‘How can you get to more people beyond coaching courses and beyond webinars? Well, you write a book.’
Bec Evans and Chris Smith met in a bookshop and have worked with books, writing and authors ever since. As co-founders of Prolifiko they coach writers to be more productive, and as co-authors of Written: How to Keep Writing and Build a Habit That Lasts they have made their experience and expertise available for anyone who needs it.
But writing about writing is perhaps the most cripplingly tricky kind of writing – and writing with your life partner is a make-or-break relationship strategy. In this week’s conversation we unpick the personal and professional strands behind their writing journey, and the importance of Peggy, their labradoodle, in holding it all together.
Prolifiko website: https://prolifiko.com/
Prolifiko on Twitter: https://twitter.com/beprolifiko
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2023: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-23
WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Power Up Your Writing Workshop, 23 February: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/power-up-your-writing-workshop-tickets-473591162917
Alison: I’m here today with Bec Evans and Chris Smith, who are the co-founders of Prolifiko, a coaching business that helps people build productive writing habits, and they met while working together in a bookshop more than 20 years ago. I love a bookshop love story. And they’ve spent a lifetime writing and working with other writers.
And before Prolifiko Bec worked in publishing, led teams of writers and managed a writing center for Arvon. She’s also the award-winning author of How to Have a Happy Hustle. Chris has a background as a ghost writer and a content consultant to global business brands, charities and public sector. And he worked as an agency director before setting up his own communications consultancy, and he’s written for national newspapers and magazines.
He’s also an award-winning comedy script writer, and together they are the authors of Written: How to keep writing and build a habit that lasts. So, I mean, it’s such a brilliant combo bio. I love it. But welcome both to the podcast. It’s great to have you here.
Bec and Chris: Thank you.
Alison: And Bec, I mean, you’re an old hand at the Extraordinary Business Book Club podcast.
But Chris, it’s your first time, welcome, good to see you.
Chris: Thank you. Thank you for inviting us.
Alison: It’s really fascinating to think back over your kind of writing journeys, which are so different in so many ways, and the fact that it’s very meta, isn’t it? You are writing about the writing, which I find personally quite paralyzing, but, so tell us just where did the idea for Written come about?
Bec: It came out of the business basically, but it took a long time to get to writing the book, and I think that was the right decision. And that probably helped overcome some of those fears that you might have. Shall we tell you a bit about the book first?
Chris: Yes, sure. So Written is a self-coaching guide for anybody who wants to develop a writing habit.
But we don’t think there’s just one way to get the writing done. This is really important for the book. We think there are many and what we do and what the book does and what our coaching does is help people to find a writing practice and a writing process that works for them and their lives.
And this is very much the kind of, the big idea, I guess, behind the book. And it’s this concept that productivity is a very personal thing. And what do I mean by that? I mean that how you get the writing done, the kind of obstacles that you face along the writing journey, how you find time and things like this, these are all very personal. These are all personal to you. And I guess the other thing alongside that, that we talk about at the beginning of the book, is that a lot of the time what we found in our coaching is that people often believe in these, what we call writing myths, so how the writing should be done. So they believe it should be done daily, for example, or it should be done in a certain way, in a certain blocks of time. Or this myth that it takes 30 days and 30 days only to build a writing habit. So why is that a problem?
Because often the myths that we tell ourselves about ourselves and the way we write are unrealistic, and they can be limiting because if we don’t write in that kind of way, and if we can’t live up to these gold standards, then we feel bad and we feel guilt. And I guess the beginning of the book is all about helping people to understand what these myths are and that you might believe in these kind of things. And once you understand that, and once you understand the things you believe about yourself and the writing aren’t necessarily set in stone, then that gives you an opportunity to build a process and a habit that works for you. And that’s really what the whole book is about.
Alison: When did you realize it’s not just me, that actually the world needs this, that other people are in a state where they are feeling bad about their lack of productivity and all the rest of it?
Bec: Yes, so it very much came from my own experience. So, as you said, I’ve spent like my whole professional career working in publishing and with writers, and I had landed this dream job at this Arvon retreat center. And it is, it’s like something out of a Sunday supplement. It’s this gorgeous house. It was owned by Ted Hughes in this steep sided valley. And I was like, this was my moment, sort of professionally, to do a job I wanted to do, but to find the perfect environment for my own writing, because I was in this perfect building, surrounded by the best writers, across all sorts of sectors, genres. You know, inspiration just in buckets.
