For too much of my life I had the impression that writing was something that happened to you because the gods of inspiration had chosen you, not something that you did.
The result was helpless frustration. I sought ways to make my elusive moments of inspiration visit me more often. I wanted to know how to trick, entrap, and seduce them into being my servants, not coy and elusive ghosts.
The culture of writing fueled my obsession with mystical phenomena like talent and inspiration, but there was too little mention of a greater power which is entirely controllable: process.
My writing improved dramatically once I began to treat writing as a multi-step process, and not something I had to get right the first time. Not only did my new approach make my work more enjoyable; the quality of my work became more consistent, and when I was pleased with my writing, I wanted to write even more.
I had spent my life trying to plan, create my content, and determine my presentation all in a single stroke of a pen. When I began to concentrate on doing one task at a time, writing felt almost effortless – no fairy dust required.
Writing is not magic, regardless of how it sometimes feels. Richard Dawkins in his book The Magic of Reality says magic, as commonly defined, is moving from simplicity to complexity, disorder to intricate design, without any steps in between. A genie can blink a monkey into existence fully formed.
In nature, that does not happen. It took billions of years for a single cell to reach the complexity of a human. Many thousands of incremental genetic mutations had to occur, and to persist they had to be conducive to survival.
The writing process is similar. Like a monkey, great writing is not likely to be blinked into existence. When a passage of a novel dazzles me, when I marvel at how much the author knows about a particular subject, when the perfect metaphor sets off shockwaves in my brain, when I am in awe of an emotion perfectly conveyed, I suspect it is due to a good, multi-stage process layered beneath the flashy surface.
Experience-wise, a reliable, multi-stage process produces the same effortless flow, and even fun, that inspiration is supposed to bring. Process does not encumber; it relieves. Without having to plan, create, and edit all at once, my mind is free to roam. Thus, I can explore my story at leisure instead of panicking because I have no idea what to do next.
With a process I always know what to do next. In fact, writing sometimes feels almost too easy, like cheating. In an episode of The Simpsons, Bart begins to study hard and becomes a straight A student. When his sister asks him how it felt to have studied for a test before taking one, he says, “It was just like cheating – only with my mind.” Separating writing into discrete stages delivers a similar feeling, even though on the surface it looks harder and more complex than the way writers author books in movies.
I have never seen a writer in a movie planning a novel in a spiral notebook; the writer is either grinding his teeth because he is blocked or typing furiously, as if there is never a moment of doubt about where to go next.
However, in writing, the direct path is not necessarily easier.
What has made my writing easier is erecting a clear divide between deciding what I want to say and how I want to say it. Specifically, I want to separate the creative planning and rough draft stages from the tasks of revision, editing, and polishing.
While planning sounds tight and cerebral, it can actually be loose and relaxing. I use a process called clustering. I have always found plot outlines to be too linear and constricting. Clustering it is not linear at all, but radial.
The radial model removes pressure from my imagination. I can focus on creating without having to commit to any specific order. I begin my planning by selecting a theme, topic, or mood I want to explore.
To cluster, I represent one of them as an evocative word or phrase. For example I might write the word “cruelty” and circle it as my nucleus; then I would draw lines radiating from the nuclear word “cruelty.” At their endpoints I would write new free-associated words which would become new centers, related words such as “darkness,” “evil,” “morality,” or “guilt.”
The associations can be illogical or even random. They often trigger personal associations from childhood, like bullies or my first encounter with death. I write “bullying” or “death” and keep drawing lines from the new central words and attaching new words until I end up with a complex-looking map.
As my mind furiously searches for patterns in the apparent chaos, a direction will almost always emerge, a story I want to tell, a poem I have to write, or an insight I long to explore. The shift from uncertainty to a clear direction often feels euphoric.
Clustering is the easiest part of my process because my mind does not even register it as “writing,” so the inner voice that sometimes criticizes me when I write looks the other way.
Despite how easy clustering is, it is the most powerful technique I know for generating ideas; it also means that when I begin to write my rough draft, I am not creating something from nothing, which for me is the most anxiety-inducing aspect of writing.
If I do start to feel lost or “stuck” while penning my rough draft, I can always refer to my map of clustered words for ideas, so that it is easy to keep my hand moving. That is a good thing because keeping my hand moving is really the only rule I have for writing rough drafts.
Some writers only view a rough draft as a first draft, whereas I view it as an entirely separate species of writing.
Thus, some writers try to get their first draft as close to perfect as they can on the first try; then they go back and correct the grammar. Other writers revise agonizingly as they go, trying to perfect each paragraph before proceeding to the next.
That is how I tried writing for many years, and only ended up frustrated. It was a huge relief when I finally learned to keep the rough draft stage entirely distinct from the editing. To make the separation physical, I always pen my rough drafts in a cheap spiral notebook, whereas I revise them on my laptop.
Writing in a notebook with a pen signals my brain that anything goes, including trite phrases, sentence fragments, mangled grammar, and dull prose. With a pen it is difficult to make changes, and that works in my favor by removing the temptation to fuss over wording.
Next I type my hand-written rough draft, making changes as I go. Since I already know my content I am free to focus exclusively on how to say what I want to say. Again, it is far easier to focus on that one task than it is to fret over content creation and presentation at once. Sometimes “block” is just a word for trying to do too many creative tasks at the same time.
Even unskilled beginners can benefit from breaking the writing process into small steps. If you already know your content, you are free to experiment with aspects of presentation such as rhythm, sentence length, and metaphor; that is, you can focus fully on how best to say what you want to say.
A great advantage of using a multi-step process is it keeps writing moving at all times. I never panic or get stuck. I always know what the next step is, and that contributes to the experience of flow, a state where time seems to stand still and I am fully immersed in what I am doing.
Of course, every writer is different. My goal is not to sell my specific process as the best in the world, but to illustrate how each step of the writing process becomes far easier when you focus on it alone. There is no wrong way to cluster, so it is easy. Writing a rough draft is also easy because anything goes, including triteness, botched grammar, and silliness.
Even if I lose concentration, I can always refer to my clustered words to get my hand moving along the page again. Typing my rough draft is also easy, too; once I am on the computer, I cannot help but make changes if I see something wrong; it feels instinctual, automatic, and effortless.
Writing becomes most difficult at the very end, when I am getting my imaginary world ready for readers to come inside and look around. However, the final polish is also the most gratifying stage because my writing is more likely to flatter me due to all the steps I have put into it.
It is when I try to skip steps that writing becomes daunting and difficult, when I try to conform to the one-step model of writing that most people seem to accept – which looks like a shortcut but which is actually the most inefficient path.
I prefer the lazy, meandering back roads to the straight but crowded highway. Many writing shortcuts are not really shortcuts at all, but paths to hair-pulling frustration. For me, the “long way” features the most scenic views and the most enjoyable trip, while leading to the most exciting destination.
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