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Isaac Asimov is widely known as one of the greatest authors of science fiction. His Foundation series is a classic of the genre. In I, Robot, he crafted his famous Three Laws of Robotics. He even coined the term "robotics."
For these and many other books, Asimov picked up every major award that could possibly be bestowed upon a writer of science fiction.
He was also incredibly prolific.
Between 1938, when he published his first short story, and 1992, when he passed away, Asimov wrote or edited more than 500 books and hundreds of short stories.
In addition to churning out numerous best-selling and award-winning pieces of fiction, he also published several volumes of nonfiction: books on astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, the history of science, William Shakespeare, the Bible.
And yet, of the hundreds of books and stories that he published, Asimov never wrote a book that focused entirely on how he exercised his craft. He never wrote a book about writing.
Fortunately, though, for those of us obsessed with understanding the secret to his insane productivity, he did include several chapters on his writing process in his autobiography, It's Been a Good Life. In it, he reveals the exact strategies he used to produce thousands of publishable pages during his lifetime.
If he were to have assembled these chapters into a book on writing, the theme that would have emerged?--?at least, the theme that stood out for me when I read them?--?was that you can beat writer's block if you absorb the mindsets and practice the tactics he used. Here are some excerpts:
Work on multiple projects at the same time.
It was a relief to discover that even Asimov would sometimes get bored with his writing projects. But that never stopped him from producing new pages. He would just shift his attention to one of the many other writing projects he was working on at the moment:
Frequently, when I am at work on a science-fiction novel (the hardest to do of all the different things I write), I find myself heartily sick of it and unable to write another word. But I don't let that drive me crazy. I don't stare at blank sheets of paper... Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books.
Write whenever you have time?--even if you don't have much of it.
Asimov argues you won't be a prolific writer if you need to rely on having several hours of uninterrupted time to write. "It is important to be able to begin writing at any time. If there are 15 minutes in which I have nothing to do, that's enough to write a page or so."
Just. Start. Writing.
It can often be hard to get into the state of flow, or deep concentration, you need to start writing. Asimov seemed to have no trouble doing that. Once, when asked whether there were any rituals he followed to get into the right frame of mind before sitting down to write, Asimov simply replied, "Before I can possibly begin writing, it is always necessary for me to turn on my electric typewriter and to get close enough to it so that my fingers can reach the keys."
Keep writing?--?even when you're not.
Even when he wasn't pecking away at his typewriter, Asimov was constantly thinking about what he wanted to write about. This ensured he could always get started quickly-and remain productive.
Whenever I'm away from my typewriter--eating, falling asleep, performing my ablutions?--?my mind keeps working. On occasion, I can hear bits of dialogue running through my thoughts, or passages of exposition... Even when I don't hear the actual words, I know that my mind is working on it unconsciously. That's why I'm always ready to write.
Enjoy your writing.
Asimov has stern words for the writers who strive for perfection, writing and rewriting their prose until it sounds just right: "The ordinary writer is therefore always revising, always chopping and changing, always trying on different ways of expressing himself, and, for all I know, never being entirely satisfied. That is certainly no way to be prolific."
The solution? Asimov says prolific writers have to have self-assurance and stop doubting the quality of their work. And above all, they need to enjoy their writing: "I can pick up any one of my books, start reading it anywhere, and immediately be lost in it and keep on reading until I am shaken out of the spell by some external event. If I didn't enjoy my writing so much, how on earth could I stand all the writing I do?"
Cultivate a clear and colloquial style.
Asimov urges writers to avoid trying to be too literary in their style, lest they spend too much time trying to craft "prose poems", and not enough time getting their writing done. "I have...deliberately cultivated a very plain style, even a colloquial one, which can be turned out rapidly and with which very little can go wrong."
Never stop learning.
Asimov held a PhD. in biochemistry from Columbia and taught the subject at Boston University. He was deeply knowledgeable across a range of different subjects. And yet he never stopped learning. "Although I was one of the most overeducated people I knew, I couldn't possibly write the variety of books I manage to do out of the knowledge I had gained in school alone. I had to keep a program of self-education in process."
Learn from other people's writing.
Writers can't learn in a vacuum, of course. They need to study how successful writers do what they do, says Asimov. "The only education a writer gets is in reading other people's writing. You should read not through your opinion of whether or not you like something, but to see how the writer does it, why it's effective. Of course, sometimes it's awfully hard to tell golden drops from sh**."