Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of Ness Labs and MSc in Applied Neuroscience candidate at King’s College London, joins Stew Fortier to discuss finding the intersection of your personal interests, mastering your creativity inbox, and cultivating a healthy media diet.
The summary below was prepared for Compound Writing, a paid invite-only community of online writers. Apply here
1. It’s okay if other people are writing about your niche. It means there's demand.
Anne-Laure’s work at Ness Labs examines the intersection of productivity and neuroscience, two topics that are fairly popular. She understands that it can be intimidating to see other successful writers covering the topics that you are passionate about, but reinforces that this is actually a positive thing. “It's the same with any kind of product that you want to launch,” she explains. “ It's very hard to both create the product and create the market/demand for the product. As a writer, it's easier to find a niche or content area that already exists. Better yet, find a slightly different angle of that niche that has not been covered, or covered well.”
2. Don't wait for inspiration. Instead, regularly combine ideas that interest you.
Anne-Laure rejects the premise that writers must rely on a “muse” or “eureka moment” to produce creative and compelling work. Instead, she believes in the idea of combinational creativity. “Combinational creativity is a completely different approach. It’s the belief that ideas are not born out of nothing. Most new ideas are actually a combination of existing ideas. So when you're looking for stuff to write about, or trying to find your niche, make a list of everything you care about, everything that makes you curious and excited. Then see if there is any interesting overlap there.”
3. The quickest way to learn is to produce a lot of work.
The sheer quantity of Anne-Laure's early writing played an integral role in the development of her personal voice and positioning. “I made a pact with myself to write consistently when I started Ness Labs. At first, it was five articles every day. I would block an hour and a half every morning, and I would write every day. My first articles, well, they were not that good. But by writing a lot, I started to get better. My only goal was to make sure I wrote the number of articles I said I would write until I got to 100 articles. Because it was a very ambitious thing to do. I gave myself zero pressure whatsoever in terms of topics or ideas. I could just pick anything I thought was interesting.”
Anne-Laure’s prolific output was useful in two critical ways. “First, I noticed there were articles where I was enjoying the process of writing much more than others. Secondly, I started getting feedback from people. If you publish regularly, people are just going to tell you what they think about it. You can also look at your analytics and learn about what kind of content performs better. So it’s this process of consciously steering your editorial line towards that kind of content where you're both going to enjoy writing it, and people are going to actually get value from it. Those two things combined basically helped me decide on the general direction and the topics I write about.”
4. Build a "creativity inbox" to capture and refine ideas.
Considering that she specializes in productivity, it’s not surprising that Anne-Laure has mastered her creative process with the help of some of her favorite organizational tools. “I don't wait until I sit down in front of my laptop to generate ideas. I generate ideas all the time. And that means sometimes I'm walking around, listening to a podcast, having a conversation with a friend and an idea comes to me. I will write two or three words that capture the idea quickly on my phone, then when I get home, or whenever I have a little bit of time, I sit down and open my actual note taking system. I personally use Rome, but you can use Notion, Evernote, whatever your thing is. For each idea that I had during the day, I create a note where I add a little bit more meat to it, a few more details. I also try to think about other notes that are already in my system that are related to it. After a bit of time, I will see patterns emerge. I will see that some topics keep coming back. And when I want to write about something, I can pick any of these and they're linked with other stuff.”
5. Treat your information diet like you'd treat your real-world diet.
While her writing outputs are undoubtedly impressive, Anne-Laure emphasizes the equal importance of maintaining high-quality inputs. “You need nutritious food to be healthy, and what you eat is going to have an impact on how you feel. It's the same with your information diet. The content you consume is going to have an impact on the content you produce, so you do have to be mindful of it. Social media is one area where I think everyone should pick their battles and figure out what platforms actually provide value. For me, Twitter is the only social media platform where I get both intellectual value and really interesting content. It also has business value to me, ”
And a balanced media diet is defined not only by its quality but also in its variety. “Make sure that you have a healthy mix of short, informational articles, but also long-form essays and books, podcasts, whatever works for you. Just don’t default to only one way of consuming content. I personally find that a lot of the combinational creativity in my own creative process comes from consuming different types of content from lots of different sources.”
If you want to take your media diet to the next level, Anne-Laure recommends starting a conversation on your topic of interest. “Just consuming content is great, but also having conversations about this content, brainstorming with people, confirming your ideas with someone who may have a different opinion, etc. are all amazing ways to foster your curiosity and to increase your creativity.”
6. Create a forcing mechanism that helps you produce.
Like most writers, Anne-Laure puts certain mechanisms in place to ensure that she produces regular work. “From a very practical standpoint, the newsletter has been such an amazing forcing mechanism for me in terms of being consistent. I also know people who have a writing buddy, where they have a weekly Zoom call together for one hour and have to show to each other what they wrote about. That can help.”
Beyond setting these external deadlines, Anne-Laure also insists on blocking time each day to write. “You really need to create the space for it. I love time blocking, so I block an hour and a half, from Monday to Friday for writing. It’s the first thing I do in the morning. I make myself a cup of tea, and I sit down and I write, instead of waiting and deciding last-minute to write and life happens. It's 2020. Life is so messy and so uncertain. By blocking this time, you are saying ‘Whatever happens, whatever 2020 throws at me, I'm going to write.’”