To Be a Better Writer: Write More Books

In today’s New York Times, author Stephen King challenges a common belief:

The more one writes, the less remarkable one’s work is apt to be.

He agrees that there are a few super-prolific writers who aren’t great writers; mystery novelist John Creasey, who’s written 564 novels under 21 different pseudonyms; and Barbara Cartland, with over 700 novels.

But King argues that these are exceptions: the general pattern is that, the more you write, the better a writer you are. Examples include Joyce Carol Oates (over 60 novels) and Agatha Christie (91 novels) and Isaac Asimov (more than 500 books).

King himself has published almost 60 novels. So maybe we should be suspicious of his argument?

The New York Times calls Stephen King’s article an “Opinion” but his claim is scientifically proven, according to the latest creativity research. Researchers like Professor Dean Keith Simonton have studied huge databases of creators, looking at both their creative quality and also their productivity. No matter how you judge creativity, the most creative writers are also the most prolific.

Not only that: if you examine a random one-year period, higher productivity in that year is typically correlated with the likelihood that you’ll do your greatest work in that same year.

The same pattern holds in every creative field, whether music, science, dance, inventions, patents. More productivity is correlated with bigger impact and greater likelihood of generating a major, influential single work.*

This is surprising to most of us. We think that you’ll generate your magnum opus only after years of intense focus. You work on one masterpiece, ignoring all distractions–including those other second-rate book ideas. Why wouldn’t a writer just pick the one awesome idea, and focus all energies on that?

Because that’s not the way creativity works. Creativity doesn’t come from one brilliant idea, emerging one morning after a strange dream. The belief in the big flash of insight is largely a myth. Creative products emerge, over time, from hard work. During the hard work, lots of small, tiny ideas come every day. They get woven into the unfolding work–and this takes skill, experience, and focus.

Another reason creativity doesn’t come from an all-consuming focus on one project: It’s because creators themselves don’t know, ahead of time, which ideas will pan out. Often, an idea that they love turns out to be a dead end. If you can’t know ahead of time which idea will change the world, then you could waste years going down the wrong path.

The take-home message: Work on lots of projects, in parallel. Don’t ever be convinced that a particular idea is the one that will make you famous. And if you’re not generating a lot of work, you’re not as creative as you could be.

*I review this research in my book Explaining Creativity: The Science of Innovation (second edition) Oxford University Press.

The Economist Shouts: “Set Innovation Free!”

The cover story of this influential British magazine is “Set Innovation Free!”* The subtitle says what they really mean:

Time to fix the patent system.

In this blog, I’ve argued that the current patent regime retards overall innovation. It’s not aligned with empirical studies of creativity research. Patents are awarded to a single entity, as if that entity is completely responsible for the advance in knowledge. But research shows that all innovations are collaborative and distributed.

Defenders of patents will say: First, the potential reward of a patent provides an incentive to innovate. Why invest all the money in researching a new cancer drug if you don’t get the exclusive rights to market it? Second, in exchange for being granted a patent, you’re required to make your innovation public. This is supposed to help everyone else move forward faster with their own innovations.

The Economist  lead editorial argues that this is completely wrong. It cites evidence that, across industries and countries, stronger patent systems don’t lead to greater innovation. It points out that in most cases, patents never really become public, because patent lawyers have become very effective at writing complicated text that makes it impossible to tell what the real innovation is. Patents are expensive; it takes about $100,000 to go through the process of getting one. And yet, by some measures less than ten percent of these patents are ever used; the rest never make any money. So why spend the money to get patents? It’s subtle, but basically, it’s related to a finding from innovation research: that almost all new products involve tens, hundreds, of new ideas. New products are never  based on a single patent. So for lots of companies, filing a bunch of patents is a defensive strategy–it creates a “patent thicket” that prevents competitors from putting together all of the ideas they need to develop their own successful product. The current state of the technology sector is that all of the big players have their own patent thickets. So before anything new can be sold to the consumer, their lawyers have to get together and negotiate about their mutual patent thickets. (Yes, that’s the word that patent lawyers use–patent thicket. The fact that there’s such a word at all shows how big the problem is!)

