Friday, February 19, 2010

Kaizen for the Writer

by Kenji Crosland

This post is part of the Guest Post Giveaway at the blog Unready and Willing. If you think articles about writing or personal development (or personal development for writers) sounds like a good fit for your blog, please take a look at the Guest Post Giveaway page and see if any of the articles spark your interest.

As writers it's important that we answer these two questions:

1. How can we direct the creative process in a way that helps us accomplish our goals?
2. How can we continue to improve our control of the creative process so that we can achieve greater and greater financial and popular success?

The answer is to concentrate on continuous improvement and growth. In the business world it has been called Kaizen, a philosophy the Japanese industrialists originally adopted from the research of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Kaizen is not only applicable to manufacturing but also to writing, and every aspect of life as well. The main focus of Kaizen is the creation of quality and value, not money. The idea is that if you create the value, the money will follow.

Here are the basic rules of Kaizen, or the Deming Cycle.

1. Plan - Make observations and determine expected outcomes or goals. Devise a plan for achieving those goals.
2. Do - Execute the plan, preferably on a small scale.
3. Check - Analyze the results from the execution. Compare the actual results to your expected results.
4. Act - If there's a difference between the actual results and expected results, determine the causes of the difference. See how you can improve upon the original plan to get your desired results.

For writing, I've come up with a similar process:
1. Prepare - Do step one of writing for money 101 if you haven't already, this will help you decide what kind of writing you want to do. After you've decided what direction you're going to take your writing, establish goals for your writing in general, consider your ideal reader and what he or she might want from your writing.
2. Write - Just write. Write without distractions or self-criticism. Get your ideas out on the page.
3. Edit and Publish - This is the "check" part of the process. Checking can be done in three stages: self-editing, peer reviews, and finally, publishing.
4. Reassess - Based on your observations and feedback from the editing and publishing stage, see if you need to make any changes in your approach to writing.


The first part of the preparation stage is to give direction to your thinking. Direct thinking is the best way to generate ideas, and most writers, to a greater or lesser extent, are practitioners of direct thinking. The concept of direct thinking is really quite simple. If you're always thinking about food, you'll probably come up with great ideas for recipes or hot-dog toppings. If you think about stories all the time, you'll continue to get new story ideas. As writers, we can take advantage of direct thinking by refining our thoughts about what we want to achieve.
If you've found your core strengths and interests as a writer, found your audience and their needs, and determined where you want to take your writing, the next step is to ask yourself how you're going to reach your objective. If your goal is to inform people about X, how are you going to do it? If you wish to make your audience laugh, cry, or think, how will you go about it? Brainstorm objectives and goals--everything that you could possibly want to do and achieve as a writer. Since the focus of this article is writing for money, do give some consideration to your audience and its commercial potential. The more you meditate on the how, of any particular objective or goal, the more your mind works to build connections, constructing the framework of useful ideas.

The great ideas won't come to you when you're sitting at your word processor consciously thinking about them, but will often float to the surface of your consciousness out of nowhere. When concentrating on writing for money, consider an ideal reader, preferably someone you know who would best represent your audience. My ideal reader for the articles of this website is actually my past self when I just entered college. When I concentrate on writing articles of value for my ideal reader, often the ideas that come to me seem perfect for my audience.

So, when thinking about what you're going to write, meditate on the following questions: How can I make the best use of my core strengths and interests? Who is my audience? Who is my ideal reader? What should I write for them? What kind of writing can I do to help achieve my lifetime or "big picture" goals?

If you've given enough directed thought to the above questions, when an idea comes to you, trust that your mind has provided you with a possible answer, and run with it. When you get an idea, it's important not to be critical about it. Criticism and refinement comes much later at the editing and publishing stage. Instead, take your idea and do your best to expand it. Draw mind maps, make notes, charts, do anything you can to flesh out your idea.

Once you feel that your idea has grown to the point where it almost seems unmanageable, see if you can organize your thoughts into an outline. Outlines can be very useful to help you know where you're taking a story, and become increasingly important when you're writing anything longer than a short-story. The key with outlining is not to be critical of your ideas, but to simply organize your ideas in a linear fashion so that you have a rough road map for the writing of your rough draft. After you've written your outline, we can then move on to step two:


This is the part of writing for money where you don't think about the money. Although you may have given a lot of directed thought to your audience, your ideal reader, and perhaps even writing something with commercial potential in step one, now you must close your mental door to those thoughts, and simply write. There will be plenty of time for determining whether you've satisfied the needs of your audience in the editing process. Do your best to stay away from the backspace key as you type, and simply keep going. Trust your subconscious to provide you with the necessary guidance as you go.

As you write, follow your outline as a rough guideline for where to go, but you don't have to follow it religiously. The key in the first draft is to stop from second-guessing yourself, and the outline provides reassurance, telling you that you're going in the right direction. The number one rule when writing a rough draft is to keep conscious thinking out of the picture. Conscious thinking and criticism is best saved for step three:

Edit and Publish

There are three levels of editing: content, structure, and mechanics. Content is the ideas, themes, and subject matter that you cover in your piece. For the purpose of writing for money, content is the most important thing to consider in the editing process. After you've taken your idea and expanded it into a rough draft, it's time to go back to the motivators behind the creation of the original idea behind the draft. What were your goals? What were your directed thoughts? Did you consider your ideal reader and what he or she wanted? In the "plan, do, check, act" (PDCA) cycle of Kaizen, the "plan" was your directed thinking toward your audience and your goals as a writer. In the editing stage it's our obligation to do the "check" to see how far we are from our original goals and what adjustments we can make to reach them.