And it was the first time I really stopped writing. When I had like a really busy job in London, I was writing all the time. I was a member of a writing group. I had all these structures around me, so it was very much that I saw this problem that I got a bit stuck, but I also saw it in lots of other writers. So the people who turned up all the time and I realized that the successful writers, whatever we mean by that, and that could be the tutors, so they are successful in their field, award-winning, bestselling, all of those sorts of things, the ones that reached that kind of success, were the ones who just kept going.
And I was really interested in what was it that keeps people writing.
And you know, that was in 2010 and that sort of obsession ended up growing to a lot of research. It became our business. And then led to the book. And it took, you know, more than 10 years to figure out the way into that. And the book is very much that how to. And it was… people needed it, people wanted stuff that we were doing in the business, but they wanted the book as well.
Chris: And I guess the other thing from a business perspective, is that we needed to find a way, because we’ve been doing coaching courses and all those kind of things and webinars, et cetera, et cetera, for quite a while.
But at some point we needed to sort of scale that knowledge to a certain extent. So, and the book is the best way to do that. So how can you get to more people beyond coaching courses and beyond webinars? Well, you write a book. And that whole process was the way for us to connect with, as you say, it is very meta, to connect with the issue and understand it more and more.
And the more we talk to people about these issues, the more we were able to write a better book, I think.
Alison: And what I will love about, I mean I love lots of things about the book, quite envious that I haven’t written this book actually. It’s one of those books that also, a few things about it I’ve got a problem with, one is I didn’t write it. The other one is that it came to me and I thought, I really wish I’d had this six months ago. So thanks for that.
But one of the things that really strikes me about it is how you synthesize and integrate your own personal lived experience. And I want to come onto that in a minute because you are very different and I think it’s really fascinating. And the experiences of all the people that you have worked with, many of whom have to write, this is not a kind of nice optional hobby.
These are academics. These are people, business people, who just need to get it written. And then the research, the science around how we form habits, what makes us stick through things. So the integration of those is fascinating. Can I start with that point about your own personal experience?
So Bec you’ve told us a little bit about how you just got into this space, excuseless and here I am not writing. Chris, I know you have a very different relationship with writing. It’s much more, you just get on with it really. So just tell us a little bit about your two different takes and how you find they fit together.
Bec: So, yes, we talk about this in the book. We’ve got this chapter on people, and we often think about whether introvert or extrovert, or what are the kind of support systems you need. And I need lots of people around me. I need community. You know, this book is co-written. I’m not suggesting that everybody writes a book with their business partner and their life partner.
Alison: I tell you, it wouldn’t work for me.
Bec: …but you have lots of other people around you. So right the way from accountability buddies, booking on online sessions, you know, going for writing days. I have lots of writer friends that I just go on walks and talk to. I loved having beta readers. It was really important for me to get feedback on early drafts.
I paid for a professional edit for someone to help around storytelling because I was really interested in how I could do that better. So there’s all these different structures I had around it, you know, that it was quite busy, even though it was mainly being written over the last two or three years when we have been in and out of lockdowns.
You know, I was always writing in and around community. Whereas for Chris…
Chris: Yes, I mean, I probably didn’t need I felt I didn’t need as many of those kind of support structures as Bec might have had. However, saying that, that’s not to say, I think people use accountability systems and need other people in different ways.
And just because we needed people in different ways, that doesn’t mean one approach was better or worse than the other. I definitely, I couldn’t have written this book on my own. I think it is genuinely the product of two minds. And I think we together kept each other accountable.
As I said, I didn’t need, I mean, the whole idea for me of having accountability buddies and going on writing courses, I’m sorry. It’s just no, it’s not for me at all. But that’s okay. You know, I mean, we just have to find a way to do it that suits us. That’s the whole point of the book.
And it might be something to do with our professional backgrounds as well. I mean, as I say, I’ve been writing in one way or another throughout my entire career, and also have an agency background, which means that I just hit deadlines. I just do deadlines, you know, so it’s maybe something to do with that.
But as I say, I think the main point is, is that, it’s finding a process that works for you regardless.
Alison: Yes, it’s not one’s better than the other. And you, it was Bec actually, years ago, who introduced me to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Framework. And you use this in the book as well. I think it’s such a great way of, so maybe, what if you could maybe just explain the four tendencies framework and that point about, it’s not so much being the right one, it’s just about knowing which you are and making it work for you.
