The writing process

Do you have a hard time writing? Can’t translate ideas and thoughts into words in a satisfying way? Fear not. I’m about to share a diagram which demystifies the whole thing, a diagram which makes putting together a stonking-good collection of sentences and paragraphs an achievable feat rather than an scary ambition. Here it is:
As you can see, there are only two points in time that matter in the creation of a piece of writing: when you start and when you ship. Every other point is irrelevant. It’s also worth noting that “start” does not mean “begin writing”. To start means, quite simply, to decide to write.

In between “start” and “ship” there are five indistinct stages. The stage of “Ideation & Research” takes place both before and after you start writing. It is observation, wondering, the collection of evidence, the generation and assimilation of ideas. It is the asking of questions and the exploration of potential answers, and it can last for days, or for decades. The “Outlining” stage is where ideas are aligned and begin to take on a shape, flow or form. It involves the creation of a certain order from seeming chaos. The “Drafting” stage is where the work begins. It is where you take an abstract entity and bring it into concrete reality. Alchemy is performed; ideas become words, sentences and paragraphs. The “Macro-Editing” stage is the domain of major structural and content changes. It is this stage in which things are cut, added, expanded, minimised, re-organised and experimented with. At this point nothing is sacred and everything is liable to be re-worked. The “Micro-Editing” stage is where minor structural and content changes take place. You’re happy with the overall structure and you’ve made peace with what’s included and what’s not. All that remains is to take a magnifying glass and examine the piece at a sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word level. This is where you look at the nuts and bolts of the writing: punctuation, word choice, rhythm, style, tone, tense, all that fun stuff.

Now, there remains only two things to say about the writing process, and they are perhaps the most important. The first is an explanation of what “thrashing” is. It’s a word I picked up from Seth Godin’s Linchpin. He describes it as so:

“Thrashing is essential. The question is: when to thrash?
In the typical amateur project, all the thrashing is near the end. The closer we get to shipping, the more people get involved, the more meetings we have, the more likely the CEO wants to be involved. And why not? What’s the point of getting involved early when you can’t see what’s already done and your work will probably be redone anyway?
The point of getting everyone involved early is simple: thrash late and you won’t ship. Thrash late and you introduce bugs. Professional creators thrash early. The closer the project gets to completion, the fewer people see it and the fewer changes are permitted.”

In our conception of the writing process, thrashing happens in the first four stages. As Godin points out, the closer you get to the ship date the more expensive and risky thrashing becomes. Which brings me to the final point I want to make about the writing process: although you can break it down into five stages, you must remember that these stages bleed into one another. The progression from one to the next is never linear. We are always having ideas and incorporating fresh research. We are always evaluating the outline and narrative structure. We are, until a very late stage, making changes, putting in and cutting out. Which is why a definite ship date is so important. Without a deadline, without a done-by date, we can go on endlessly playing and altering. Only by bumping into a hard constraint like a date can we switch from creating to shipping, from wanting and wishing to having done.