The Deep Work of Writing, part 1 of 3

Before we begin, a tweet that almost every writer can relate to (Julia, this one’s for you):

I first learned of Cal Newport from our son (now a political science graduate student), who began reading Newport’s Study Hacks Blog at least eight or nine years ago. Study Hacks started as advice about student time management and has since morphed into a blog “about how to perform productive, valuable, and meaningful work in an increasingly distracted digital age.”

Over the years, I have continued to keep up with Cal Newport’s work. His most recent book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, offers some valuable ideas and insight for anyone involved in knowledge work, or work that, in the phrase of Thomas Davenport, involves “thinking for a living.” Deep Work is a perfect way to begin to think about how we can design a DIY Summer Writing Retreat. In this first of three posts about Cal’s book, we’ll look at his concept of “deep work.”

Aside: I would encourage every writer, regardless of whether we make a living or nary a cent with our wordsmithing, to think of our writing as work in the most positive and noble sense.

What is deep work?

Deep Work: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacity to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” (Deep Work, by Cal Newport, p. 3)

Newport distinguishes between deep work and shallow work, which he defines as “tasks that almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish (e-mail replies, logistical planning, tinkering with social media, and so on).” He writes that shallow work “is attractive because it’s easy, which makes use feel productive, and it’s rich in personal interaction, which we enjoy….”

Read: “Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working (and Here’s What to Do About It…)

The application to writing becomes obvious. The deep work of writing occurs when we are truly engaged in our work while also pushing our capabilities. This means, as Newport reminds us, we know we are doing deep work because we often will feel a little miserable. (Note that this is different from—but not unrelated to—the concept of flow.)

Deep Work versus Shallow Work

For example, suppose we sit down to write one morning, intent on putting in an hour that we have between when the kids go to school and we have an appointment. We open our laptop, stare at the blank page, and begin to panic. We write part of a sentence, decide it is the worst beginning of a sentence ever written in any language. We have no idea what comes next. So we decide to work on our platform by checking Facebook or Twitter. Or maybe we open another writing file and begin to tinker with tenses or point of view, not because it’s part of a substantive revision, but just to do something.

That’s shallow work.

Let’s start again. Suppose we sit down to write one morning, intent on putting in an hour that we have between when the kids go to school and we have an appointment. We open our laptop, stare at the blank page, and begin to panic. We write part of a sentence, decide it is the worst beginning of a sentence ever written in any language. We have no idea what comes next, but we remind ourselves that this is what writing is. We finish the sentence anyway. We write another (still hating it), and another, and another. We pile up the sentences and paragraphs, perhaps writing slowly rather than at breakneck speed, pushing ourselves to describe what seems indescribable, feeling a bit miserable with each word. At the end of the hour, though, we also feel the good kind of mental exhaustion that comes from deep work and making progress, and we have a better chance of going to sleep that night satisfied and happy.

The bottom line? Deep work is personally meaningful in ways that shallow work is not.

Questions for reflection:

  • What is an example of the deep work of writing for you?
  • When was the last time you engaged in deep work?
  • Do you subconsciously expect that writing should be easy, perhaps because you’ve been told you are good at it?
  • Is deep work related to deferred gratification?

If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Ezra Klein’s podcast interview with Cal Newport, below (in which Klein’s insights are as valuable as Newport’s).

See Also


DIY Summer Writing Retreat graphicThis post is part of the DIY Summer Writing Retreat blog series, with daily posts Monday through Friday. Subscribe to receive full-length new posts in your inbox or catch them on my Facebook page.

2 thoughts on “The Deep Work of Writing, part 1 of 3

  1. This is great. I LOVE Deep Work. And yes the distraction of checking this and that does bite into the time I have for writing. Depends on the time, the day and my mood, but most satisfying is really being focused on the writing without really thinking about if it’s good or bad…time for that later.

    • Sally, oh, yes, that’s it exactly–not being focused on evaluation but just immersing ourselves in the work. I find I need to remind myself of how good that really feels as a way to get over the hump of getting started sometimes.

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