Back in college, I had an English professor who talked about her “process” all the time. She talked about slaving over a piece day and night until worried friends finally took the type-written pages from her sweaty hands and turned them in for her because she never felt like her writing was good enough. Of course, once it was submitted, it was accepted and praised. The message my eighteen-year-old self took from hearing a semester’s worth of this kind of talk was that a writer’s process was necessarily difficult and even painful. I didn’t take any more English classes during my undergraduate career.
For years I thought all writers had the same process and I thought it was more difficult that a career in medicine.
Now, many years later, I realize each writer has their own process, and it’s up to each writer to figure out what process suits them best. Over time, I have come to see when and how I write best. Not just whether or not I’m a “seat-of-the-pants” writer or a “plotter,” although that’s good to know. (I’m more of a “seat-of-the-pants” writer, although I have been known to outline. Every writer has a different process and what works for one writer doesn’t work for every writer.
Here are some aspects of “process” my English teacher never mentioned:
Environment: What kind of environment do you like to write in? I write best at my desk in my home office, but if I have an idea and a few minutes, I can write almost anywhere. I like cafés unless there is a very loud conversation going on right next to me. Many conversations are much better than just one as they all become background noise. I also need to be physically comfortable—not too cold, especially. If a café is so cold I don’t want to take my coat off, I get my coffee to go. Driving home takes some time, but sitting in a cold café focusing on how uncomfortable I am takes a lot more time—and energy—that I could have used on writing.
Timeframe: Do you have to plan out your writing or can you just dive in any time? I write my best when I’ve given myself a chance to think about my topic over a few days (or a few weeks.) Then I take the pressure off by telling myself “I’ll just write about this for 15 minutes and see what happens.” If I carve out a big block of time to write on “this,” (whatever “this” is,) I will stall until I’ve wasted the precious time and have nothing to show for it. Even if I know I have two hours to write, I’ll tell myself I’m only going to spend 15 minutes on “this.” It’s my version of Anne Lamott’s “*&%$ First Drafts.”
Time of Day: What time of day or night works best for you? I know I do my best writing early in the day, but I now often write in the evenings, too. I just don’t rewrite and polish at night because my brain isn’t at its sharpest then. If I have thoughts or ideas waiting to be written, I can spew them out onto the page in the evening and rewrite in the morning.
Rewriting: How do you approach the rewriting process? Once I have something down, I can go back in and rewrite and add to the piece without feeling the pressure. My fascination with words, from grammar to style to creativity, kicks in and I can keep going. I always enjoy returning to a piece because I’m usually surprised at how much I like and want to keep. Even if I don’t like what I’ve written, I can usually see what’s wrong after a break from the piece. I recently came back to a blog post that wasn’t coming together and immediately saw that it had two major ideas in it and needed to be broken into two different blog posts.
Managing Distractions: How do you do it? At last fall’s New England Crime Bake (a mystery writer’s conference), a best-selling author I admire said her latest book would have been published a year earlier if it wasn’t for Facebook. Since that comment, I’ve been much more careful about eliminating distractions. I sit at my desk and use the Post-it Note method. If I think of something that needs doing while I’m writing, I just put it on a Post-It note (or, if I’m at a cafe, I put it on my phone under Reminders.) Once “buy toilet paper,” or “pick up salad greens” is out of my head and on a note somewhere, I can get back to writing.
Knowing how and when I work best has helped me arrange my day better to increase my output as a writer. It also gives me permission to put my laptop away and move on when, say, a loud conversation starts at the table next to me in the café.
Do you know what your ideal writing process is?
Diane MacKinnon: is a writer, blogger, master life coach, and family physician. I just discovered Bookbub and immediately downloaded six books to my Kindle app. Is this yet another distraction I’m going to have to manage?!