Oh, writing. Isn’t it funny to have a hobby that is so satisfying but also sometimes feels like torture? This is said in jest because, truly, the need to create is so innate we must do so lest we combust.
This is what it means to be an artist, what it feels like to have stories within that need to be told.
They are clawing their way out of our imaginations, laying themselves spread out on the page for all to see. Where the art of generating ideas is as easy as breathing or more painful than banging your head against a brick wall. There is no space in between.
There’s a method to this madness. A writing process, if you will. If you’re just starting out as a writer (as we all do at some point), there might be questions floating in your mind that are a little intimidating to ask. Where do I start? How do I do it? What is the process? The answers . . . are right here.
What Are the Steps of the Writing Process?
1. Brainstorm: This is, without a doubt, the easiest part of the writing process. All you need to do is let your mind play! If you’re writing some sort of fiction, you’re either writing in response to a prompt given to you by an instructor, one you came across online, or – the best feeling ever – your imagination sparked a story idea all on its own. Once you have that idea, write it down!
The worst thing you can do is convince yourself that you’ll remember the idea. Because you won’t. Write that stuff down, my friend.
Depending on your style of artistry, you might brainstorm by creating a mind map (circle, bubble, web, bridge, etc.), or listing your ideas as bullet points on a piece of paper or the notes app on your phone. Writing a paragraph as one of your main characters can help get you into the zone. Or maybe you’re someone who needs to get physical to get those creative juices flowing.
Aaron Sorkin, creator and writer of The West Wing and other primetime hits, has said that he has done some of his best brainstorming in the shower. Why? Because studies show that your mind is actually more creative when it’s relaxed or focused on doing something unrelated to your thought process.
Side note: Think of a brainstorm session with the exact imagery it conjures – it’s a storm. In your brain. Ideas are blowing every which way. Some of them are good enough to risk protecting. Some can be tossed out once the dust settles. It’s messy.
2. Outline: This is where you make sense of the productive mess you created while brainstorming. Plan your story out, chapter by chapter, or plot point by plot point. There are suggested formats for outlining, but some creative minds find formulaic outlines stifling. However, you might find that creating an outline as simple as writing a few sentences describing the main events that will happen in each chapter is sufficient. The goal here is to plan the big points in your story, knowing that every single part (sentence, paragraph, page, chapter) must work to move the story toward its ending. So, if you keep that in mind, how you outline your story is entirely up to you.
This works just as well if you’re writing nonfiction. When I was writing essays as a college undergrad, I found it helpful to draw rectangles representing each page of the essay I was planning. Then, on each rectangle, I would imagine what the essay would look like and the order of each paragraph. Sounds weird, but it got the job done. Nobody is grading your thought process. They only want the published draft to be stellar. So do what it takes and ignore what others say. The best thing you can do is what you find works best for you.
The only wrong thing you can do with an outline is skip it altogether.
Few Things are More Taunting than a Blinking Cursor on a Blank Page
In our worst moments as writers, it can feel like we’re incapable of keeping up with our daydream. It’s what we call writer’s block. It can last an hour; it can last a year. It hurts. Thankfully, though, there are things we can do to chip away at the wall keeping us from telling the stories that need to be told. Here are five things to try during those moments when words evade us:
- Read. It’s true. Reading something totally in our wheelhouse or far out of our comfort zone can help inspire your own writing. Try to enjoy the book without an agenda (no craft analysis, thoughts of how you might do it differently, etc.). Go back to the time when you read without the brain of a writer. Don’t overthink it. Just read.
- Relax! Do some yoga. Get outside for a walk on the beach or through the park. Take a nap. Do something that will refocus your attention on the priorities of existence. Sometimes we can stunt our own thinking by trying too hard to come up with something to say.
- Go to an art gallery or museum. Be a patron of the arts. Writing is art, of course, but other mediums can inspire our words too. Look at a painting and make up a story about the subject. Every work of art is telling a story. Figure out what they are saying to you.
- Play make-believe with a kid. You know who uses their imagination without fear of judgment? Kiddos. Their minds are limitless because every possibility is still an option for their young lives. Hang out with a kid for an hour and see what wild worlds they take you too. Then try to be like them.
- Do the dishes. Clean the house. Pop in your AirPods, turn on some music, and let your mind wander while you wipe down the baseboards and put away the dishes. When you’re focused on a mindless task your imagination is under less pressure. Keep your notes app open and your phone nearby – you’re about to do some epic thinking.
