What Is The Writing Process
Nothing trips up an author faster than the idea that writing is a single act, completed in a single attempt, rather than a process. Where and when the belief began is irrelevant; what matters is that it is wrong. Today, we are going to dispel the myth and explain how a manuscript is created.
The writing process begins when you have an idea. It’s that simple. You then begin to play with that idea like a child plays with clay, building upon it until it becomes a little more solid, a little more real. In a process sometimes called brainstorming, or prewriting, you jot down little pieces of information. For fiction, it might be a character name, a location, or even a first sentence. For nonfiction, it might be an answer to a problem, research about a controversial figure, or even a thesis statement detailing what you believe and why. Think of the audience you’re trying to reach, and find a way to draw them in, whether through characters, story, or topic.
In an interview with Joe Schawbel of Forbes, author Elizabeth Gilbert said her prewriting process involves research:
I’m a heavy-duty researcher. My plots and characters begin with the vaguest and most simple ideas, which only take on weight and authority as I do my research. With “The Signature of All Things,” I was taking on so much that I researched for three years before I even began. And I also wrote a 70-page outline of the novel before I began, just to make sure I had every bit of the novel in place before beginning. I left little to chance!(1)
After brainstorming comes drafting. This is when you begin to form all the ideas from the prewriting process into a cohesive product. The good news is that there is no right or wrong way to draft a story. Whether at a coffee shop, in your home office, or in the checkout line at the store; in the early morning, afternoon, or middle of the night; alone, with a friend, or as part of a writer’s group, how you write is up to you and only you. All that matters is that you write.
After one, two, or several bursts of creativity, placing the final period on the final page can feel like major accomplishment—and it is, so make sure to celebrate! Be sure to take some time (a week or maybe even a month) away from the project to gain some perspective. Then it’s time to get back to work, to revision. Grab a pen, read through what you’ve written, and start clearing away nonessential characters, unnecessary subplots, pointless facts, and rambling descriptions. If something doesn’t move the book along, get rid of it.
In Secret Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, Stephen King put it bluntly but correctly: “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”
The process of revision can be greatly helped by employing beta, or test, readers. Find friends and family members who aren’t afraid to state their minds in a critical but helpful way, then use their best suggestions to make your manuscript stronger, more coherent, and the best possible fit for the audience you’re trying to reach. When taking their ideas into consideration, however, remember that the manuscript is yours and that in the end, your opinion is the one that matters most. If you disagree with any of the readers’ suggestions, go with your gut.
Once you’ve revised (and revised and revised), it’s time for the final step in the process: editing. Finding the right editor might take some effort but is definitely worth it. In a strong working partnership, the right editor can help take your manuscript from good to great. We suggest searching for someone who both understands and supports the message you’re trying to convey. You should feel comfortable asking questions of your editor while also trusting that he or she is working with the best interests of you—and your project—in mind.
Again, Stephen King: “One rule of the road . . . : ‘The editor is always right.’ The corollary is that no writer will take all of his or her editor’s advice; for all have sinned and fallen short of editorial perfection. Put another way, to write is human, to edit is divine.”(2)
The evolution of a book doesn’t happen in a day, a week, or even a month, and sometimes it’s even necessary to repeat the writing process steps of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. But don’t despair. The process may be long and difficult at times, but it’s well worth it. In fact, when working on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J. K. Rowling “wrote down the name, house, and magical powers of every single student of Hogwarts. She wrote down each magical spell and its use. She made drawings of all the major characters and scenes in the book to make them more real. She was meticulous in each aspect of the story, and that is why it is so perfect. Finally, after 5 long years, Rowling finished.”(3)
If, like Rowling, you can keep your goal in mind while maintaining discipline and determination, you can create a book you can be proud of.
2 Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.