At a recent gathering, an old friend of mine mentioned his son had taken up writing and he wondered if I’d be able to give him some pointers on the writing process. Unfortunately, I was only in town for a couple of days and wasn’t able to meet with his son, so today I’m taking a break from my Lessons in Publishing series to talk about the writing process to a new writer.
First, it’s important to note that every writer has their own process. It takes a lot of experience not to mention experimentation to figure out a system that works. I have often recommended that a writer keep a diary and track how different factors affect their writing. I did this a few years ago, and by looking at everything from the external environment down to the subject matter of the story, I was able to paint a picture for myself of my ideal writing conditions.
Most of these factors that go into ideal writing conditions are personal and unique to the individual, so I’ll focus this article on the mechanics. The items I list may not work for every writer but I do believe they will work for most. It’s a system which is hardly revolutionary or unique.
Know where you’re going
The very first thing and perhaps the most important is to have an idea of where your story is going. Writing a first chapter is the easiest part of writing. Writing more than six chapters is a monumental challenge. And not having an idea of what’s going to happen will make the hurdle harder.
I would recommend in nearly all cases to avoid beginning a story unless you know what the ending will be. You don’t need to know every single detail of how you’ll get there—although you could (there is something to be said for outlining). But for the sake of this discussion, I’m keeping to the basics: so you need to know your ending and have a short-term story goal.
A short-term story goal is a significant event that you need to reach. The advantage of having this short-term goal is it gives you a very concrete place in the plot to get your characters to, which makes it easier to develop the action to get them there (for example, if the goal was to open a treasure chest, your character would first need to enter the cave and find a key. So the goal dictates character actions). Another advantage is that reaching one of these milestone goals provide a sense of accomplishment. Of course, it’ll be short lived as you’ll have to come up with the next one, but little by little, like a trail of breadcrumbs, the story will move toward the ending.
The next step is the rough draft. When I first started writing, I tried to my rough draft as perfect as I could. After years of using this tactic, I came to the conclusion that it was the worst way to approach it.
How do I do my rough draft now? Quick and dirty.
The rough draft should be an attempt to get your ideas down on paper as quickly as you can. Occasionally, something magically inspired comes out of this, but more frequently it produces prose that is clunky and bland. But the benefit is that you don’t get hung up on finding that perfect word or the best way to open a scene. By purposely writing a draft with errors you help silence your inner critic and create a finished story you can then correct. Yes, it will need a lot of work to fix up to be in a readable state, but it has often been said: you can’t fix what you haven’t written. So get it down and then put it aside.
When you first write something it is nearly impossible to be objective about it. You’ll either think it’s wonderful or that it’s awful. So set it aside for a few weeks or a few months. The exact time will depend a lot on the project and your writing goals. But the time away, even brief, will be beneficial. It will give you a clearer look at your own writing and it will also give you time to see elements that your story needs and you may have missed the first time around.
When I’m writing serially, I usually try and write six or more chapters before I start editing this gives me the time between writing and editing I need, and it creates a constant rolling schedule, where I’m roughing and editing two separate parts of the book at the same time.
Mark it up
Once you pull your manuscript out of the drawer or retrieve it from a forgotten corner of the hard drive, read through it and mark it up. You may want to print out a copy to do this, but personally, I prefer using the highlight feature on my word processor and typing notes straight onto it (I hate trying to line up written notes with what’s on my computer screen and prefer to have it all in front of me).
Now what you want to do with this read-through is fix nothing and change nothing. Just make note of what needs work. What words don’t work. What sentences need to be expanded on. What needs to be added. What needs to be removed. By doing this you give yourself the space to be critical. The general rule is if it reads wrong to you, it probably needs improvement.
If you try to change things at this stage, it will be easy to get bogged down trying to come up with the right words. Or it’ll be easy to say “this is alright” because the changes you may have to make might frighten you. Essentially rip the story apart and worry about fixing it on the next step. But be specific in your notes. Highlighting a whole paragraph as being in need of rewriting won’t be as helpful as identifying what is wrong with it.
The hard edit
The next step is the hard edit. This is where you take the time to fix all the things from the markup stage. Take whatever time you need to address every single one of your notes. This can take a long, long time. I spend more time on this stage than any other in the process. It isn’t easy and usually isn’t fun, but this is where the writing begins to take shape and starts to resemble the final product.
Polish, polish, polish
Once you’ve made the tough changes in the hard edit, you’re ready to clean it up. You’ll likely find that as a result of some of the changes that were made lines that seemed fine before now no longer read smoothly. You will also start to notice problems you didn’t the first time around. As you fix the major issues, the minor ones will become more glaring. So you will need to polish it up.
Set a predetermined number of passes you’ll go through. I typically go with three (although it varies depending on the state of the text). Try changing the formatting or even your editor between each pass. I’ll change the font size and also switch between Word and Google Docs for different edits. It’s surprising how effective that change in perspective is. And I recommend setting a limit on the number of passes because you could easily keep rewriting it until mountains crumble and stars die out. A limit gives you a point to stop at, but if you honestly don’t think it’s ready, give it another pass or two, just beware of infinite revisions.
Just the beginning
Looking this over this, I realize there was a lot I didn’t deal with, in particular fixing plot issues and structure. These are really just the basics and they may not be the right basics for you, but most authors I’ve spoken to about process, use some variation on this. If you don’t know where to start, it’s not a bad place.