The patent system rewards huge companies with deep pockets and lots of expensive lawyers. It blocks startups and entrepreneurs. Maybe there are exceptions? For example, pharmaceutical patents that emerge from university research labs, with a startup that’s funded by the university’s research office? But aren’t universities also big institutions with lots of lawyers? Patents do nothing for the little guy.

Patents are granted for too long. No technology company needs 20 years of protection for their idea. How many of you still own computers from 20 years ago?

Patents are granted for “new” “ideas” that are much too obvious: does Apple really have a patent on “rectangular tablets with rounded corners”? (Apparently, they do.) And yet, U.S. patent law says that to get a patent, your idea has to be non-obvious. I’ve written about problems with the non-obviousness doctrine here, and it’s a big topic of discussion among IP lawyers and scholars.

The Economist  cover story could be straight out of my book Group Genius:

Sharing brings huge benefits to society. Sharing leads to extra innovation. Ideas overlap. Inventions depend on earlier creative advances. There would be no jazz without the blues. Innovation today is less about entirely novel breakthroughs, and more about the clever combination and extension of existing ideas.

The chorus of creativity researchers shouts “Amen!”

*August 8-14, 2015 issue

Leonardo da Vinci Artist Statement

This is hilarious, even if it’s a bit over the top. It’s from “The Artist Statements of the Old Masters” by John Seed:

If the great European artists of the past were alive today, what kinds of statements would they need to write to explain and justify their work?


I originally proposed “La Giaconda” as a non-specific vehicle to map coded and opposed systems of selfhood and gender that could be substantiated via an intertextual nexus. Through a personal discursive process, it then evolved towards a self-referential “otherness” that overlays Neo-Platonic androgyny re-defined as an ontology of the unsaid.
–Leonardo da Vinci

The Costumed Character “Buford Beaver”

For my summer job while in high school, in 1977 I passed a stage audition at the Busch Gardens theme park, in Williamsburg Virginia, to perform as the costumed character “Buford Beaver.” Just today, I found a long-lost photo that shows me, in costume, with my mother and grandmother, check it out!

Keith Sawyer performing as Buford Beaver 1977I stumbled onto this job by accident. I originally auditioned to be a pianist in one of the theme park’s many stage shows. I didn’t get the gig, but somehow they thought I might make a good costumed character, so they invited me back for that audition. I was on stage with about 40 people who were hoping for the job, and the directors put us through a series of non-verbal improvisational exercises. We did group improv, and then we each did a solo improv. For mine, I was asked to improvise being a piece of bread, going into a toaster, popping up out of the toaster, and then being spread with butter and jelly. I had no experience with acting or improvising, and I’d never been on stage before, but I was too far along to say no. So I went all out!

When unexpected zigs and zags come your way, embrace them and own it!

Computer Games and Learning

There’s been lots of research lately on how computer games can be used to inspire new educational software–software that’s aligned with what we know about how people learn. Most scholars who study this are learning scientists, and there’s a chapter summarizing this research in my 2014 book, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

Here’s a review of a new report called Impact with Games: A fragmented field, taken from the ProfHacker blog. The report emphasizes a problem I’ve often noted: There’s a disconnect between learning sciences research–which tells us exactly how people learn–and policy and evaluation research, which measures learning outcomes.

I’ve written a lot about using and making games for the classroom here at ProfHacker, as while games and learning have been around for a long time our ability (and interest) in realizing their potential is on the rise. One of the continuing challenges for bringing games into education is assessing the impact of games on learning. Often, it’s hard even to agree on what we want games to accomplish: are we most interested in raising student engagement? Reaching learners who are alienated by traditional lectures? Increasing critical thinking and analysis skills? Or getting content memorized or absorbed?

Games for Change and the Michael Cohen Group just released a report, Impact with Games: A Fragmented Field, that addresses some of these questions. It’s a great read for those of us thinking about the ramifications and challenges games present for higher education. Today I’m going to take a look at a few of the highlights that might be particularly of interest for ProfHackers working with digital pedagogy.

