Why you need a writing process more than a writing ritual (and a 12-step writing process to slay your writing demons)

“The Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse

Thank you to the kind reader who answered my question about this painting. It is “The Magic Circle” by John William Waterhouse.

Are you fascinated by other people’s writing habits and routines? I am. There’s a great series on Copyblogger called The Writer Files that profiles the writing lives of different business writers and authors. I hardly ever miss an installment.

I’m a sucker for the allure of the writerly way.

Though I love knowing who uses Scrivener vs. who uses a yellow legal pad and a blue felt-tip pen, I think as writers we have a penchant for getting overly caught up in the romance of the craft. We are, most of us, confessed addicts when it comes to new notebooks and writing utensils. We each of us crave a room of our own and aren’t shy about drooling (metaphorically or literally) over another writer’s creative space. We believe in the magic that comes with a lucky pencil, the inspiring scent of a particular candle, or a certain time of day. If you asked us to speak incantations over a shrine to the written word, we would hardly hesitate.

In short, we are disciples of the writing ritual. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. I love ritual as much (or more) than the next writer. Ritual is a sort of emotional preparation. Your ritual sets the stage for good, writerly things to happen. It gives you the right “feeling” and invites your muse to come out and play. On hard days, ritual can sometimes be the thing that tricks your mind into cooperating. Unfortunately, a writing ritual will not always work. By it’s nature, ritual is a bit intangible. You go through the motions – arranging things just so – but they may or may not get you to where you want to go. Ritual is, despite its best intentions, not always 100% effective.

Process, on the other hand, is a tool you can count on.

Where ritual taps into the “woo-woo” side of writing, process speaks to the “professionals-just-get-it-done” side . A process is predictable, repeatable, and it does not depend on the cooperation of your emotions. Ritual offers you a sense of hope by making offerings to the gods of writing along with a silent plea for literary brilliance. Process is a plan of attack. It is a tactical strategy. It’s how you can get things done … no matter what.

A process is a way to break “writing” down into a set of smaller, less daunting tasks. It sort of dissects how you get from idea to finished piece so that you can see the machinations behind the magic. It helps you to harness your creativity so that you are better able to direct it. DON’T WORRY – a process will not steal your creative soul. It will not rob your work of spontaneity. A process does not change the content or style of what you’re writing. It’s just a tool to help you write more easily and productively.

Let’s look at an example.  

Whether I’m writing an essay, a feature piece, or a website page for a copywriting client, my process is always pretty much the same and it looks something like this:

  1. Define the goals for the piece. No matter the piece, I’m always trying to make a point by giving my reader the answer to the question, “So what?” Getting as clear as possible about how my piece will answer that question before I start writing is a big part of what saves me from late nights of endless rewrites. Looking at the piece through this lens helps me focus my thoughts and, eventually, my words so that I stay “on point.”
  2. Review the reference materials. Sometimes these are interview notes. Sometimes they are my own scribbled thoughts. Sometimes they are other articles, books, white papers, or websites. At this point, I’m immersing myself in the material. I’m taking it all in so that I can get the lay of the land, so to speak. I want to know what’s already out there and be able to compare and contrast that to the idea in my head. I want to be able to pull relevant references and quotes into my work so that I can help my reader connect the dots. This is the research phase. NOTE: You’ve often heard the advice not to get too caught up in the research phase. It’s good advice. Research can appear deceptively productive even when you’ve long passed the point of learning anything new. Set boundaries and stick to them. Don’t wander too far down the rabbit hole.
  3. Take notes. Craft a mind map. Make an outline. Whatever method you prefer, this is the stage where you put your thoughts in order. My favorite method is the mind map. If the piece is short, I just scribble one by hand. If the project is larger, I use a software called MindManager which allows me to reorganize elements and also include copious notes, hyperlinks, and documents. I love a good mind map.
  4. When possible, simmer. At this point, if time allows, I will walk away from the piece for a day or so. I’ll be honest. I don’t often have that luxury, but when I do I always find that stepping away from the work for even a brief time is immensely helpful in terms of gaining perspective and clarity. After taking a break from the work, I will return and noodle a bit with my mind map. I always find that I’m able to make improvements that I might otherwise have overlooked. If you can, it’s worth it to build this time into your schedule.
  5. Plug in headlines and subheads. Though these may not always exist in the final draft (as with an essay, for instance), they often do apply to the finished product (blog posts, articles, web pages, even novels if you consider chapter titles as headlines). In addition to further clarifying my intentions for the content and flow of the piece, putting headlines and subheads down on paper is an easy way to get something on the blank page so it isn’t so darn blank any more. It transcribes part of my mind map onto my working document so that I have a basic structure in place before I even start writing the narrative. This is a trick that many of my writer friends use to ward off writer’s block.
  6. Write the (5#!tty) first draft. Not that you’re aiming for crap, but the point of the first draft is simply to get it out of your head and onto paper. Sometimes, that might look a little like vomiting on the page. That’s ok. Again, I’m going to be honest and ‘fess up that I am a notorious idiot when it comes to editing as I write. I know this is neither helpful to my creative flow or – ultimately – beneficial to the quality of the finished product, but I can’t seem to help myself. Anyway – do what you can to avoid my mistake and just write the damn thing. Seriously.
  7. Take another break. Again, if possible, make time to step away after you’ve finished the first draft. First drafts are rarely pretty. Give yourself the chance to gather your strength before looking that beast in the eye. Breathe. Go for a walk. Work on something else. Do whatever it takes to put a little emotional distance between you and your creation so that when you come back you can look at it with a teensy bit more objectivity.
  8. Review your goals. At this point, it’s a good idea to go back to the beginning. Even though it might be scary, you should take a look back at what you were planning to accomplish when you started out and see if, by some miracle, the first draft bears any resemblance to the vision in your head. It doesn’t have to be perfect (remember, it’s a first draft), but it should align with the basic gist of your initial intentions. If not, now is the time to see what kind of triage you can perform to get it back to where it’s supposed to be.
  9. Read your work aloud. Never, ever skip this step.  There is something about reading words aloud that exposes all kinds of flaws in the writing. This is a Good Thing. Believe me. I read all my work aloud. My cats probably think I’m insane, but that’s okay. As I read, I make on-the-fly edits (if the fix is a quick one) and highlight bits that need a heavier hand. I never regret taking this step.
  10. Revise and edit your piece. These should, perhaps, be two separate steps, but I’m combining them because – for me – they both fall under the “re-do” part of the writing process. I recently read somewhere that revision should be thought of as just that: “re-visioning” your work. Revising is not spellchecking or even making changes in your narrative voice. Revising is actually making structural or conceptual changes. I know, it sounds scary, but it’s part of the process. Editing, on the other hand, is more in-the-weeds tactical. Editing is about word choice and sentence structure and grammar. It’s less invasive, but equally important to the overall quality of your work.
  11. (Optional) Share with beta readers. At this stage, when you’re (hopefully) feeling pretty good about what you’ve written, you may choose to share with beta readers – those people you trust to give you honest, constructive feedback. My mom is my beta reader, and she rocks. Some people prefer to put their first draft in the hands of beta readers raw (as in, pre-revision and editing), but I’d rather show a more finished product.
  12. Proofread your work. Finally, with all your revising and editing done and any additional changes made based on beta reader feedback, you can put that final polish on your work with a thorough proofreading. If possible, it’s best to have someone else (a professional, optimally) do this for you (it’s difficult for any writer to proofread his or her own work), but if that’s not possible just do your best with spellcheck and other available tools. Based on what I see out there, many people don’t even bother with that, so you’ll already be ahead of the curve.

Twelve repeatable, manageable steps – that’s how I tackle pretty much any writing project on my docket.  It may seem like a lot at first glance, but it’s the act of breaking “writing” down into all those smaller tasks that is the magic of a writing process. Think about it. What’s scarier – “write essay” or “define essay goals”? By looking at your writing as a series of not-so-scary steps, you can just get down to the business of writing without having to worry about whether your writing ritual is going to do the trick this time.

That isn’t to say you should toss your writing ritual out the window. Not at all. I love my ritual – tea, a fresh page in my notebook, two cats nearby to cheer me on – and wouldn’t give it up for the world. I just like the fact that because I also have a writing process, I don’t have to rely on the ritual to make magic. I know how to do that all on my own.

