Creativity.  The word conjures up images of glorious colors in paintings or the emotions of music or the adventures of words on a page.  Even photos and crafts come to mind when we think of creativity.  But it’s more than that.  Creativity is the genius that makes rocket ships fly and skyscrapers stand tall.  And it’s even in how you solve everyday problems like the car not starting or a clogged sink.   Creativity isn’t just artistic.  It’s inventiveness and innovation.  It’s being resourceful and finding new ways to do things. When we go through the creative process, we usually follow a 4 step process and this is a guide to the 4 stages of creativity.

In 1926, Graham Wallas, an English Social Psychologist, in his book The Art of Thought, theorized that there were four stages of creativity that can be seen no matter how long or short the process. Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification.  In addition, in 1953, Malcolm Cowley suggested a theory of writing that somewhat mirrors these stages:  Germ of the story, conscious meditation, first draft, and revision.

Preparation/Germ of the Story

Just like it sounds, this is the period of preparation.  Perhaps this involves gathering tools, doing research, reading, writing an outline of your idea, doing sketches, or practicing your scales.  These preparations work whether you’re writing a book, painting a picture, or preparing to fix a hole in the wall.  You are gathering your tools, doing your research, and preparing for the work ahead.

The amount of time spent in preparation depends on the project.  Preparing the tools and doing the research to paint a bowl of fruit shouldn’t really take a lot of time but preparing to build a rocket ship could take a lot of time since there may be more tools to get that could possibly take a lot of money (or maybe you work for NASA and they’re all ready for you!)

Incubation/Conscious Meditation

This is the gestation period.  It could last a few days, a few weeks, or even a few years.  You have an idea.  You even have the tools you’re going to use.  But how will this idea flesh out?  Where will it take you?  This might be the time when you push everything to the back of your mind.  You take a walk, do the dishes, or even work on a completely different project while you let your other idea take root.

Or maybe you are actively stirring the pot by asking yourself a series of questions to help flesh out your idea.  These questions don’t even require an answer at the moment, they are just questions to be added to the incubation. If you’re working with a team, this is the time you’re bouncing ideas off each other to see what fits.

Illumination/First Draft

The aha moment!  That moment when you know what you’re going to do and you start doing it. The gestation period is over and you are about to give birth to your idea.  This is what people might call creative inspiration.  They know what they want to do and start doing it, sometimes to the detriment of other commitments.

If someone is not fully aware of the work that they did in the preparation and incubation stages, they might actually confuse creative inspiration with divine inspiration.


The first draft is donebut the work isn’t finished.  Instead, this is the period to edit or fix anything in the work that needs fixing or changing.  You are taking stock of the work that you did to determine if it is done or if it needs adjusting.

You might edit your written piece, add some touchups to a painting, fix a formula that was written wrong, test the strength of what you built, etc.

How To Use The 4 Stages

The best way to use the 4 stages of creativity is to remember that there are four of them.  Probably the biggest breakdown in the four stages comes when someone has an idea and tries to skip over the incubation period.  You become blocked and unable to produce any work even though you are trying to work on it every day.  You might suggest that writer’s block is a form of incubation, but it probably isn’t.  More like torture instead.

In his book, Graham Wallas suggests that it’s better to work on several projects, moving back and forth.  So instead of going for a walk as a way to incubate, pick up another project and start the process over again.  This pushes your first project to the back of your mind where it can incubate.  And if need be, start work on a third project as well.  Eventually, that “Aha” moment will come for one of the projects.  Wallas suggests that that aha moment might even come for all of your projects, one right after the other.

Another area where these stages can break down is during the verification or revision stage.   You’ve had that aha moment and barreled through long writing or painting sessions and now you’re done.  And instead of going back to edit or verify the information, you consider the projected completed and whole and try to sell it as such.  But the verification/revision stage can’t be denied.

Instead, try this.  As you come across an idea that you’d like to follow, mentally tell yourself that you’re in the preparation phase as you gather your tools and perhaps draw a sketch of the project or write an outline.  Once the tools are set(research is done, paints are bought, etc.) it’s time to incubate the idea for a bit and then go and do something else.  Whether you start working on another project or go out and mow the lawn depends on what you feel works best for your incubation period.

Once the “aha” moment comes and you’re ready to work, then work.  Paint the picture, write your story or song, draw those plans, etc. Once you are done…walk away from it.  Seriously.  You are on a high from having finished your work.  Time to step back.  Go work on another project and let this one sit for a couple of days.  Only then, when you are not as emotionally involved, can you come back and start the verification or revision stage.

Have you noticed these four stages at work while you’re working on projects?  What tips or tricks do you have for moving through them?

If you’d like to read more about the creative process, check out this post on rituals.  What Are Your Rituals For Creativity?