Bec: Yes, so Gretchen Rubin had, she called it a breakthrough for her, and it was actually in a book about habits and it resonated so much for readers. It was called Better Than Before, the original book she published in, that she ended up writing a book just about the four tendencies, and this is about whether you are internally or externally held accountable to other people. And she has these four different tendencies that look at those. So if you are internally accountable, you’re often called a questioner, which is something that Chris is. So he sets his own goals, he sets his own deadlines. If someone imposes an external goal or deadline on him, he will often question it, perhaps reject it.
Someone who is externally motivated would be, is more of that kind of classic people pleaser. So they respond really, really well to other people, writing buddies, writing groups, deadlines. They like to work in community.
Then there are upholders who have both of those tendencies who respond equally well to internal and external. That’s what I am, I’m the sort of person that always gets my homework done and says yes to absolutely everything. Loves a New Year’s resolution. Quite annoying.
And then you have a rebel, a rebel rejects both types, and that’s quite a difficult tendency to work with. And the idea again, is that none of these tendencies is better than the other. And they can have real benefits and real downsides, but understanding how you respond to internal and external motivations can make a real difference not just in writing.
I mean, this is applied across all areas of life. So if you wanted to build a new exercise regime, decorate your house, organize an event. It’s all sorts of things, but understanding what motivates you, can make a real difference.
Chris: But, sorry, but also as you said, there is no one approach, or one tendency is not better or worse than the other.
So whereas Bec is an upholder, she does tend to get quite burnt out because she says yes to everything and she tends to say yes to everything that other people ask her to do and also she has very high expectations on herself. I question the things too much, which means that I’m like ponderously tedious over things and get stuck in the weeds. Because I won’t move on until I’ve actually understand something to the nth degree, which can be incredibly irritating for people, I’m aware.
It’s probably why I haven’t been employed for the last 10 years. So, I mean, there are pros and cons of each.
Alison: And having that complementarity as co-authors is great, isn’t it? I can imagine that, I mean, obviously this was a real breakthrough for you personally and so many people who read Gretchen Reuben’s stuff. But I imagine that the people that you have worked with, and the stories that you tell in the book, this must have been very liberating as you worked with, as you coach people as well, for them to understand that it’s not that they’re doing anything wrong, it’s just that they’re trying to emulate someone else who isn’t like them.
Bec: Yes, and that’s what’s really interesting about the sort of, the story behind the book, how it came from my own problem that I saw replicated in other people. And then you go off into this research environment and we spent a long time looking at the academic research, being really interested in, you know, whether you call it creative persistence, productivity, writing habits. You know, we spent a lot of time in the research, but actually everything in the book is grounded in practice.
So you can read a great article or a great book and you know, our shelves are heaving with all of the books around this kind of, you know, from writers’ biographies to books on productivity.
But actually it’s what works in practice. And again, it takes a long time to do that in a business. You know, we could have written this book in, you know, 10 years ago, but it wouldn’t have been as good. It would’ve been just about the research or just about what we saw or just about us. It takes that amount of time to really integrate that and interviewing lots of different writers.
And the way we talk about that is we really encourage people to see what other writers do, to get inspired by it. Don’t compare yourself to it, but use that as a jumping off point for experimentation. So it could be something like you read about one writer getting up at 5.30 and writing before everyone else in the house gets up. You know, it’s kind of a classic sort of tip. You know, do it while everyone else is asleep. But actually that’s really hard for most people.
So I quite like to say to people, you know, if you’ve heard that, you are intrigued by it, you think that’s the reason you’re not writing enough? Give it a go. And if it doesn’t work, accept it doesn’t work, and stop feeling guilty about it and move on and try something else. And I think that cycle of quick experimentation is really, really important.
Alison: And that’s your innovation background coming through as well, isn’t it? Just try, try it out. What does it look like on the ground? Stop theorizing. Just give it a go. And I think, you know, for listeners to this podcast particularly, who every week get a best tip from, which I’m going to come to you in a minute for this, but you know, you hear what worked for other people and that’s brilliant because it’s all data.
But until you’ve tried out in your own life, you’re not going to know if it’s going to work for you.
Chris: And I think that’s one of the things that we learned through doing the coaching as well. Because at one point what we were doing with the coaching, just for a bit of background, was telling people some really good tips, sharing knowledge about how to find time and how to combat procrastination and all these kind of things that people want.
But what we kind of realized is that what people were actually needing and wanting was this framework around how to think about these things that we were giving them, because they would go away and note down a tip and just go, oh, that’s really great, really great tip. But then they might not have been able to incorporate that into their lives.
So the point being is that yes, all the tips and all the ideas and all the approaches are sound and they work, but they have to work for you and it’s only when you understand this, the context behind it and the framework, that you can then start applying these things and think, oh, right, you know, I can use this or I can’t, I can discard this one, I can use this one. I just find the tactics that work for me in my life as it is.
Alison: Absolutely. And well, I have kind of warned about this because I said it earlier, but I always ask my people for a best tip. Now I’m really, really interested in what you are going to come up with because you have more tips than perhaps anybody else has ever been on the podcast before. So it’s going to be difficult.
But if you just were to choose one thing that you’ve discovered from your own experience, from the people you’ve talked to, from the studying you’ve done around this, what would you say to people listening to this who are struggling with their writing? I’m going to go Bec first.
Bec: I was hoping Chris would go first. I was going to, I mean, I touched on it before about finding the support systems that work for you, so that long-term accountability, particularly when you’re writing a book it’s about keeping going long-term, motivation will fade very, very quickly. So you need structures and things that will keep you going for the duration. And for me, that was around other people. So whether it is writing buddies, online writing groups, people to talk to about your book, whether it’s a co-author or an editor. Some of the more formal structures around having mentors as well. And the other one is when I say your community, that can also include your dog because actually a lot of this book was written not at our desks. It was written in conversation. It was written as we discussed ideas as we read and listened and found out about things. That kind of incubation period often happened on the top of the hill where we live in West Yorkshire with our Labradoodle, Peggy.
So whatever your community is, whatever humans or animals that involves, that will make a real difference to how you keep going.
Alison: Have to say it’s lovely reading about Peggy in the book as well. It’s very sweet.
Chris: It’s very important member of the team.
Alison: Absolutely. Sorcha’s got a mention in mine. Yes, no, it’s all good, yes, absolutely. Dogs for the win. Chris, what about you?
Chris: I think my tip is quite a broad one. It’s for all writers really, not just business writers. And I think it comes from both my experience of writing this book and also from talking to people who are writing their own books as well. And that is to expect at some point to get stuck and as far as you can accept that at some point you will get stuck.
The writing process, the creative process is full of wrong turns, hand brake turns, going down blind alleys, getting stuck, pulling your hair out, all these kind of things. And I’m not saying that’s a nice thing to experience, but the more you can come to accept that this is an integral part of the writing process, then I think it hopefully makes it a little more palatable when you do get stuck to realize that it is actually part of the writing process.
Because we went through a lot of these, a lot of these points, and being a questioner, I couldn’t move on in many areas of the book. And in many ways you just have to accept that these times will occur.
Alison: It’s such a profound point because I think when it happens to you, you feel uniquely cursed, uniquely inept, uniquely bad at what you’re doing, and knowing that this is part of the creative process, it’s quite liberating. Oh, it doesn’t make it, as you say, it doesn’t make it any easier, but you feel less, you know, just awful about the whole thing because you know that it’s, and I also think even if you’ve written something, you’ve written a whole chapter and then you decide actually that chapter doesn’t go in the book, I don’t think any writing is ever wasted because it advances your thinking, doesn’t it?
And often the stuff that you write that you don’t include made possible the stuff that you write later on. So yes, really, really good tip. Thank you.
Bec: Yes, I was just going to add a very quick story on that because one way that I realized that is that I always got stuck at the beginning of a new chapter. So once I was in a chapter, I would often be really flowing, and then I would start a new chapter and I would get really stuck and I couldn’t find my way in.
But when you are writing a book, you realize you’re starting quite a few chapters. And when I learned to accept that that was part of my process, it just took away all that guilt and all that fear. And I just realized I had to spend like a few days, well, it was generally days rather than weeks, finding my way into that chapter.
And then I would get onto it and it just really transformed my thinking because I’d just go, well, that’s it I can’t write anymore. I’m done, I’m done. And then I’d go, oh no, this happened last chapter, oh, and the one before. And it was like, this is absolutely fine. So that was my sort of moment of getting stuck or disfluency.