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Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Photo Credit: freeparking 😐 via Compfight cc

47 thoughts on “Why you need a writing process more than a writing ritual (and a 12-step writing process to slay your writing demons)

  1. Hey Jamie,

    This is a very informative and well-written piece. I appreciate how you outlined the process. Sometimes, i get too caught up with just finishing my blog posts and miss out on some important steps along the way.

    Thank you!

    • You’re so welcome. I’m glad you found it helpful.
      And I totally get it about getting caught up with “just finishing.” Having to rush is my least favorite thing.
      Happy writing!

  2. I find #4 and 7 very important in letting things percolate. I often come up with ideas, characters, etc. that end up being crucial to the story, sometimes when I’m not consciously thinking of the writing.

    • I agree 100%. I do not always have the luxury of time, but there is something magical that happens in the “white space” between drafts.

    • Guilty as charged. It’s tough. You want to make things as perfect as you can, but I’m beginning to learn that the most efficient way to do that is to just get the first draft out as best you can and THEN edit. It’s much easier to work towards perfection when you already have something to work on. 😉

  3. Reblogged this on Payt's Blog and commented:
    A nice post by Jamie Wallace, this is roughly how I go about my writing, but it’s always nice to here how someone else views the writing process.

  4. An artist once told me, “You can’t edit what you have never written.” I try to remember that and silently chant that in my head to overcome that first leap onto a blank screen or pristine page.
    And I am a HUGE believer in reading your work out loud. So much is heard, and what you may want to hear is missing, when you read your drafts out loud, or hear someone else read them to you. So many times I’ll read someone else’s writing and ask, “Did you read this out loud?” The writers I do not like I find are “tone deaf.”

    • “Tone deaf” – that’s a great way to describe writing that falls short because it’s never been read aloud.

      And SO true about being unable to edit what you haven’t written. Write first. Edit second. It’s a tough thing to learn, but important.

      TKS for coming by. 🙂

    • You’re welcome. I love that painting, too. It’s full of such mystery – could inspire a story, to be sure. I just wish I could remember who painted it!

      TKS for being here.

    • Each writer will find the process that’s the best fit, but I think there are definitely things to be learned from studying other writers’ habits. That’s part of why I enjoy the “writer files” series so much.

      Happy writing!

  5. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

    I have spent the past 9-months learning and discovering new and amazing knowledgeable details and quirks that all writer possess. I’m beginning to feel not so out of place reading the comments posted in this blog posting.

    You have provided insight and great advice. I have signed on to receive the “The Writers Files”. Again thanks for the posting.

    • You’re so very welcome. Good for you for taking time to study writers and the writing craft. And, I’m happy to know you’re not feeling out of place. 🙂

      Enjoy the “Writer Files.” Great series!

  6. Hi Jamie. Thank you for being brave enough to share your process. I’m still creating mine, because I haven’t written enough novels to know what works and doesn’t work.

    But, I’m starting to find a way which helps me through the first draft…scene by scene.

    Maybe, someday, you can give us hints, or point us to a book which tells us how to revise. Once I get past that, I will see if the book Self Editing for Fiction Writers works. Ha.

    Silent

    • I haven’t written any novels yet, either. Perhaps some of the other Live to Write – Write to Live authors can chime in on that front. My process works well for the shorter pieces I typically write and can also (I bet) be adapted to longer form work.

      As for self-editing … it’s tricky. I haven’t seen any great resources on how to do that well, but I will now definitely keep my eyes open. Seems like a topic that should have tons of coverage since it’s a place where so many writers have trouble. Interesting question. Thanks for asking.

  7. Great post Jamie….”We each of us crave a room of our own and aren’t shy about drooling (metaphorically or literally) over another writer’s creative space,” made it feel so much like me. Thank god! I am not alone….

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  13. Thank you for your ideas. I appreciate knowing what “real” writers do. I hope as I grow in my writings to obtain some of these skills as well. So, thank you:)

    • You’re very welcome. Thanks for being here and taking the time to comment. 🙂
      Good luck on your writing journey!

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