Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Five Stages of Writing: From Ideas to Final Product

Do you ever find that sometimes your writing flows beautifully and other times it is impossible to get started or to keep going? One piece of insight into why this often happens is that not all writing is created equally. There are many different kinds of writing and most writers find some parts easier than others.

Figuring out how you function at each stage of the writing process will help you to anticipate writing challenges and to figure out how to overcome them.

David Methuen in the play "Monday Next", Theatre Royal, Hobart, ca. 1950-1952 / photographer unknown

I recently signed up for Academic Book Writers Month, using the twitter hashtag: #AcBoWriMo to post my writing progress during the month of November. When I signed up, I realized that the focus of Academic Book Writers Month is to produce new words, but that my writing goals for November nearly all involved revising. I moved a few things around, and set myself a goal of writing at least 400 words a day on a chapter of a book that is due at the end of the month. Now, I start each day churning out those 400 words. This has worked well for me, because I am most invigorated by the early stages of a writing project and write best first thing in the morning.

Writing new prose each morning has reminded me that there are different stages to the writing process, and we draw from different sorts of energies to complete each stage. Most of us excel at one stage, but do less well at others. It can be helpful to reflect on the various stages of writing and to become aware of which stages you like best. Here are the stages, as I see them:

Stage 1: Conceptualization

– This is when you are coming up with ideas and writing the first rough draft. If you are inhibited by perfectionism, the best way to get through this stage is to not worry about grammar, coherency, or format, but to focus on getting your ideas onto paper. (Profacero pointed out in an comment on this blog that not all academics have problems with perfectionism, so it is crucial to ask yourself if this is actually an issue for you before trying to solve it.) When you are at this stage, it often works well to write first thing in the morning when your ideas are fresh and you are ready to forge ahead. Although this is the most exciting stage for many, it also is the stage when we are most unsure of where we are going, and thus can be subject to feelings of self-doubt about the worth of our work. If you are stuck at this stage, one strategy is to put a pillow-case over your computer screen and just type away for fifteen to thirty minutes. Not being able to see your writing will help you to feel less threatened by the blank screen and less inclined to go back and correct errors.

Stage 2: Pulling together

– This is when you re-organize your free-writes, brainstorms, previous work, and literature summaries into a coherent first draft. Some people do this on the screen; others cut and paste using real scissors and paper. Whatever you do, it is important to think about how you think and organize best and develop a system that allows you to create a coherent first draft. At this stage, you might find yourself staring at documents on and off-screen and struggling to decide on the best format. Despair not: If you are working on this every day, those ideas are percolating in your head, and you soon will come up with a workable format. If you are feeling stuck, try printing out your documents and using a creative, visual format of re-organizing your ideas such as cutting and pasting pieces of colored paper onto a corkboard.

Stage 3: Revision

– This stage is when you have a complete first draft and are ready to make it better. It can be very helpful to give this first draft to a trusted colleague, telling them that this is your first shot at the paper, and that you are looking for constructive feedback on organization and suggestions for expanding the background and theoretical literature. Some people do revisions by hand by printing out each version and writing on the typed page. Others are comfortable doing edits on screen. When I am in the revision stage, I like to carry a copy around with me, so that I can squeeze in edits whenever I have time. If you are stuck at this stage, the best solution can be to find someone to read and give you positive feedback to help you move forward.

Stage 4: Copy-editing and References

– At this stage, you have a complete, revised draft with your conceptual framework, literature review data, analysis, introduction, and conclusion, all in order. You just need to dot the i’s, cross the t’s, check your citations and run your spell-check. This step is very important, as you want to make sure to put your very best foot forward. If you have trouble moving forward at this stage, hiring a professional editor can be a fabulous investment.

Stage 5: Submit

– You are finished, and just need to figure out the online or mail-in process to submit your work! If you are stuck at this stage, it could be helpful to talk to friends who have read your work, know how fabulous it is, and can encourage you to press the “submit” button sooner rather than later!

It helps my productivity to be aware that there are different kinds of writing, and that my energy and concentration levels determine which kind of writing I can do most effectively. Creating new prose takes the most concentration for me, and I usually like to do this when I have a bit more time to reflect and process information. Line-editing, on the other hand, I can do even if I have just five minutes to look at a paragraph.

When you plan for your writing for the coming week, it might be helpful to look at your calendar and figure out what sorts of tasks you are best able to do each day. If you don’t teach on Monday, that might be the best day to draft a new section or to re-organize Chapter Two. On Tuesday morning, you might have fifteen minutes before preparing for class to check the bibliography for that almost-completed article.

1 comment:

  1. Aha - I see, you're considering stage 1 as part of writing. I consider it note taking - and YES, that's where to drop perfectionism, etc. I do it too. If I had ever thought of *this* as the first rough draft, I'd fall right into line with everyone who says don't worry about perfection, don't worry about starting at the beginning, etc.

    I've always considered stage 2 as the stage where "writing" starts, and that's why the standard advice has always confused me -- I don't like to do stage 2 willy nilly; at that point I want to know where my starting point is, etc. and I want to actually write the ideas out to see where they lead, how they actually hang together.