How to be prolific: Joanna Penn in conversation with Bec Evans

Why is being prolific so important for long-term success as a writer? And how can you develop your own creative process so you can be more prolific? That’s what Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn podcast asked me. Here’s an edited extract of the interview where we discuss how to be prolific.

Joanna Penn is prolific by any standard — she’s written 29 books, has 110 e-book and audio products, 1,400 blog posts, 400 podcasts, and over 500 videos — all in ten years. We spoke about what it means to be prolific on her podcast the Creative Penn. You can listen to the podcast or read the full transcript or watch the interview on YouTube.

A definition of prolific

Joanna: Let’s talk about being prolific. I want to first ask what is your definition of prolific? And why is it important for authors who particularly want to make a living?

Bec: I’ll start with the most literal definition of prolific which is producing a lot.

I think that’s an important definition because people make a judgment that being prolific is about being low quality, and research has absolutely turned that on its head. And there’s two reasons for that.

The first is deliberate practice. If you want to get good at something, you have to practice, you have to work at it, and being prolific is a route to that. So, you carry on writing and producing a lot.

And the second reason is that you are the worst judge of your own ideas. You don’t know which ones are going to work so you have to have several. There’s no point in working on a single masterpiece throughout your life because it might not work out.

The more you produce, the more feedback you get from your audience, your readers, so you get to understand what works. We need to stop being snobby about being prolific and help people find what that means for them in their own lives.

>> Read more: Writing productivity advice from prolific author, blogger and podcaster Joanna Penn

Celebrating prolific authors and artists

Joanna: I’m glad you said that. We’re both British, and I do find there’s a little bit of snobbery in Britain whereas I think the Americans relax a bit more about being prolific.

I’m thinking about this in terms of someone like Enid Blyton would be someone who’s incredibly prolific, or Charles Dickens — obviously hugely prolific. And then Picasso who I always use as an example. Over 50,000 pieces of art created in his lifetime, some of which are really bad and then a few of them are just world-famous.

Picasso created a lot, some of which was amazing artwork. Is that the kind of thing you were talking about?

Bec: Absolutely. Picasso is a really good example of that because he did so many sketches for each finished piece, it was like, that got him to the final piece. He was being prolific within one piece of artwork.

But over his whole lifetime, I bet you he didn’t know when he was making them what was necessarily the good stuff or the bad stuff. He had to get through all of that.

Joanna: And what annoys me about the writing world is that such a big deal is made out of the debut. Picasso, if you look at what he did in his early years compared to what he did later on, I mean, obviously you get better.

Bec: If you’re talking about writers who are trying to make a living, who are trying to make a career, they need a back list. They need to have a body of work, and it’s only through that body of work that they become the writer they’re meant to be.

Practical advice on being prolific

Joanna: It’s not all about money. It’s also about craft. I think you get better as a craft person over time with practice. But also the authors we see in the richest author list, they generally are Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, all those who’ve written a lot of books.

Okay, so what if authors want to be more prolific, what are some of the key practical things that they need to do to get into that place?

Bec: You asked me what my definition of prolific is and an author needs to figure out what that means for them as well. So, for some of them it will be about learning their craft and becoming better writers.

For others, it will be about creating a body of work, and for others it will be about finding an audience and finding out what that audience likes, so they might like to experiment with different types of genres or styles. I think that’s the first place someone would need to start.

And then if they want to be prolific, they have to prioritize it within their life, and it really goes back to those basics, that if you want to turn that dream into reality, it needs to take place in your life.

There are different ways of approaching this. There’s choosing not to do things, stopping doing other things so you can find space for writing, and there’s that classic the four burners: Which one are you going to turn off to become successful?

And the other approach is scheduling and fitting writing into your life. If you want to create a body of work and it’s important for you to work at it, you need to make time for it.

Joanna: I know some people struggle with this, how do people explain to their family that they have to leave the house and maybe hire a co-working space like I do. How do people justify that to their family especially if they’re not making money right now?

Bec: It goes back to that finding the priority within your life. If you make that intention and you set it as a priority, you need to get buy-in from other people and actually, it’s going to be really hard to work on even one novel, let alone a series of novels, if you haven’t got the support structures from the people around you.

It is really hard to tell people and negotiate it. I think it’s a barrier that stops some people. So, they have to prioritize it in their own life and then talk to people about it. And it’s literally things like putting it in your calendar, treating it like any other appointment gives it credibility.

And I think when people pay for writing, it helps them commit. Whether it is a cup of coffee, or if you are renting a room, you’re not going to faff around in that time. You really get down to it. So I find paying small amounts is a really good way to hold people to account.

Mindset and being prolific

Joanna: Are there some mindset issues that might also come into play around prolific?

Bec: I think of mindset in a couple of ways because it’s about understanding your own mind practically in terms of how your brain works and your psychology, and then mindset in the sense of having an intention.

You start with that intention to write, and then I would look very closely at setting your ambitions, making concrete goals, and that gives you something to aim for.

And then understanding how your mind works. So if you look at the neuroscience of your brain and your brain energy, you need to be well-rested, you need to be fed. Creative thinking, writing, those higher-order functions are incredibly draining, so you need to figure out when is a good time for you and be prepared to do it.

Work out what your own psychology is, what your strengths are and then really play to those.

Writing stamina and keeping going

Joanna: I like that you mentioned that stamina thing. I really think that’s important especially when people are starting out, they can’t do 2000 words in a session. And people are like, ‘Oh, I’m such a failure because I only got 300 words.’

But as you say, it’s very taxing, and I think it’s a bit like any kind of fitness. You have to work up to these bigger writing sessions if that’s how you’re going to do it. That stamina, is that something you’ve noticed as well?

Bec: I think the analogy with exercise is important because it’s about building up that stamina.

I know when I started cycling to work in London, I had to go up this very steep hill. I remember after a couple of months thinking ‘why isn’t this getting easier?’ But the whole point is it is meant to be hard. I was getting much, much fitter but I was always working at my limit, and I think that’s what you do as a writer.

When you first start it can just be a few words, but if you keep turning up, increasing each time, it doesn’t make it easier to do because sometimes those words are always going to be hard. It’s about that deliberate practice, that training and working for it.

Setting goals

Joanna: I’m glad you said that because I’ve just literally today sent off Valley of Dry Bones which is my 29th book. And I was like, ‘How does it not get easier?’ But you’re right. It’s because we’re always pushing ourselves to the edge so that we can keep improving.

Bec: Because if it’s not hard then you might not be working hard enough. I think that’s really important around setting goals. They have to be almost at the edge of what’s possible, but then you have to kind of break stuff down to make it much, much smaller so you can achieve it.

So again, this is where psychology comes in. Because a lot of people want to write, and then they set an ambition that: ‘this is the year I will write my novel’ and they start then within a week or two it’s traditional new year’s resolution territory. They give up. They get overwhelmed — it’s not working.

But what you need to do is have that goal but then approach it in very, very small, achievable steps. Reflect on how you’re doing, reward yourself for what you’re doing so you’re able to keep going, keep that stamina.

Originally published at on January 19, 2019.

Author of How to Have a Happy Hustle, founder Prolifiko writes about innovation, creativity, philosophy, productivity & writing.