A Writing Process

As part of Blaugust quite a few people are sharing writing tips. Now I’m in no great position for offering tips on getting blog posts written because a) I don’t get that many posts written myself! and b) I have no process for doing blog posts, at least that I am aware of consciously.

However while I don’t have any process when it comes to blogging, I did have a method for academic and business writing that I often used, and which worked well for me. I only remembered this when I saw a piece by Telwyn describing something which has strong similarities to what I used to do.

What problems does this solve?

Before getting into the method, it’s worth explaining why it was useful to me.

While I’ve always been a pretty good writer and generally enjoy writing, I used to run into some frequent problems:

  • Procrastination brought on by staring at a blank page and wondering where and how to start.

  • Feeling befuddled by the complex mass of stuff that seemed to comprise the topic I was supposed to cover, and wondering how any piece of it could be explained when every piece seemed inter-related to everything else.

  • After actually starting, quickly getting bogged down in excessive perfectionism. Not making much progress on the whole because of trying to get the first few bits just so.

Due to these problems getting things written was often quite stressful. It was hard to predict how long anything would take, and it wasn’t uncommon to end up pulling an all-nighter at the last minute to get the thing done.

Finally I evolved this method which made things a lot less fraught.

The Method

1) Jot down headings or phrases for all the matters that should be covered to deal properly with the overall subject. Don’t worry too much about the order of things, or finding the right words for anything, even the headings. This is somewhat of a brain dump, and could look vaguely like a mind-map, with some lines between connected topics. As you might guess from this description, I often found it better to do this step on a large pad of paper first rather than electronically.

2) Expand on one of the headings, putting down what you want to say about it. (This bit is now electronic! No actual writing prose on paper.) Don’t necessarily go through headings in order, if stuck for what to say on one section, just go to another. Or just work on the one that grabs you first. Equally don’t worry about such things as phrasing things well, a proper flow or any other writerly concerns, Just get down what needs to be said about each subtopic. Keeping going until all the subheadings are done.

3) Review whether the structure makes sense. Often after things have been put down it’s clear that the most logical order is a bit different to the one you first came up with. In electronic documents, especially Word docs, things can easily be restructured.

4) Now polish up to make the thing well-written and readable. Improve the clarity, expand on things that might not be self-evident to readers, put in those nice segues from one section to another, add explanations of how what we discussed in Section 4 applies to Section 5 etc.

5) If appropriate to the type of piece write conclusions / recommendations / management summary etc that sums up what you had to say.

6) If writing to a word limit, trim or expand as needed. In my case I normally have to work to make things more concise. Even if there’s no word limit, it’s useful for me to check if I can say things in a simpler and more readable way.

7) Finalize, pretty up, sort out things like a Table of Contents and publish.

Applicable to Blogging?

I suspect that while I don’t do any of this consciously for blog posts, I used the method enough times before there even were such things as blogs that to an extent it’s become semi-automatic for me, and I do use elements of the method unconsciously.

Blog posts are usually short enough that the “headings” don’t have to be set out explicitly but are just “jotted down” mentally. I then feel comfortable banging out a first cut confident that there will be another pass or two to bring sanity to the mess later on. When everything seems publication-ready, there is that last check, and while there are no Tables of Contents and the like to add, it’s at that point I think about things like tags. Finally I hit publish.

Optimistically you could say that maybe my writing skills have gone through those three classic stages of development: 1) Conscious incompetence, 2) Conscious competence, 3) Unconscious competence.

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2 thoughts on “A Writing Process

  1. I used to use methods not dissimilar to those when I was writing essays at University but I don’t think I’ve ever used them since. I just start writing and let it happen then move things about later in the editing process or on the fly as I write. Sometimes you can see where I’ve done that , when half a sentence that makes no sense at all appears in the middle of a paragraph. That’s where I was cutting and pasting as structures formed in my mind as I wrote and I was going too fast to notice I’d cut at the wrong place!

    It’s like everything else, though. It gets easier with practice. I do a whole lot of things instinctively or unconsciously now that once i would have had to think about. Also, looking back at my old posts, the very best ones, by which I mean the ones that feel the most natural and fluid, were ones i wrote on about 2-3 glasses of red wine. Since i stopped drinking I’ve almost never written a post as good as the best of those.

  2. That’s an interesting point. You certainly tend to get dramatically better at anything if you do it pretty much every day, and also take an interest in the “craft” of it. Much as I enjoy writing and consider myself good at it, it’s something that I’ve always done relatively infrequently. It’s never been a regular part of either my work or my hobbies.

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