Chris: And this is, if I can just add to that as well, and this is one of the things that is also important to the book and really, really central to the book and our approach actually, which is the whole idea of noticing, when you become more aware and more conscious of the fact, as Bec said, you know, that she’s the kind of person that she gets stuck at the beginning of a chapter. Once you realize that that’s your process then it becomes easier the next time because you think, oh, right, okay, no, this is a pattern. I’m falling into this pattern. This is the pattern. This is me. This is just how I do it. And again, this is how we structure our coaching as well in terms of helping people to notice what it is that works and what doesn’t work for them when they get stuck, when they find it easy. All these things, and once you are better able to notice what goes on when you write, then you’re more prepared to do it more effectively next time for you.
Alison: I think my tip for people listening is to imagine themselves as a case study in Bec and Chris’s book, and just get really curious about how they’re going and what’s working for them and what’s not. Because even just that sense of observing, noticing, as you say and thinking, being curious about it, it’s a great antidote to feeling stuck.
Alison: Brilliant. I always ask people as well to recommend a book you’re not, neither of you allowed to recommend Written, I will do for you in the intro because it’s flipping brilliant. But you’ve, obviously, you’ve both read an astonishing amount of books. What have been most, which ones have been most helpful for you and that you’d like to sort of pass on to listeners?
Chris: I am going to recommend, I’ve got it here, Range by David Epstein. It’s is how generalists triumph in a specialized world. I liked it because it’s all about the benefits of exploration and experimentation and how you can incorporate these concepts into your life, your business and your life.
And also, I guess for me, reading it was like a validation because my career has been all over the place and my mum’s always been very disappointed that I didn’t do one thing and stick to it. And actually I’ve now realized doing many things is actually really, really good. And that’s how I’ve ended up doing what I do now.
So it is both professionally and personally an important book to me.
Alison: Yes, and his point about the cross-fertilization of ideas is fascinating as well, isn’t it? And which is a real kind of heart of creativity. Yes, brilliant. It’s a great recommendation. Thank you. Bec, follow that.
Bec: I know. Well, I could have just taken, what I wanted to do is take you up to our library, literally and just go through all of the books that have been super helpful. And I’m going to quickly just name check a couple, but then focus on one. I would say Ellen Langer’s work on mindfulness, which we call noticing, is really, really foundational in terms of that element of self-reflection.
Wendy Wood on habits, her work you know, it was popularized by Charles Duhigg so people often go to his book rather than hers. But I would really recommend going to Wendy Woods’s research. Ericsson on peak, he’s the kind of, what was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, the 10,000 hours rule. His book, his work on mastery is amazing.
But I would say the one I recommend would be Grit, which I know you have read again, Alison, and that’s passion and perseverance to pursue a long-term goal. And what Angela Duckworth does is bring a lot of that together, including things like, you know, elements of flow. So how we keep going on stuff that’s really hard, whatever that means for us for the long-term. And it’s that unique combination of passion and perseverance.
Alison: Brilliant. And it’s such an elegant way to get around the constraint, thank you, Bec, well done. And if people want to find out more about both of you, more about Written, more about Prolifiko where should they go?
Chris: You could go to our website, which is prolifiko.com you can join our newsletter where we compile all our best tips and stories and so forth every couple of weeks. You can find on Twitter at beprolifiko and Instagram at the same handle.
Bec: And we’re also on LinkedIn. But if you just Google prolifiko or us or the book, we will come up.
I mean, I mainly post about dogs as well as writing on Instagram. But if anyone wants a bit of that, you know…
Chris: …and who doesn’t?
Alison: Absolutely. Everybody needs a bit of Peggy.
Bec: … you can find me there.
Alison: I should give a shout out too to your writing sprints, which are fantastic. And I know lots of people who’ve been in the Extraordinary Business Book Club… when, are you doing another one of those, at any point?
Chris: Well, we actually, if you pre-order Written we are giving away three goodies as well, which is our new sprint program. There’s an exercise in there as well, and you also get to, well you get the chance to win a coaching call with us as well, so yes.
Alison: Brilliant. What a great bundle of goodies. Wonderful. So much fun to talk to you both. I kind of wish you had brought Peggy in on this actually.
Chris: We don’t. We don’t. No, a distraction.
Alison: Another time. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been fascinating and hugely, hugely useful. So I’m sure that everybody listening is writing notes frantically. Just remember the transcript of this is going to be up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com along with all those links. So thank you both for your time.
Bec: Brilliant. Thank you Alison.
Chris: Thanks, Alison.