Powerhouse children’s author Beverly Cleary died last month at the astonishing age of 104, leaving a legacy of having written 50-plus books. Chances are you read some of her books as a child—Henry Huggins, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Ramona and Beezus. Maybe your children learned to read with them; maybe you’ve heard the Ramona movie play over and over in the background as you make dinner.
As a child I’m sure I read every Beverly Cleary book I could lay my hands on at the library. They were funny and relatable and of course taught some good growing-up lessons. I remember I loved them, but to be honest I remember little of their content. One scene however has stuck with me forever . . .
In Ramona the Brave, Ramona arrives at school missing one of her shoes because she has thrown it at an aggressive dog. She doesn’t have an extra pair of shoes with her, she can’t go home to get some, and the teacher is going to force her to wear—horrors—a smelly old ownerless boot from the cloakroom. Nope. Not gonna happen.
So Ramona starts wondering, what can she make shoes out of? Ooo, she could use the sturdy paper towels from the restroom to make a slipper—if only she had a stapler. At recess, she interrupts her sister’s class to ask the teacher for a stapler (because you must embarrass your sibling in a children’s book—it’s a trope for a reason). And with some clever folding and stapling, Ramona makes herself a slipper. (If only she had scissors and more time, she could turn it into a bunny slipper. Functional and beautiful.)
The takeaway? Ramona had constraints. She looked around to see what she could do within those constraints, and she transcended the constraints. And that is the essence of creativity.
The Value of Constraints
We might think it’s nice to have unlimited options, but choice overload is real. When given infinite options (“Write about anything!”), our brains go into a loop, get stuck, and can’t move forward—or we must expend a significant amount of energy to break out of the loop to move forward.
Constraints—that is, limited choices—reduce decision pressure. Instead of working on “What shall I do?” our mind can work on “What clever thing can I do with this duct tape, ball point pen, and stick of chewing gum?” (Looking at you, MacGyver.)
Poets are familiar with the concept of creative constraints. Any poetic form—a sonnet or a haiku, for example—is a constraint. Poets also often use “prompts” to spark their writing: “Write a seven-line poem using one metaphor and the words clang, bitter, and fur.” Sometimes the prompt results in a surprisingly good poem, and sometimes it’s just a jumping off point, a catalyst.
If you watch a ballet, as an audience member you might just see the dancers’ leaps and spins, but for each move, the dancers pass through one of the five ballet positions—a constraint for consistency and positioning.
My Chicken Haiku collaborator, artist Dawn Rozzo, needed to create 24 pieces of art that complemented the imagery in the poems. She exclaimed at one point, “It’s so much easier having a structure to work within!” The structure provided a useful creative constraint.
Musicians use constraints when they work in a particular key, time signature, and musical style (e.g., bossa nova). A musician friend told me he knows that when he writes production film scores, he is writing ten songs in a particular genre that need to tick certain boxes—tempo, instrumentation, and so on. By having his list of ten songs and their respective constraints defined up front, his writing process is faster.
Constraints in Book Writing
So how can you use the idea of constraints in writing nonfiction books? There are both strategic and tactical ways . . .
Strategically, you have a purpose for writing your book—to provide valuable information of course, but also perhaps to build your business. To do that, you need to reach the right audience. The more specific you can be about who that audience is, the easier it is for you to know what to write and for those readers to know they should read your book.
By constraining who you write your book for, it doesn’t exclude others from reading it, but it helps the intended readers know you are talking to them.
Topic and content
When you understand who your audience is, it becomes much easier to define what your book needs to be about and what elements of the subject it needs to cover.
Writers frequently feel a temptation to share everything they know about a topic. Don’t. It’s impossible, for one. And for two, your readers almost certainly don’t want everything. Set clear boundaries on what needs to be covered in your book, and what can be saved for a blog post or presentation or consulting engagement to complement the book.
If you don’t constrain yourself from writing “everything,” you’ll never get done.
At a more tactical level, give yourself the constraint of a deadline. There’s nothing like a high-stakes event to push you to complete a project! (You’ll understand this intuitively if you regularly find yourself doing house projects right before family is due to visit.)
Writers often set word count targets. If you target a book of 50k words (a constraint), you can easily divide that up into the five chapters you intend to include. When you creep up on the 10k mark (another constraint) for a chapter, you have an indicator that you might need to consider tightening it up.
Or you can break your 50k into a target of 500 words per day for 100 days to get a first draft. Knowing your daily goal (constraint) makes the project more manageable.
Once you’ve got a solid draft, a useful constraint is to challenge yourself to cut a certain percentage of words. I promise, for almost any book, if you cut 10 percent, it will be a stronger work—you won’t be cutting muscle, just a little fat. (Yes, I cut 10 percent of my original article!)
Get creative with writing constraints!
Giving yourself constraints can enhance your creativity. But it also can make the book writing process easier and result in a better, more focused end product for your reader.
And just imagine: Maybe you too will write a scene or give a piece of advice that sticks with your reader for 40-plus years. RIP, Beverly Cleary.
Need some constraints? If you’ve got a first draft, a Manuscript Critique and Strategy Intensive can help find the needed constraints to apply in revision. If you’re struggling to get going, Focused Book Coaching may help you set the right boundaries for your book. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919.609.2817.