The group found five sources of disconnect within the field that contribute to the challenge of measuring impact: of those, two that strike me as particularly important are that ”Impact is defined too narrowly” and ”Evaluation methods are inflexible.” These are some of the frustrations with assessment that accompany any digital pedagogy, as we may default to using comparative measures (does this game “teach” better than a lecture?) rather than defining new metrics for a different type of learning

Defining games by their impact is one way to find great games that become the imitable standards for socially conscious or serious gaming. However, these games don’t all “teach” content in an expected way, and the impact of a game might even be entirely unrelated to knowledge-based outcomes–for instance, a great game might bring a team together for collaboration and problem-solving in new ways. The team observes that: ”When evaluators and researchers stick too rigidly to their preferred methods they lose the flexibility required to tailor assessment to unusual and complex games. Such rigidity can be dangerous, sometimes leading to games based on evaluation methods (rather than methods based on the game).”

If you’ve ever played a game that feels more like a test (the perennial favorite classroom Jeopardy comes to mind), you’ve probably experienced some of the consequences of making games based on clearly assessable outcomes. When I work with teams of educators making games for the first time, often the very first game idea that comes out is something with a string of questions or challenges with right and wrong answers that map easily to assessment: right answers let the player move forward, while wrong answers keep them stationary. But as their ideas progress, educators shift away from games that resemble assessment: take a look at Parable of the Polygons, a game exploring biases by Nicky Case & Vi Hart, or This War of Mine, a war survival simulator from 11 bit studios, and it becomes apparent how different “impact” can be.

What Criminals Can Teach Us About Creativity

A few weeks ago, I posed the question “Is Creativity Research Elitist?”. I pointed out that creativity researchers have studied high-class Western European creativity, but they’ve neglected working class creativity–like custom motorcycle mechanics, or small-town preachers writing sermons.

Right on cue, a new book’s just been published making basically the same point. The Misfit Economy argues that criminals can teach us a lot about creativity: pirates, hackers, gangsters, and prisoners. Here’s what their web site says:

What do pirates, terrorists, computer hackers and inner city gangs have in common with Silicon Valley? Innovation. Across the globe, diverse innovators operating in the black and gray economies are developing solutions to a myriad of challenges. Far from being “deviant entrepreneurs” that pose threats to our social and economic stability, these innovators display remarkable ingenuity, pioneering original methods and best practices that we can learn from and apply in our own worlds. The Misfit Economy seeks to unveil and leverage this new well-spring of ingenuity. Join us in exploring the dark side of innovation.

The book describes the creativity of Somali pirates, Amish camel-milkers (?), and moonshine bootleggers. But you won’t find studies of them in the creativity academic journals. I think it’s the same reason we don’t study small-town ministers–they aren’t elite enough. (I’m guilty, too–right now I’m studying fine art painters and elite designers.)

Most creativity researchers have defined creativity as a new product that’s both novel and also valued by society. In the latest issue of the Creativity Research Journal, Robert Weisberg argues that researchers should define creativity without requiring that the product be valued by society.* If creativity researchers take this to heart, then we should start studying working class creativity and criminal creativity. Otherwise, we risk publishing findings and developing theories that only apply to upper-middle class people. Speaking as a psychologist, I think it’s obvious that all these forms of creativity are based in creative mental processes and behaviors. So as a scholarly community, we need to do additional research to confirm that our research claims aren’t limited to educated elites.

*My own definition of individual creativity, unlike most of my colleagues, doesn’t include “value,” and for some of the same reasons that Weisberg uses (see my book Explaining Creativity).

How to Foster Creativity in the Primary Curriculum

For the fifth and final talk of my European lecture tour, I gave the keynote at a meeting of primary school educators, the Association for the Study of Primary Education (ASPE):

Creativity in the Primary Curriculum. Planned in collaboration with the Open University, the University of Exeter, and the BERA Creativity SIG, the seminar seeks to explore cutting-edge research which considers both teaching creatively and teaching for creativity in the primary phase both within and beyond the classroom.

I talked about the need for creativity in today’s society, and the importance of innovation to the society and the economy. And then, I drew on creativity research, and learning sciences research, to give some practical advice for how to design classrooms that foster creative learning. It was great to be in front of a group of early childhood educators, because in my first research project, I studied creativity in children’s pretend play.

It was an exhausting trip! But it was so stimulating to meet others who believe in the power of collaboration and creativity to drive learning.