Thursday, February 20, 2014

Your Writing Process is Wrong

I don't really mean that what you do is wrong, but sometimes I have to say eye-catching things like that to get your attention. What I really mean is that some parts of your writing process could probably be improved based on my experience of working with writers and aspiring writers. When writers struggle to be productive, the culprit is usually the way they divide their time across the writing process. They put too much time into some stages and not enough in others. As a result, their project stalls or falls well-behind schedule.

To start, here is a general outline of the writing process:
  1. Research
  2. Planning
  3. Drafting
  4. Revision
  5. Editing
  6. Formatting
  7. Proofreading
To simplify this discussion, let's focus our discussion on the actual act of writing, the core stages of the writing process:
  1. Planning
  2. Drafting
  3. Revision
  4. Editing
  5. Formatting
Don't misunderstand me. Research and proofreading are incredibly important, but they are outside the scope of this discussion. The time you invest in research, for example, will vary dramatically from project to project. Writing a memo about the new format of office email signatures? That probably won't take much research. Writing about the subculture of people that keep exotic pets like lions and bears in their house? That could take a few years of conducting interviews, chasing down leads, and researching changes in state and federal law.

Assuming that your research is finished, here is a breakdown of how you should spend your time writing:
This chart is a rough representation of what I learned from Dr. Edward J. Chute, the composition professor I had freshman year. He showed a chart like this where the pie represented a 60 minute timeline, and two key lessons from his lecture have stuck with me since:
  1. Most writers spend far too much time in the drafting stage, trying to write the perfect manuscript on the first try.
  2. Most writing magic happens in revision, so your time is best spent there.
For me, how I invest my time fluctuates slightly from my project. For example, when I had to write a book in 30 days my time spent drafting shrunk as I hammered out copy and my revision process grew. Keeping this chart in mind at all times, however, helps me stay on track and to be conscious of how my process affects my productivity. If I find myself stuck on writing the perfect sentence, I remember that I need to get something down so that I can move on to revision.

And when your career depends on being able to produce X amount of words per week, that's huge. The purpose of drafting is simply to get writing on paper. It will never be perfect. Instead, think of it as your first pass on a painting, a very basic representation of what you ultimately want it to become. In revision, you tweak and perfect and develop each element of your writing.

It's easy to say that, of course. But what if you hit a wall and simply can't draft anything? Get a notebook and handwrite your story from start to finish without stopping. If you aren't sure what to write next, skip to a point where you do. Don't look back. Write as quickly as you can until it's done. When you finish the first draft, now you have sentences on paper, which are much easier to develop than abstract ideas of what a perfect sentence could or should be.

I picked this particular method up from Dr. Mark Panek, a professor at UH: Hilo and the author of multiple award-winning books. When I combined it with what I learned from Dr. Chute, I had a consistently reliable approach to writing that I continue to use to this day, for everything from books to articles to social media posts. 

I hope it helps you too.

1 comment:

  1. You make a lot of good observations and detail good tactics for when writing stalls. I'll be passing this blog off to some other authors as well. Good stuff here, Marshal.