when inspired; read when tired

    which ends up working pretty well as a mnemonic too :)

  23. Nice piece. This is definitely one of your inspirational bests. Now if only we can get the bosses to read this and take it easy on the deadlines…

  24. @Glenn Fleishman and others:

    Sorry, perhaps I should have stated explicitly at the top that orderly work habits are a given.

    I don’t mean sit around for weeks waiting for lightning to strike.

    Work every day, at regular hours, of course.

    My point is to not push when inspiration wanes, simply to make a deadline.

    For instance, I’m nearing the end of a book chapter I’ve been working on for three days. I start the work early in the morning and wrap around 6:00 or so.

    There’s a temptation to push through ’til 9:00 simply to deliver the chapter. I try to resist that temptation and start fresh in the morning, as I’ve found that the work is better that way.

    That’s professional, not precious; I took this framework as a given, but obviously not everyone interpreted my post that way.

  25. Wisdom received and understood.

    For the last few years I’ve had a never-ending stream of initial inspiration which always peters out before I’m finished writing, and I never recapture that initial passion which allowed me to start in the first place.

    Now I am inspired again to write in general, to write great things — and to finish what I start.

  26. @Zeldman. Apology accepted. However with this correction it is now difficult to take your original post seriously.

    Write when inspired; rest when tired. + Work every day, at regular hours = what exactly? … these two maxims seem to negate each other.

    Maybe you mean “don’t push yourself too hard.” But this is an entirely different thing than your original maxim IMHO.

    Perhaps this post itself needed some more time in the creative oven before being shared. … Just sayin.

  27. I understand being tired but what happened to all the hours leading up to the deadline what about the old adage plan your work work your plan.
    If the deadline is unreasonable negotiate better in the beginning. you seem like a smart guy per well written article. But?….

  28. Thanks for this, if only for the expressed concern for readers.

    When it comes to writing, there’s a difference between finished and ready. Finished is when you get to the end. Ready is when you make it so others will as well.

  29. While I very much agree with the article in principle, reality can be quite unpredictable. In theory, I try to minimize my blog writings to the things I want to get of my chest.

    Still, you have to have a serious fanbase to go on a week without any articles, let alone two weeks. So I try to maintain at least one post/week. Even if there’s really no topic I think deserves some urgent attention. The irony of it all is that my most popular article is currently the one that felt the most as filler to me. Reality can be a cruel mistress sometimes, and it’s often difficult to predict what others see as valuable.

  30. I’ve discovered that the worst thing I can do is try to compose an email right before bed. I’ll sit there for an hour, trying to think of that word I wanted to use, but it won’t come to me.

    I’m also getting into the habit of keeping a text-file on hand that I just type ideas into as they come. I’ll end up writing a blog post, and then I’ll put that online as it’s finished.

    As someone who’ll stay up twenty-four hours at a time to finish a piece of work, I can attest to the fact that efficiency plummets soon after you start feeling sleepy.
    Everything can be done in the morning, when I’ll be able to do it faster. I should do it then.

  31. Sometimes I think people work hard to misread you.

    (This is cumulative, and I don’t mean everyone who disagrees here by any means*, but, say, @Ward’s reply. Really? I mean, really really? Take what he says in clarification and what he says in the article [not just the maxim, which suffers from, well, being a maxim]. Compare. Voila. Sense is made of your conundrum.)

    * I was also dubious about the inspiration-over-consistency vibe the article seemed to be putting off. Seemed being the operative word; it wasn’t clear (which makes sense, as it wasn’t the point). Paragraphs like

    Work is work, and we must do what we must do. But when quality matters most, the old saw about “good or fast—choose one,” holds true. Pushing through to the finish line when you have nothing left inside you is great for marathon runners, but not so hot for creative professionals. In particular, if you’re trying to write clearly and well, it’s better to let a deadline slide by a day than to “just finish up.”

    seemed to mitigate against that interpretation.

  32. @Darcy Fitzpatrick:

    Thanks for this, if only for the expressed concern for readers. When it comes to writing, there’s a difference between finished and ready. Finished is when you get to the end. Ready is when you make it so others will as well.



    Sometimes I think people work hard to misread you.

    Thanks! I try to write clearly, but I can only control my effort, not how it is perceived. I write for a thoughtful reader, who reads at moderate speed, drinking in the words and getting what is said and what doesn’t need to be said.

    Of course not everyone reads this way, and writing on the web is often scanned quickly, however many treats the writer tries to leave in the path in hopes of slowing the reader down and allowing her to enjoy the experience.

    A controversial title, or one that can be perceived as controversial or pompous and in need of deflation, attracts people who aren’t necessarily regular readers of me or this website. Some of these folks may scan the piece and decide it is as superficial as the nursery rhyme in the second paragraph suggests. These may be very intelligent readers, drawing a reasonable inference based on how much time they have to spend checking a post on a blog they rarely or never read.

    Then, too, there are people who simply disagree, and have perfectly reasonable arguments on their side.

