The Writing Process: From Idea to Publication (Part One)
For the next week or so, I intend to give an overview of the writing process. There is, however, a part of me that feels that such a series is slightly unnecessary, because process is individual. It is something that we learn very early on, and even though we may not give it a great deal of consideration, it’s something most of us do automatically. There are certain parts of the process we like; there other parts that we do not like. But we typically do the things that come naturally. Nonetheless, I still think there is some confusion over the process, and many young writers would benefit from at least recognizing the steps and thinking about their own a little more critically.
I also want to mention that, in academica, at least, rhetoricans have overblown the importance of the process. That’s not to say it isn’t important–it is–just that it’s not the most useful idea to systematize. Scholars tend to forget that writing is about choices and making the best choices is what makes some content more appealing than others. After all, the final step is putting the work out there–publishing. Most writing is meant to be public, to be product, and when that happens, nobody cares how many drafts you’ve written. There is no portfoilio of your progress. You are judged solely on the merit of your work. All that matters to editors and readers is that it is worth the read.
With those assumptions in mind, so begins my two part series on the writing process, from the germ to publication.
This is the first step, and depending who you are, you’ll either spend a ton of time here or as little as possible. Typically, such people are defined as either outliners or pantsers respectively. I doubt any one person falls firmly on one side of the schema or the other, but this is something very individual. I think it is dictated not only by the writer’s personality but the length and substance of the work.
When you post a tweet, you probably don’t spend too much time thinking about what you’re going to write; however, when you’re working on a novel, you’re probably going to give a little more time to percolate.
You see, prewriting is merely the act of thinking about what you’re going to write, developing your ideas, and coming up with a plan. Short things require less active thought because, most of the time, your brain reaches conclusions so quickly you don’t need to acknowledge them, and long works are frustrating to get through and require more critical thinking along with perservance.
But, of course, this all depends on how you like to do things.
Personally, I’ve always avoided writing outlines. I remember how, in grammar school, I would turn in papers without the required rough drafts or outlines. (I was not a good student.) My teachers would tell me I was missing out on being a better writer. In some respects, they were right; in others, they were wrong. But that’s because they couldn’t see what was going on inside my head. For me, I liked to take a lot of time to think. I think about what I’m going to write while I’m in the shower, when I’m lifting weights, or as I lay my head down for sleep. That’s my process. I come up with my plans in my head and then put them down on paper and figure everything out as I write. That’s just what works for me.
This is the point about process overall, and why I don’t think it’s as important to stress such an overview. You have to find what works for you. If like writing a formal outline, do it. If you enjoy putting together a list of ideas, do it. If you prefer to sit down at the computer and throw up on the screen, do it. There’s a whole host of prewriting activities available to you: freewriting, journaling, talking, thinking, clustering, listing, outlining. So if you haven’t figured this out by now, here’s your chance.
This step leads logically to the next.
This is when you actually put words on paper. The tool you use doesn’t matter all that much. Some people like to use a pen, others a keyboard. But the way you do it is important. This is also probably the most difficult to explain. How can you talk about something you just do?
When we draft, we’re enacting some kind of plan. We’re always not consciously aware of that plan, of course. It’s part instinct, part intellect. We’re making choices based on our purpose, our audience, our context. Most of all, this is when we listen to our own minds and express those thoughts as truly as we can, when we transcribe the chaos of our consciousness. This chaos is unfortunately somewhat unpalatable, which is why we take the next step.
The writer who understands the act of revision, of re-seeing their text, is typically the writer of superior prose. It is not simply fixing the commas and crossing your Ts however. (Those are lower order concerns.) Revision requires rethinking, which is what makes it distinct from editing. We look at the whole of our text, the thrust of it, the tone of it, the organization of it–the higher order concerns–and we ask is this what we mean? Is this the best way to express it? In our drafting stage, we more or less went with instinct, letting the words flow out of us naturally: In revision, we should be ruled by intellect. We tinker, change, rewrite. We temper and rearrange. We take those questions about purpose, our audience, and our context into much greater consideration. We look at the text dispassionately, without emotion. This is the last time anyone will care what we meant vesus what we say. Afterward, it becomes product, written in stone, something to analyzed and scruntinized, something over which we have no control. That’s why this step is so vital. We should recognize that people will take away something different. They will misread your work. Putting a text out into the world is the greatest example of a writer’s impotence. Hence, we should cherish this brief moment, look outside ourselves, and ask if what we have done is the best way to articulate it. If it isn’t, expect to be a prisoner of your own regret.
This is the final step in the process. This is where we check for comma splices or mispellings. It doesn’t really make a message any clearer for the most part, but it does, however, show our seriousness. By making sure that we’ve corrected our typos, we demonstrate something to our reader. We show them that we are no fool, that we are worth listening to. Unfortunately, this is the step we approach most carelessly, myself included. But this act should be treated with a little more reverence, I think. That concern we have, that dedication, hopefully, rubs off onto our reader.
And so concludes this week’s talk on the process. I know that I don’t offer a lot of specifics here on it, because it is so difficult to pin down. This is much more about trial and error than anything else. It’s about what works for you. Of course, work has to go out at some point too, so we shouldn’t get trapped in the anxiety of our choices either. It should also go without saying that these steps aren’t independent of one another, that they happen at predetermined intervals. Some writers revise while they draft; others write to the end and then fix it. But that’s because there is no one way to do it. Process, after all, is individual.