Writers often talk and think about “process” — the path from an idea to a final product in a writing project. From what I’ve read and heard, the way writers work varies widely, and what works for some doesn’t work for others. If you’ve ever read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, you know that Goldberg is a fan of “freewriting.” She recommends putting pen to paper and writing without stopping for a pre-determined period of time. You don’t worry about punctuation, you don’t edit yourself, and if you write the same sentence twice that’s fine — as long as your pen keeps moving. The point is to free the ideas that are just out of reach of your conscious mind, ideas that might get blocked by the self-editor on your shoulder who insists that you correct your spelling or grammar before the creativity has had a chance to flow. This method works for a lot of writers.
Author/editor Michael Steinberg often tells this story about the way he wrote his award-winning memoir, Still Pitching: he wrote something like 300 pages of the book before realizing that he was over-reaching. He was trying to cover too many years in his life and was having a hard time finding a central thread for the story. He went through the text and found one paragraph that he felt was the kernel of what the book needed to be about. Then he started over, limiting the text to his high school years, with a focus on his determination to become a baseball pitcher (a story that, he always says, also turned out to be about how Michael Steinberg became a writer).
Some writers insist that you must write virtually every day to succeed, and some even write at the same time every day. Others aren’t as strict about it.
I’ve noticed that I don’t have a specific writing process that works for me all the time, at least not yet. My essays tend to fall, most of the time, into one of two categories: 1) first drafts that come together quickly; or 2) first drafts that take days, or weeks, or even months to gel into anything of interest. Occasionally I will work hard on a piece for weeks before deciding it just isn’t going to work, and I move on (but I always keep the work, because sometimes I find something in it that I can use in a different piece in the future).
It seems, so far, that either I get inspired to write about something immediate — an event in the “present” — and I write the first draft pretty quickly, or I decide to write about something that’s been on my mind for a while, maybe an event from the past or an idea I’ve been turning over. In the latter case, I often have to work harder to find out what I want to say, and those drafts tend to take a long time to come together. I think most of the best writing I’ve done, so far, has been in the first category.
I’ve also noticed that if I write that first draft by hand, instead of on a keyboard, the language feels more connected to the moments or thoughts, and seems to represent my “voice” more closely. But I have to say that this is not always the case. One of my recently published essays, “Forty-Six,” was composed completely on a laptop keyboard — and it’s one of my favorites.
I will say this. Revision is always a part of my process — usually heavy revision. No matter how strong a first draft might feel, the language (down to word choice and sentence structure) and the shape of the piece (paragraph order, beginning, ending, fragments, etc.) always needs work. I recently sat down with an essay that I thought was “good” six months ago (and that had received a lot of positive comments from readers) and realized that there was a lot I could do to improve it. I spent four days revising just that piece, and I am a lot happier with it now.
So, writers, what is your process? What works for you, and what doesn’t? Comments?