    And there’s always the chance that my writing effort has failed in one place or another. This post, I thought, had a fairly clear context of professional work, performed with discipline; the warning, in professional writing, was against pushing yourself during long overtime hours when you’ve lost the thread or the spark. But my example of waiting to finish a blog post may have muddied the water and created the impression that I view all writing as a dilettante’s game—Lord Byron on the cliffs, waiting for inspiration, and all that. Not what I meant to say, but perhaps I contributed to that impression. (And not that Lord Byron actually stood on the cliffs waiting for inspiration. Calm down, Lord Byron fans.)

    Reasonable counter-views aside, and my mistakes as a communicator aside, there are always a few people out there who enjoy “catching” me in a mistake, whether that means finding a validation error on my site, or (apparently deliberately) misreading me so as to attack an indefensible point I haven’t actually made. I’m not saying that happened with comments on this post. I’m just saying. Anyone who puts themselves out there is going to attract some of this. One should read every comment, even comments that are unpleasant, to see if they contain truth.

    Some comments (not on this particular post) are simply off-base, and some (not on this particular post) are malicious. You can view that kind of negative attention as a depressing communication failure. But I’ve come to see it as just another indicator that my posts are part of a larger conversation.

  33. @DN @Zeldman
    Apologies if my comment appears malicious. (Various disclaimers aside)

    I am not a regular reader, the article was linked from a website that I read regularly. I am firmly in the “inspiration doesn’t exist” camp, and the “just write a shitty first draft and edit the hell out of it” camp. thus I was already skeptical when I read the post but I wanted to see the other side of the argument. Then I read all of the comments down to your original apology. Then I got annoyed.

    It seemed that you wanted to have your feet on both sides of the debate and in the face of an opposing view the response seemed to be “yeah, that too.” I left the page but my irritation brought me back to comment. And yes, in reading it again it is mean. My apologies.

  34. That’s why I think that a 9-5 shift is not good for designers – or anyone working in the creativity field. Sometimes you need a bigger lunch break to rest your mind or maybe working during night might get you better ideas.

    I SO agree, that’s the reason freelancing seems tempting for the job. I wish agencies adopted REALLY flexible working hours, although I guess it’s a lot more complicated than that. Unfortunately.

  35. I feel as though this article were written just for me. :)

    But I have to say this. On the other hand, if you’re like me and have very little discipline, you’ll find yourself waving your hand casually and saying, “Oh, not today, I’m just not inspired,” and a year later the article you promised to write finally gets finished. (And although it was vastly more difficult to write than you’d anticipated, you still could have finished months earlier if only you’d buckled down to the *work* of writing and not waited to be moved to do so.)

    Creativity is my job. And sometimes that does mean I have to work at it.

    In fact, it means I have to work at it more often than I like to admit, but I suspect I’m not alone in that. Writing is my breath and my soul, but it doesn’t always come easily, and sometimes inspiration is slow in coming. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to get done. But with practice–and that means writing even when you don’t want to–you find that even your uninspired writing is damned good. Because you get to a place where even at your worst you’re a hot deal better than average.

  36. First, I’d like to say that your writing, Zeldman, is always good. I mean, check your flow out.

    Second, though, I think it’s important to note that what is perceived as “good writing,” by a reader varies with the reader. Good writing is in the eye of the beholder? Well, I’d say so, with the explanation that some people may need training on how to distinguish poop from shinola.

    Third, I would mount a small defense of those who hammer out copy quickly to keep pots boiling. Sometimes, stuff written in a hurry is bad. Sometimes, it seems to be good, then goes bad after being left out. Sometimes, the writing seems to suck, but actually cleans up nicely when mechanical issues are addressed.

    It’s good to write when one is inspired, certainly. I remember, though, a Herbie Hancock interview in which he said that deadlines helped him write music because the music had to be written right now.

  37. The version of the old saw I learned (in the printing industry, as it happens) goes: “Good, fast, or cheap: choose any two.” Not sure if that applies to writing or not, but… maybe?

  38. “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”

    -Jack London

  39. @Jeffrey, that’s a very balanced reaction. I’m afraid I’d go pretty ballistic.

    @Ward, kudos to you for being mature enough to revisit your statement honestly!

  40. “If you want to be great, or at least to be better, start by breathing, taking breaks, and working intensely when the mood is on.” Beautiful.

    Every age decries the mediocrity of its poets and artists, but these days we are nearly drowning in crappy stuff. Untold numbers of books published, websites launched, products produced, snack foods invented, loam paved. Quantity ≠quality. All this productivity benefits the sellers of commodities, not its “consumers.”

    Thanks for this post, and the reminder. I too will post the rhyme prominently in my “workspace.”

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  42. There’s also something that I’m prone to do, even if it doesn’t sound “bloggy” enough in this fast-paced world: I never, ever publish an article straight away as soon as I’ve finished writing it.

    I always sleep it over for one night and then, the next day I proofread it and trim the verbiage, which is (I’ve found) always bound to happen.

    For the rest, I agree, again and again.

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