Productivity and Perfection: What I Learned Writing 6 Books in 2 Years

Productivity and Perfection: What I Learned Writing 6 Books in 2 Years

In the last two years, I’ve published six books.

That’s right. Six.

It all started with a single blog post. The idea: the best travel advice comes from local people. They know the hidden-away restaurants, the most interesting hiking trails, and the quirky hangouts tourists don’t always find.

So I asked a friend in Verona, Italy, to answer a series of questions about her town for my blog. She told us her favorite pizzeria — a place always full of Italians and never full of tourists. She raved about the best neighborhoods. And she offered up tips for how make friends and fit in.

When I started editing her answers for my blog, I was smitten. I knew I had to make it back to Verona, because how could I have missed that pizzeria?

I also knew that this magical little blog post was the start of something big. This wasn’t going to be just a blog series. It was too good. It had to be a book.

How a blog post bloomed into a book series

So, I started writing. I reached out to 100 interesting people who lived in Italy and I interviewed them all. I edited and edited and edited some more. I had a professional design a book cover. And I gave that guide a publication date.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that again this project was bigger than I had originally anticipated. It wasn’t a blog post. It wasn’t a blog series. And it wasn’t just one book either. This was going to be a series.

And because I wanted people to see it as a series right away, I decided to publish three more guides in a row and set a goal for the end of the summer. I followed up my Italy guide with three city guides, all published within six months of Italy’s publication.

The guides did well, with sales creeping upward over the subsequent months. And I kept going, publishing two more full-sized country guides before the next summer came to a close.

That’s six books — over 1,200 pages total — all published within two years.

As you can imagine, writing that many books in a row was a hard task and those two years didn’t include much time off. In fact, I took a vacation in September 2013, started the books that winter, and didn’t take another vacation until September 2015.

In those two years, I did a lot of work, cried some tears (of both the happy and frustrated varieties), and also learned some important lessons. Here are two that still stand out:

The age-old wisdom on productivity really is true

Productivity is the result of shutting out distractions, plowing through your imperfect first draft without fretting over it (until it’s time to edit), letting go of perfection, and letting go of your other concerns and they hold they have on your attention.

When you’re writing, be present. Write. Keep going. Even if later on you have a pile of laundry, an important errand, or a stack of bills to deal with. Even if your creativity seems like it’s gone on vacation without you.

You don’t have to feel creative to put that first draft on the page.

And if your laundry or errands or stack of bills are too distracting to let you write, stand up, deal with them, tick them off the mental to-do list, and sit back down to keep plowing away at the words on the page.

Forgive yourself for the messy writing process

Writing books, especially when you take on six in a row, is hard. It’s not always organized. It’s not always predictable. It’s not always linear.

Yet, most of the writers I know are perfectionists. We work and work and work and never let the work see the light of day because it’s never quite perfect enough.

Which is where letting go and forgiving ourselves comes in.

It wouldn’t have been possible for me to get all those guidebooks out the door so quickly — to show the world right away that this is a series, something to watch for — if I wasn’t able to say to myself throughout the process that it’s OK to be a creative wreck.

It’s OK that I had to push the launch of the first guide by a month because I’d miscalculated the time the book would take to finish. It’s OK that I had to do revision after revision. It’s OK that sometimes I failed — to get the interviewee I wanted, to catch that last typo (which always seems to be pointed out about two hours after publication), to think of that brilliant idea that would have made a great index.

It’s OK.

We have this idea, part personal, part cultural, that we all have to be A+ students all the time. Anything less is seen as a failure.

But the truth about really putting things out there into the world is in the Italian proverb “perfect is the enemy of good.”

Every writer and artist I know always has one more thing they wish they’d done to perfect the end product. Even Elizabeth Gilbert admitted to it in her latest book on creativity.

But the more important thing is to finish your work and put it out into the world.

What small projects have turned into major writing achievements for you? What did you learn from taking on the challenge?

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Filed Under: Craft


  • Tom says:

    An inspiring story of success. Thanks for sharing.

  • Wendy says:

    I started writing a potholder-loom book in the early 2000’s. The main problem was this was illustration-intense, and for all the manuscript guides in the world, few, if any, discuss how to deal with anchoring illustrations to text. Uncertain of whether to work on it “print-ready” in PageMaker (that’s a pro-level desktop publisher I was trained on in college) or in “manuscript” form in a word processor, the project stalled out. The few queries I sent out were “not a good fit for our brand.” By the time CreateSpace was established and I could get my laptop on-line through my library’s Wi-Fi, PageMaker (yes, it has a PDF converter, but it not only crashed every time I tried to use it, but irretrievably corrupted the file it was supposed to be converting) had been abandoned and I ended up completely re-creating the book in OpenOffice.

  • Milly says:

    That’s a lot of back patting for an extended travelogue series. Lauren Layne published 7 works of fiction in one year.

    I’d be more impressed if this post focused more on writing output and organizational skills not how a bunch of reviews and interviews were strung together.

  • Patrick says:

    I just ran across this post Gigi and I have to say thank you. I’m not aspiring to write a book anytime soon, but I’ve been fiercely procrastinating developing my desire to write into a creative, productive hobby, and hopefully something more down the road. Your post does more than give the standard push to focus on writing and push daily responsibilities back a little. It reminds, constantly, that it’s OK to do so. And it’s OK to write bad. And it’s OK to fail, to get frustrated, to get off track. But aside from all the real obstacles you mentioned, I appreciated that you didn’t mention the word “quit”. As if in mentioning it (even in the context that it’s NOT OK to do so) actually puts it out there as an option. I found a lot out of your article that can inspire people in my position. So thank you again. And Merry Christmas.

  • Audrey says:

    Thank you for the post. I found it to be extremely encouraging and inspirational. I completely relate. Sometimes, your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness. I have to give up my perfectionist ways in order to complete my projects.

  • Lana Mitchell says:

    I was able to turn a birthday writing to our son, into a story for a children’s magazine. The story was rejected, but I turned it into a book, “A Birthday Story”, which I self-published this month, March, 2016. The writing went through several phases, which taught me that, although a written work does not get accepted for that market it was originally written for, the readers of children’s magazines, it can be re-worked for a different market, the readers of children’s books.