I have always loved writing, but I haven’t always been good at it. I used to see writing as something that you had to get right the first time or you were no good. Throughout school and while sitting standardized exams, I would maybe write a brief outline before I started, but time constraints meant that there wasn’t much opportunity for revision or proofreading.
In college this changed. As I was given more time to complete papers (i.e. not in a sports hall with a stopwatch counting down), I started to develop more of an identity not only as a writer, but as an editor of my own work. I began to realise with the help of my professors that your first draft is absolutely not expected to be a finished product, and all writers, no matter how good they are, go through a process with their work.
Long story short, writing is really hard, and the writing process looks different for everyone. Mine is not the ‘right’ way to write. Only you know what will work best for you and that comes with time, trial, and lots (and lots) of error.
I asked some people for questions about my writing process. Here are 5 of my favourite questions followed by my responses:
1. What’s the hardest part about writing for you and does your writing follow the same pattern every time?
The hardest part about writing for me is getting started. Staring at a blank piece of paper or word document can be really intimidating. When I start feeling like it’s all too much, I just have to dive right in and see what happens. A bit like getting into an ice cold pool at 6am for swim practice!
And no, my writing doesn’t look the same each time. There is a widely accepted order to the writing process: pre-writing → research → drafting → revision → proofreading. I loosely follow these stages, but writing is never formulaic, and one wouldn’t want it to be either, otherwise it would become boring and mechanical. So a lot of these stages overlap and some crop up more than once when I write.
It also does depend on what I am writing. For example, if I’m writing an academic paper, I will jot down some initial notes before reading sources and compiling quotes to use throughout the paper. This turns into a pretty extensive outline which I then use to create my first draft. If it’s a piece of creative writing, I usually write in order to think. I don’t like to outline stories or poems for fear that I become too attached to the structure I originally envisaged. I just dive in and see what comes up. The structure and outlining comes later.
2. How do you deal with writer’s block?
First of all, I don’t get angry with myself. I get writer’s block ALL the time. For me, if it’s not happening, it is absolutely not happening, so I usually step away from whatever the task is for a while. I often leave it for days before getting another stroke of inspiration, but it always comes eventually. This process just means that when I’m ready to write I capitalise on that time and really immerse myself in what I’m doing. Some days I can only write 100 words before needing a break, but when I’m in a zone I can write 20+ pages in one sitting. It’s all about giving myself grace and allowing my ideas to flow naturally. I guess if the timing isn’t right for that idea to come to fruition then my brain just needs to sit with it for a little bit longer.
Free writing is another tool that I use a lot. If I’m on a deadline but I can’t order my thoughts properly then the best thing I can do is just to spit them out onto the page however they come. Mostly it reads like gibberish but the ideas are always there at the end of a 5-10 minute free write.
3. How do you edit your work?
Editing your own work is hard. But it’s also the most important part of the writing process. Without the editing stage, we wouldn’t have many literary masterpieces.
It can be impossible for me to look at something I just wrote and be able to spot spelling, grammatical, or structural flaws. So I usually leave my work for at least 24 hours before revisiting it. Then when I come back to it, I imagine that it was written by someone else. It’s so much easier to be an editor/critic of someone else’s work, so by objectifying my writing it gives me permission to be brutal. I read my work aloud, move around or exchange words, sentences and paragraphs to help the argument flow better, and I often take out entire sections that are unnecessary or need to be completely rewritten. Every word has got to count, otherwise it’s outta there.
During this stage I hold myself to the standard of the authors or literary critics that I read for classes or in my free time (for better or worse I’m not entirely sure). I would say as a general rule of academic writing that without losing your own unique voice it’s important to strike the right tone. For creative writing obviously it’s a bit different and there’s much more license to make your unique writing differences your greatest assets.
4. When/how do you get your ideas?
My ideas often come in the most random scenarios. My iPhone notes are filled with sentences that just popped into my head on a walk, or in the shower, or while watching a TV show. Other than those moments of what feels like divine inspiration, my ideas flow best when I’m having a conversation with someone about them. It’s such a gift to be able to exchange different points of view and by hearing what other people have to say my own perspective almost always shifts and becomes more nuanced.
Reading literary criticism is also a huge source of inspiration for me when it comes to academic writing. It can make me either nod my head vigorously in agreement or want to scream in opposition, and those moments truly offer new insight.
Another thing to note is that I often write in order to think. As I said before, I use free writing a lot during my own writing process, and it’s a way for me to not only root out and articulate my ideas, but to get them in the first place. I usually free write by hand and then pull out key points onto my computer. If I start just letting my words and thoughts flow simultaneously new ideas will always crop up out of nowhere.
5. What environment do you write best in?
This one also depends on my mood. I have written well in coffee shops surrounded by hustle and bustle, while listening to music, in complete silence, inside, and outside. For me it’s all about allowing myself to use my intuition and work out what feels right that day. But I do think it’s extremely important to move around and switch it up. If I just chose one designated space to write in and never moved, I would inevitably find myself lacking inspiration or becoming bored and frustrated. Like all things in life, it’s nice to have a bit of a change of scenery every once in a while.