Since the idea you came up with was largely a result of your directed thinking in stage one, it might be a good idea to try some directed thinking before starting the editing process. If you don't have a looming deadline, spend some time considering your audience, your ideal reader, and what you originally wanted to accomplish before you got the idea. If you can take at least a week giving some directed thought to these themes, that's great. You'll be astonished how easy it is to edit after doing this.

Visualization is also a possibility. Imagine yourself in a dialogue with your ideal reader about the piece you had written. What did he or she like about it? What could be improved? This focused thinking is very useful to prepare your mind for the editing process. In the past you may have found your eyes jump to the parts of your manuscript that "just don't seem right" even when you're not sure why. Concentrating on your ideal reader and the purpose of your writing can do much unlock the reasons behind these intuitive "hooks" that hold you back on sentences or paragraphs that seem wrong.

After you've done what you can to edit the rough draft yourself, the next step is to hand your manuscript over to someone else in a peer review. My recommendation is to have someone review it who you believe could best represent your target audience. The number one rule in the peer review is to shut your mouth and let your writing speak for itself. Any talk of what your intention was in your writing is irrelevant if it hasn't been conveyed by the words themselves. After the peer review, you then take what critiques you have received and digest them. Consider your original goals and purpose behind the initial idea that inspired your rough draft. What recommended changes from your peers would best serve those original goals? Remember that in a peer review it's important to get your ego out of the way, and do what's best for the piece. Cut out any writing that's superfluous or redundant.

So, when do you actually finish the editing process and start submitting what you've written to be published? According to writer Stephen Dixon, the time for submission is when you can't improve the piece and everything you're doing to it is hurting it. Publishing is the ultimate form of "checking" in the PDCA cycle. When you publish you're able to gauge the critical success as well as the commercial success of your writing.

Through the process of editing and publishing, you can also see how close you were to achieving your initial goals from the prepare stage. Editing your work can provide you with a lot of valuable information for rethinking your writing and how to go about it. It's possible that you may abandon what you've written after the self-edit or peer review stage. This is fine as long as you truly believe what you've written does not achieve what you'd set out to achieve. Just be sure to take what you've learned from your self-editing and peer reviews to write something better the next time around. Once you have accumulated all the data you can from your writing's success or lack thereof, we can move to the last part of the process.


Chances are if your goals were to sell 1,000,000 copies of your book and you're an unestablished author, you may fall short. In the reassessment stage we can determine why we have fallen short. Possible theories we could come up with for the lack of sales success are that the book was too ahead of its time, the book was not marketed properly or a myriad other reasons.

In the reassessment stage you can only determine possible reasons for how you strayed from your original goals and purpose. Once you've come up with a few possible theories for why your writing did or didn't achieve what you had set out for in the first place, you can then go back to stage one to apply our newfound information and theories to a whole new round of directed thinking. Oftentimes the ideas that will surface in the second and third rounds of the PDCA cycle will be much more in line with your goals.

When you go back to the prepare stage, refine your directed thinking by taking into account what you've learned from the editing and publishing process. The key in reassessment is never to blame yourself for inadequacies, but to move forward positively. Speaker and writer Brian Tracy recommends asking yourself these questions after you finish anything: "What did I do well?" and "What would I do differently?" Phrasing your thinking in this way will help you focus on improvements and not the mistakes you've made, which, after all are in the unalterable past.

To reassess means to reassess everything--not only your writing but the direction of your life. If what you have written falls short of your goals, it's important to consider alternative options to the way you're going about things. Perhaps your gift lies in writing non-fiction as opposed to fiction. Perhaps you could do better as a songwriter than a poet. If you've gone through this cycle several times and you feel no improvement whatsoever, this is a sign that your "big picture" goals are out of focus.

Ask yourself what you really want to do with your writing. Ask yourself if there are other ways to go about it than writing novels or screenplays. Maybe your true passion and purpose lies down a completely different path than writing. Don't be afraid to consider this alternative option. The advantage of doing so is that if you've considered doing things completely different than writing, and you still want to write, then you can move forward with full confidence that you are indeed living your destiny. Toyota, the largest automobile company in the world, started out making mechanical looms. Nokia, now the one of the world's largest telecom companies, started out in the business of paper mills more than 144 years ago. These companies had the ability to reassess their core interests and purpose, and forge through to become leaders in completely different areas than where they started. So don't let sentimental attachments hold you back. It's always good to consider your options.

Repeating the Process
The great thing about the process of Kaizen is the more you do it, the closer and closer you get to your goals. In this way, Kaizen seems like just a more elaborate version of "trial and error." What's left out of the picture, however, is the idea that our failures are not simply nuisances to ignore until you get it right, but rather they're our greatest assets in determining the best way to move forward the next time around.

The heart of Kaizen lies in not expecting success in the short term, but knowing it will come in the long term if we continue to improve the way we work. In applying Kaizen to the creative process, the planning doesn't take place in a room with a team of consultants and a whiteboard, but rather deep within our subconscious mind. Using the ideas we get about how to better achieve our writing goals in the reassessment stage, we can apply it to our direct thinking to get ideas that are more in line with our goals. We write, and then we edit and publish to see how our results differ from the last time around.

If you find your writing more successful than the previous round, continue to do what you're doing. If you aren't achieving the results you want, step back a little and see what you can do differently. And what do you do if your goal is reached? Simple. Come up with a greater, grander goal and do it all over again.

Kenji Crosland is a creative writing major who, scared of becoming a starving artist, became a corporate headhunter in Tokyo. Since then he's regained his sanity, quit his job, and now blogs about creating an ideal career at He is also developing a web application that just might change the internet. Follow him on Twitter: @KenjiCrosland.

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