3. First draft: Now, this is an entirely subjective statement, but it is for sure the hardest step in the writing process. Here, ideas grow arms and legs and become characters in the shape of simple and complex sentences. The ideas that were born in your brainstorm, that become solidified in your outline, are now fully fleshed out in your first draft. And it won’t be great. Fine at best, but certainly not something you’d turn into an instructor or publisher.
Allow yourself to make mistakes in your first draft. Often, writers can get caught up in the perfection of their craft, afraid to move onto the next sentence because the one they are on isn’t yet worthy of a Pulitzer. There’s a thick line between writing your first draft knowing it’s full of flaws and writing that same first draft thinking that it’s flawless.
Artistry as a writer involves a balance of attention to detail and grace for yourself during the first draft.
They say that the first draft is for you alone, the writer. It’s where you tell the story that you want to tell. If you don’t believe me, just ask these guys:
There are so many quotes to source for advice on the first draft and there’s a reason for it. It’s painful. Every writer wants to know, “How do I make writing the first draft less torturous?” Everyone gives their input and at the end of the day, we get through it. Then we workshop it and do it all over again.
Ask Any Writer Their Best Piece of Advice for Getting a Story Onto the Page and You’ll Hear Similar Messages Made in Various Ways
Some will tell you to read, others will say guard yourself from the disillusion of waiting for inspiration. The point is, you’ve got to get words onto the page because the only way through it is to do it. Here is some sage advice from those who’ve done it before us.
4. Workshop: This is the fun part if you’ve got a good group of fellow writers and a thick skin. It is crucial that you find a group of writers (even just one other writer will do) rather than asking someone who is unfamiliar with the prompt and a stranger to the craft of writing. Keep in mind that just because someone likes to read books it doesn’t mean they can offer advice. A reader is someone who can consume your work and tell you that they liked it or disliked it, and why. A peer in a workshop, however, will read your story at least once, write notes in the margins about your sentence structure, line edits, analyze the word choice, and the artistic impact. They will ask why your character made a certain choice, tell you the symbolic meaning of something that you wrote without realizing how important it is to the plot.
A workshop is more powerful than asking your non-writer bestie to read it because it is made up of trained writers. They have a goal similar to yours, and just as they offer feedback on your piece, you reciprocate.
As a new(ish) writer it can feel like you’re supposed to change everything that someone offers in their feedback. Ignore that feeling to please your reader just because they said to change something. A workshop is meant to make observations and offer suggestions for rewrites. It is not an opportunity for someone to come along and chop out characters or fill plot holes with their own words. If they want to write a story with those suggestions, they can go ahead and do that on their own time. What they are here for is critique that shines a light on the good and offers suggestions for the places that need some work.
If you’re a people pleaser at all, now is the time to become discerning of the information that is helpful and the stuff that doesn’t fit with the vision you have for your story. Listen to your writerly friends but write with your heart.
5. “Final” draft: Please tell us you’re laughing as hard as I am over here. Whoever coined the term “final draft” is the biggest gaslighter ever. Why say something is final when we all know good and well that writing is never complete. There are only drafts that are good enough to go to print.
It’s been ingrained in us since elementary school that the last draft is the final draft, so for the sake of common terminology we’ll keep it. But know this: The last draft isn’t final. It’s just the one you can proudly share with an audience. You’ve ironed out the wrinkles, tied up loose ends, crossed all your T’s and dotted the I’s, and any other cliche you can think of that shows you have put in the work to transform what began as an idea into the full-bodied wonder of a story.
Editing is Always the Final, Final Step in Writing Anything Worth Reading
There’s a saying in the industry that goes like this: Kill your darlings. For your writing to be any good you’ve got to know what to cut.
Get rid of all the lines, words, pages, etc. that aren’t working to propel the plot. Kill those little darlings.
Because we’ve been looking at our pages longer than anyone else has, it’s sometimes hard to know what is superfluous and what stays. This is why workshops are so necessary. Someone else with an understanding of the craft and a fresh set of eyes can approach your story and see what needs to be cut – may it be a word or a character. Your attachment to them will be strong, your reaction to the suggestion might be ugly. Sometimes we write something that feels so good to the heart and sounds so good to the ear. But that’s not enough for it to justify placement in the piece. It’s got to go.
Imagine your story as a diamond in the rough. It already looks pretty cool, but it needs a great deal of work to let that baby sparkle. You have got to get it to the most clear and accurate depiction as possible. Before you start chipping away, here’s a checklist of things to look for while editing: