Putting My Thoughts Down on Paper: My Writing Process
I guess I’m lucky.
I’ve never found writing that difficult. Thinking back on those first few years in grammar school where they teach you structure and composition, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite thing to learn. But, it wasn’t the most intimidating either. I remember those exercises where the teacher would give out a prompt and ask you to complete a five-paragraph essay in an hour. Not to gloat, but it never took me that long.
Fast forward 30 years, and I’m still able to crank out a fairly substantial amount of writing in a relatively short period of time. The type of writing – academic, professional, or casual – doesn’t make a bit of difference. It didn’t dawn on me until I published my recent book, though, how strange a talent this actually is. That’s because a number of people would comment on how Herculean writing a book must have been. Most would add on they’d always wanted to write one, too, but just didn’t have the time. Sure, it wasn’t easy. For all those budding authors out there, though, I’m here to tell you it’s not impossible.
When I finally sat back and tried to figure out why something most people find so daunting isn’t a big deal to me, I had an epiphany. Writing is less about your innate abilities, desire to write, or fluidity in a language. What matters most is having a process in place.
So, for those of you dear readers who are interested in my particular process, here goes.
First, you need to have what many call a “red thread.” This is the central idea which your paragraph, chapter, or entire novel wraps around. Without it, you’ll just be grasping at straws on what to write. With it, however, you begin to really tell a strong story. You should be able to write your red thread in a single sentence. Any more and it’s not really a single idea. That means it has to be big enough to develop material out of, but not so big it’s impossible to answer.
Once I have my red thread, I develop an outline. I can’t stress this part enough. Writing without an outline is like driving somewhere without knowing the route. You might end up where you want to go, but you’re more likely to just end up frustrated and lost. A little secret is that the more detailed your outline is, with notes, research, and even full thoughts, the easier your writing will be. That’s because you’ve already done most of the hard work! I like to at least have an outline with full introductory sentences, the main points in each paragraph, and the conclusion before formally writing.
When the outline is in a good place, it’s time to sit down and write. That’s it. Just write. Don’t re-read your work or try and edit. Turn on some good music, turn off any notifications on your phone, and wiggle your fingers across that keyboard. Sometimes it’s helpful to set yourself limits, like committing to writing for an hour or for 3,000 words, before you take a break. I’m analog when it comes to writing, so I’ll actually do this step on paper. Ugh…I know it sounds tedious, but it works for me. You do you.
Then, like a good steak, let it rest. Put your draft far away and resist the temptation to read it for at least a few days. Why? This helps you return to the paper later on with more of an outside perspective than if you just rush into editing.
After your draft has sat and stewed for a bit, come back and tear the thing apart. Be as critical as possible. The best way to do this is to actually print out the manuscript. Grab a red pen, just like your teachers used to do, and start critiquing. Focus on argument, sense, and keep an eye out for when you’ve deviated from your red thread. Don’t worry too much about grammar and spelling just yet. When you’re done with that first round of edits, incorporate everything into your manuscript and let it rest for a few more days. Then, return to the document and do the previous step once more, getting it as print-ready as possible.
The biggest hurdle writers have to face is actually getting their work out to the world. That’s why, unless it needs the help of a professional editor or is highly sensitive, I publish after only two full edits. If not, I’d be tempted to wordsmith the thing to death.
There you have it. My five-ish steps to getting thoughts on paper and published. Beyond the process, keep in mind a few other points.
Write on what you’re most passionate or knowledgeable about. Writing becomes Herculean when it’s a burden rather than a joy.
Distractions are your number one enemy while writing. You have to be in the right headspace. Anything that takes you out of that zone is detrimental.
Paper and pen are your friends. Use technology sparingly.
Keep the audience in mind, along with your red thread.
Rules were meant to be broken. Don’t let the intricacies of the English language stop you from writing. As long as it’s intelligible, don’t worry about a hanging participle or splice here and there.
Last, but not least, be yourself! Let your writing style, opinion, and unique story shine through.
For all the writers out there, what’s your process?