Innovation and Writing

Scott Berkun gave a lecture a few years ago at Carnegie Mellon University on the subject of innovation: Myths of Innovation (it seems he might have given this lecture a few times after he had written a book by the same title). He opens by recounting a few iconic moments of innovation. Predictably, he invokes scenes of Newton under the apple tree and Archimedes running naked through Syracuse shouting “eureka” and then rightly dismisses them as myths of innovation. These events were not moments of innovation but rather are epiphany stories we tell ourselves. These stories mask the real work goes into any development. He dips liberally into history and the history of science to defend his argument that innovation occurs slowly and only through considerable time, effort, and failure.

Berkun’s model for the relationship between work and innovation.

One of his more useful points, useful for academics and students, pertains to the habits of “creative people.” Creative people work really hard and regularly and frequently. They make lots of mistakes. Creative people are not particularly attached to any iteration of their work and are willing to jettison a project along the way. Berkun’s claim is not new or innovative, but it is a useful reminder.

A dominate idea among students and, I suspect, among academics holds that writing occurs in epiphanic saltations. We assume that if you sit long enough and think your thoughts will spring forth from your head in a brilliant, fully formed essay, like some academic Athena. Closely related to this is the myth that we do our best work when writing for a deadline. These are powerful and seductive myths. I see my students laboring under them every day. I have suffered from it.

In the end, writing is like innovation. It is the product of hard work, daily. It requires a certain equanimity and detachment with respect to what you write. Good writing only happens at the end of a long process of revision, failure, and misdirection. You don’t write an essay so much as rewrite and revise and rewrite and discard and rewrite [repeat] an essay.

Now if I could just convince students of this fact.