Staying creative



Copywriters have to bend their brains into all kinds of shapes.

On one hand, we need to be full of suggestions and new ways of looking at things. We need to have ideas that are so strong, we’re not afraid of saying “yellow!” when everyone else says, “navy blue”.

On the other, we need to do a lot of rational thinking. We have to do the background reading and research. We have to understand our clients’ businesses and the challenges they want to overcome.

We have to be able to take creative ideas, deconstruct them and play them back in rational business terms so that our clients will get behind them.

Practical stuff tries to pull us away from creative stuff

Creative thinking and process thinking are constantly jostling to get the larger share of our mental energy.

TimetableAnd it’s not a fair fight. We live in a world that prioritises process and rational thinking. Where creativity – and creative people – can be regarded with caution. (Sometimes, even by the people who hire them to be creative.)

At the same time, there are processy demands being made on us almost constantly. Email. Timesheets waiting to be filled. Receipts to be filed. Meetings and phone calls to be had.

It’s all necessary, of course. But this processy thinking is constantly trying to steal energy from your creativity. So unless you actively find the time to let creativity come out to play, your thinking will slide towards process and your work will suffer.

It’s all about flow

In the 1980s, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed a theory about ‘flow’. It describes the state we can get into when we’re so absorbed in a subject that we don’t notice time passing, we forget to eat – and we’re extraordinarily happy to be so taken with our subject.

Csikszentmihalyi says flow can come to anyone on any subject. It could be perfecting a spreadsheet, if that’s your thing. Or sewing a quilt – or digging a ditch.

Flow is when you stop viewing the thing you’re doing through the lens of rational thought – and just allow yourself to feel it and do it. It’s an instinctive and intuitive way of being – and it frees you up. Because while you’re in a state of flow you’re not concerned about how your work might appear to others, and you don’t stop to critique yourself. You just do it and get so much pleasure from it that you don’t notice that you’re hungry or that time has flown by.

To be our most creative – which, let’s not forget, means being the most useful to our clients – we need to be able to experience flow. Even if it’s only for a few precious moments every day.

Give your imaginations something to work with

Our rational thinking gets plenty of fuel – from research and interviewing, through to understanding our clients’ systems and buying train tickets to go to meetings with them.

It’s easy to forget that our creative thinking needs stimulus too. In his book, Damn Good Advice (for people with talent), George Lois tells readers to visit museums and read newspapers regularly. If he’d been writing the book today, he’d probably have said: “Step away from Wikipedia.” Because a quick page of facts isn’t good food for the imagination.

Indian spicesYour creative brain needs imagery. It needs experiences. It needs to recall scents and flavours.

To be creative, you need to get out and experience new things, talk to people and really look at things.

It doesn’t matter if you spend an afternoon in a shopping mall watching how people walk and carry their bags, whether you see an art film or a blockbuster – or whether you spend an hour in the National Portrait Gallery… you just need to keep giving your imagination something to work with.

Use your out of office

I’ve started doing this a lot. If I need an afternoon to be really creative, I divert my phone to the main studio number and I put my out of office on.

The whole point is to give myself a couple of hours without distraction. Because you won’t feel the flow happening to you if your colleagues keep asking your opinion on things – or if people selling professional indemnity insurance make you pick up the phone.

Spend time doing nothing

Csikszentmihalyi used the word ‘flow’ because he said being so deeply focused on a subject is like being caught up in the flow of a river. It’s not swimming in the river, or splashing about it in. It’s letting ourselves go so that the river can happen to us.

One of the greatest barriers to creative flow is busyness. Dashing from meeting to meeting, deciding to do the ironing because we’re working from home – or tidying and filing or responding to invitations to tender.

Trees against the skyTo find the flow, you’ve got to find time to do nothing – to sit or lie down and daydream. Because when your mind is still, you’ll start to feel the current moving along and your mind will start talking to you – throwing images and notions at you that could be the little nugget you need to get started.

If you’re working in a big office – or even a creative agency – don’t be sucked in to the need to be seen to be working. If you’re a creative, you need time to drift – to let the dots join up in your head. So don’t feel that you have to dive straight into doing the work. At the very least, give yourself 10 minutes to try to feel the flow.

Don’t be afraid of failing

The BBC is running a little series at the moment, where CEOs give their advice for getting on in business. In it, Sir James Dyson tells viewers not to be afraid of making mistakes. He says: “Fifty per cent of your decisions will be wrong, but the interesting thing is to learn from them.”

For creatives, what’s important is getting into the flow and seeing what the flow gives you. The craziest-looking ideas can sometimes be the winners. So don’t turn your back on them because they don’t feel right straight off the bat. If something’s scratching at your brain, grab it and write it down.

And at the end of the day, if you have ten ideas and only one of them works – you’ve done well.

If the flow doesn’t come to you…

Pencil and sharpener on notepadIf you can’t will the flow to come to you, you can trick yourself into falling in. Here’s one way: For a short period of time, write down whatever comes into your head. Keep writing without stopping until you stall. Don’t check back over what you’ve written and don’t correct it. Just keep writing.

Most people can only do this for a couple of minutes before they run out of steam. Which is more than fine. Some of what you write will be nonsense – but you’ll be surprised by how much good stuff comes out.

Don’t throw this writing away or cross it out. Keep it and come back to it later. You may well find the line that will make your whole piece of work come together.


If you left a car in the garage and didn’t ever take it for a run, you wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t start when you needed it.

Your creative brain is the same. It needs exercise and outings, care and attention. So get creative in any way that gives you pleasure.

And if you want to learn exercises to keep your writing fresh and creative, why not come along to one of our sessions at the PCN conference? Or join us on a residential Creative Boost workshop in the Welsh countryside in November.

Liz Doig is the owner of Wordtree, a brand and communications consultancy. She’s a hands-on writer and trainer and works with clients all over the world in sectors from financial services and energy through to retail and greetings cards. Liz and her team will be running Creative Boost sessions at the PCN conference on 9 October 2015.


1st October 2015

Helen Gräwert

Thanks for the great post, Liz. I love drawing but don’t manage to do it that often. One of my chances to drift off is walking my little boy to nursery and back (in a pushchair and I’m not totally absent!). It’s a lovely route through a little village and we often do a longer way home to see a bit more countryside. Does that count?!

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