Writers’ Wednesday: All About Process

Learning the value of process

I’m about halfway through Dr. Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, and I feel I should warn you all now that I just might devote all of next week to synthesizing Dr. Cuddy’s research with my own thoughts for each daily subject. If you’ve not heard of Dr. Cuddy, watch her famous Ted Talk here, then get a copy of Presence either at your favorite bookstore or the local library. She’s amazingly helpful, practical, and inspiring. Here’s a quote from acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman from Dr. Cuddy’s book to get us started thinking about process for today.

“I was writing a book called American Gods, an it was a big ‘imposter-syndrome’ book because I wanted to write this giant book about America, but I’m English – And I wanted to talk about these, ya know, just gods and religions and ways of seeing the world. But I finished American Gods and it took me about 18 moths of writing, and I was very pleased with myself. And I ran into [my friend] Gene, and I said (bear in mind, this is my third or fourth novel) ‘I finished my first draft of my book American Gods and I think I’ve figured out how to write a novel.’

“And Gene looked at me with infinite pity and wisdom in his eyes, and he said, ‘Neil, you never figure out how to write a novel; you just learn how to write the novel that you’re on.'” ~ Neil Gaiman (via Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence.

First things first: Get your mind right.

One of the most important parts of the writing process is cultivating a mindset of “not yet.” “Not yet…” is a powerful mindset. It implies everything we need to accomplish greatness. First, it implies the existence of the goal. Second, it implies that you’re working toward the goal. Finally, it implies that there is always progress to be made.

Of course, I don’t want to leave it there without also acknowledging that the mindset of “not yet…” that I’m talking about is not restrictive, as in “I’m not ready yet…” or “I can’t start that yet…” It’s more a mindset of, “I can’t do it yet, but soon…”

Take a few minutes and watch this video.

It may be pretty “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but this video is a powerful example of how the process of feedback and revision can help you do your best work!

Why the process works

When I’m working as a consultant in the writing center at NIC, I see students time and again who’ve never truly followed the process, and it always shows in their writing. It tends to be disorganized, unfocused, and less than effective.

Instead, when I see students whose organization and focus is good, usually they’ve followed the process well, but are just struggling with mechanics or formatting issues.

The process does two things for you: organization and focus.

To best organize your writing, the first step in the process is to figure out what you’re writing, to whom you’re writing, and why you’re writing it. We call these form, audience, and author’s purpose.

Form: Form is the type of writing you’re doing. Are you writing an article? An essay? Web content? A cover letter? A request for action or a sales pitch? All of these forms will have different style and tone choices associated with each, and will have different purposes attached to them.

Audience: Audience has been touted for ages by savvy writers as the most important factor to consider when determining the tone for your piece. If you’re writing to a bunch of academics, your tone and stile will be much different than if you’re writing to a convention of auto-mechanics.

Similarly, there are power-dynamics at play when it comes to audience that must be considered. If you’re writing something instructional, you need to write with a sense of authority in order to establish credibility. On the other hand, if you’re writing a proposal to your boss at work, you may need to consider the power dynamic between the two of you.

Author’s Purpose: Why are you writing this piece? What are you trying to convey. That should be in the forefront of your mind. Is your purpose to inform? To persuade? To bear witness or report? Each of those purposes requires different organization and style.

Graphic Organizers vs. Outlines

I’m a big fan of graphic organizers. The particular one in that link is one I’ve been using with students for six years now, and it works really well to help them organize their thoughts. There are other templates online that you can find, as well as storyboarding apps and all kinds of wonderful digital tools at your disposal to build your story/paper/article/whatever.

Some people prefer to outline. That’s fine too. There’s a sample outline that follows the same structure I laid out in the graphic organizer. In either case, the foundation is the same, and the organizational structure makes it easy to build either a persuasive argument, or an explanatory article, paper, or essay.

Great, I’m organized; now what?

Now it’s time to start writing. And guess what? You’re halfway there. You already know exactly what you’re going to say. All you have to do now is take what you’ve put on your graphic organizer or outline, and change it from bullet points and scribbles into actual sentences. Before you know it, you’ve got a first draft.

You’ll notice I didn’t say “rough draft.” I try to avoid saying that because I think there are some subconscious implications that are present in the phrase “first draft,” that aren’t there in the phrase “rough draft,” and vise versa.

First draft implies that there will be another, and that it’s normal for that to be the case. It also is open ended, so it doesn’t imply how many drafts you’ll need. Rough draft, on the other hand, not only doesn’t necessarily imply that there’ll be another draft. Further, it positively implies that there is a lot wrong with this draft, and if it does imply another draft, it’s usually only an implication that there’ll just be one more.

To conclude for today

This week has been all about preparation. The first two steps in the process – deciding what you’re going to write (along with to whom, and for what purpose), and organizing your thoughts on the subject. Next week we’re going to look at what happens after the first draft is written. I’ll give you some real, practical advice on how to revise and edit your work, and some concrete steps to take to make your work the best it can be. See you then!

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