After writing 29 books about all things endurance sport and nutrition, Matt Fitzgerald has dialed in his writing routine. Even more, he's often working on multiple projects and traveling around the world to coach athletes and attend conferences, so he doesn’t get to sit at the same desk in the same writing clothes with the same favorite coffee mug. Instead, he's learned to create loose routines and workflows that allow him to quickly shift gears. Here, he shares his secrets.
Scribd: How do you get ideas for your books? You’ve covered such a broad range of topics in endurance sport.
Matt Fitzgerald: I have a lot of ideas for books, but some stand out, where you get this little jolt that tells you this one's special. It's a certain level of excitement that comes along with that lightbulb moment.
Once I have one of those ideas, I sit on it for a while. What I've found is ideas take time to percolate. Really, half the book is the idea. For me, sometimes I'll let an idea percolate for years. I have a few books I've written where the lightbulb moment happened a few years before I even started writing.
That first step, where I'm letting the idea percolate in my head may seem like I'm not actively working on the book. But by the time I get to the point where the idea is ready for me to start acting on, I'm literally halfway done with the book because I've thought it out so much.
Of course, some ideas are like when you come up with an idea at a bar with some friends. You're all excited about it after you've had three beers, but then in the morning, you're like, What the heck was I thinking? That happens a lot, too. That's another reason why I sit with an idea for a time. If it doesn't go away, that's a pretty good indication it's a good idea.
How do you actually get started writing once you have an idea?
MF: It takes a ton of work to write a book, and you don't want to start down that road unless you're sure the idea deserves the book treatment. Sometimes, an idea is just an article. Sometimes, it's not worth writing about at all.
Once I like an idea, I'll start doing light research while the idea simmers. I'll read up on a particular topic, just to accelerate the process.
I need two things to get momentum going in the composition process. First, to figure out the chapter structure, including the first line or the first paragraph. Once I have that broad structure for the whole project, then the rest becomes filling it in.
Second, I list the chapter topics freehand in a notebook. Sometimes I'll open up my computer and just start banging chapter topics out. I'll write out the chapter titles or chapter subjects, and the material I want to cover in a particular subject. But that's all there is to it. The whole thing is probably less than 50 words, but now I know where the whole project is going.
What’s your routine? Are you always working on a book project?
MF: I'm an early riser. My work tends to be front-loaded in the day. So as soon as I finish my breakfast, I'll sit down with my day planner, and shorthand all the tasks or projects I either need to get accomplished or need to make some progress on that day. Then I'll just start on that list, one by one.
I have so many irons in the fire, since I'm usually working on multiple projects. My day planner for today has 11 things on it. So, I can't spend hours on any one of them. I know today there are five writing projects I want to make progress on. Any one of those three could justify eight hours of work, but I can't do it because I need to move the others forward as well.
I usually try to make some progress on active projects every day. Sometimes, one will get priority or if I'm really struggling with one, I might give it extra attention. Though it could be the opposite: If one of them's really flowing, I might give it extra attention that day. So it's flexible, but I sleep better at night if I go to bed knowing I made some kind of progress, even if it's small.
How do you balance writing projects when working on multiple books at once?
MF: I tend to go in order as I write. I just push through, and, at this point, I've made peace with the fact that my first drafts are always terrible. So I don't do a lot of editing as I go because I know it's hopeless! No matter how perfect I try to make a first draft, once I come back to it, it's going to suck. So when I get started, it's just about filling the pages, getting it down. Once that's done, I'm going back through again and again and again.
The one idiosyncratic approach that I wouldn't recommend, because it's very inefficient, is I write first, research later. Part of how I'm wired is that I don't feel like I'm writing unless I'm actually writing. I don't feel I'm making progress with a book unless I'm adding to the word count. So, I very seldom do much of a research phase to start. Writing is how I think things through, and that's not at all efficient. Research comes later or during, because I don't like spending a lot of time at the start focused on the research phase. I mix composition and research together. And yes, occasionally I have to completely redo sections or start over as I find out new things, but it's how I work.
I don't aim for any sort of balance with what projects I'm working on, but it always seems to work out that I'm doing one more technical guide and one nonfiction book at the same time. If I'm working on two or three things simultaneously, it's only because those were the things I was ready to write. But, I like having books in different stages, because the first few drafts can be tedious so it’s a relief to be working on something more polished as well.
You’ve been writing books for decades now — has your process changed with technology?
MF: I've always been kind of a luddite. I would be fine with stone and a chisel. Also, when you get older, it gets harder to keep up with the new stuff. I'm falling farther behind in terms of technologies that impact the writing process. I still do things the same way I did in the early ‘90s. I also can't type: I hunt and peck with two fingers. But the thing is, if I could type 80 words per minute, I wouldn't be able to write any faster because I'm writing, not typing. Even just using the two fingers, I can type faster than I can think.
Do you read a lot?
MF: I'm an avid reader. I was an English major because I love reading. People might assume I read sports books, but I read 95% fiction because it helps me with the craft of writing. If I read a great novel, it makes me a better writer. There's so much great contemporary fiction, and I read a lot of it, but I love old books too. In fact, one out of every four books I read is from the 19th century or earlier.
How do you deal with distractions?
MF: My dad is a writer, and I am amazed because he can disappear into his writing — he'll just find a spot at a dining room table, even with kids running around and chaos everywhere and write. I can't do that. I need it to be quiet and comfortable. I need to be free from distractions.
I always think best away from the screen. When I get stuck on a topic and am actually going backward, I’d normally go for a run. Right now, I can't run because I'm still dealing with long-term effects of COVID-19. But I've always gone for a run and by the time I got back, I would have solutions. You enter a different state of consciousness when you run. It seems you're taking a break from working, but you're actually just transitioning to a different office.
What’s the best part about having been an author for so long?
MF: One thing I love about writing is that, in contrast to athletics, you get better at writing as long as you keep at it. As long as you keep a mastery mindset where you believe in the possibility of improving, and you're actively working at it, you'll improve. My dad is about to turn 78, and he writes better now than he did at any earlier point in his life. As an athlete, you can't keep getting faster or stronger forever, but to have something you're passionate about where the promise is that you'll never stop improving, that's pretty cool.