Most of us have learned to approach writing as an activity. “I need to write __________,” fill in the blank: “an email,” “a report,” “a marketing blurb,” “a letter,” “a book,” or the like. We sit down, we draft what we want to say, we reread it to check for typos, grammar, sentence structure, etc., and then we hit send.
These are things we do regularly and need to be good at—and often, the faster we can finish them, the better.
But in other situations, writing can be useful for taking on bigger ideas and larger issues. Rather than merely a communication tool, writing can be used as a process to sort and sift complexity. It gives us the opportunity to record what we know, review it, think about it again more objectively, and then do more research, refine what we’ve written, and improve our thinking (and subsequently our writing) over and over until we have something truly remarkable to share with the world.
Ernest Hemingway told The Paris Review that he rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms at least thirty-nine times (“The Hemingway Library Edition” of the book recently released by Scribner includes forty-seven different versions and edits). John Updike once shared, “Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what one is trying to say.” In Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut wrote,
[A novelist’s] power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anyone can do it. All it takes is time.
While those are all fiction writers, I have found the same true of nonfiction writers, and the bigger the topic or problem you take on, the more writing should be a process that happens over time.
As a writing teacher, then an in-house editor, and now as a ghostwriter and book coach who has guided roughly eighty books from idea to completion, I have found approaching writing as a process allows one to “disassemble” complexity, “digest” its parts and particulars, better understand the relationships between these parts, and then refine what you have into a linear, comprehensive 50,000-to-80,000-word thought. It allows you to take others on a journey of understanding not really possible in other mediums to the same depth and degree. Over the years, I’ve found no better way to tackle and communicate possible solutions to the challenges we face as a society, as a nation, and as a world that begins when someone first writes a book.
That’s why embracing writing as a process is a win-win-win. It’s a win for the author (who better learns what they know even if the book is never published), it’s a win for their business or nonprofit because it gives them mounds of materials for marketing and a way to share their vision in one distinct package, and it’s a win to the lives that are touched, empowered, and transformed by the message. It’s one of the biggest reasons I added book coaching to my ghostwriting services. There’s so much to learn from writing your own book, it sometimes feels wrong to take that away from the author.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of thinking about writing as a process and what the best steps are for authors to write the best version of the book that is in them. Perhaps this brief overview might help you get one step closer to finishing the book you feel called to write.
From my experience, the writing process has seven phases:
- Draft 1: The “figuring it out” draft
- The Big Rethink
- Draft 2: The “put it all together better” draft
- Drafts 3, 4, 5 . . . : Revise, Rethink, Rewrite, Rinse, Repeat (until you know you’ve got it right)
- The Finish Work: External editing and publishing
Here’s a bit more detail about each.
I call the initial prewriting step of the process “discovery,” similar to the early stages of a legal trial. In most legal thrillers, there is the moment when the plaintiff’s team receives mountains of boxes filled with documents from the big corporation they are suing. The defense attorneys have tried to bury anything that would be helpful to their opposition’s cause through sheer volume.
This scene usually begins with the plaintiff’s lawyer and their team, hands on hips, looking at the work ahead of them with some trepidation. After a long pause, the lead counsel says something like, “Okay, let’s dig in. We’re going to sort through every piece of paper and discover what we need to beat this [fill in your favorite derogatory expletive]. It’s going to be a long night.”
Discovery is messy, and it’s messy by necessity. It’s not efficient. It’s time-consuming. It can take years. In fact, I have found, if I am ghostwriting a book for someone, discovery and the next phase—essaying—will take about half of the time I have allotted to write the book. There’s a lot of time reading, researching, and rethinking before you figure out where to even begin. But once you do, I’ve found the old adage “Well begun is half done” absolutely true. The rest of the book falls into place quickly, I just have to put in the hours to write.
Although discovery can feel fruitless at times, it is exhilarating when you begin to find the pieces you know you need for the narrative backbone of your book. Like digging for gold, you’re in hot pursuit of that vein that will lead you to the motherload that brilliantly ties everything together—the heart that pumps life into your book. This is so vitally important because it is the half of the process that makes the other half happen.
The most important thing in discovery is to have dependable tools that will allow you to keep track of what you’ve found in your research and find it again quickly when it pops back into your brain—those “Where did I read that passage again?” moments. (Here is a great video on Dustin Lance Black’s process where he shows exactly how he uses 3×5 cards to organize his screenplays from his discovery work.)
In our digital age, I’ve found tools you can access from your computer, tablet, and smartphone (Mural.co, Freeform, Scrivener, Final Draft, OneNote, Evernote, and the like) to be the handiest and most versatile, though I still also use the closet door in my office as a whiteboard covered with sticky notes. It’s good to experiment with a variety of things until you figure out what works best for you and are worth spending money on or not.
If you think of discovery as the time when you are brainstorming and researching, then essaying is the process of taking one partial idea at a time and developing it into a mini-essay you can later use as a section or chapter. I often tell clients that writing a book is like stuffing marshmallows into your mouth (which you can read about here), because you have to get all of your ideas into your head and it can feel like your brain is going to burst. However before you can begin stuffing marshmallows in your mouth, you need a bunch of marshmallows—and that is what each mini-essay is, a marshmallow you will later use as you organize your book. I’ve found writing each marshmallow out as a mini-essay first makes them much easier to digest.
Essaying can take various forms. I’ve worked on books where the first thing was to write out a number of stories with similar themes that would be organized later. I’ve also started writing “chapter one” only to figure out there was information needed to understand what I was writing, so I took a step back to write a new “chapter one” and turn the former into “chapter two.” (Sometimes the many iterations have moved my original chapter one as deep into the book as chapter five.) It could mean writing various themes or plotlines out on their own first, and then going back and weaving them all into one coherent narrative in the next draft.
Having “marshmallows” like these and a master plan for the book that is developing on a whiteboard of sorts allows you to go back and forth between the controlling idea for your book and the individual pieces that will give that big idea the context your readers will need to understand it. As you go back and forth between your overall plan (or book proposal) and your short essays, relationships will appear that you hadn’t seen before. Ideas will develop and blossom. When you engage in the process it can feel like the universe is conspiring to send you the information you need for the book that you’d never even heard of before. Inspiration and insights will pop into your mind at the oddest of times. Order will start to form out of the chaos. The overall flow of your book will begin to form into a logical sequence.
And when that begins to happen, it’s time to start pulling everything together into your first draft.
3. Draft 1: The “figuring it out” draft
Writing a “draft” of a book has been used in so many different ways, I feel as if the concept has begun to lose its meaning. People have come to commonly think you write a “draft” and then you edit it, and that’s a different draft, and you keep editing new drafts until the book is perfect. To make the concept more useful, it might help to use a different word from the design space instead.
A draft is really a “prototype.” It’s a model. In design, it’s one iteration in the overall process of going from a concept to the realization of some useful object, whether that be a building or a new kind of toaster. When you build a prototype, your thinking is, “Let’s build it (maybe even on a smaller scale) and see if it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll go back to the drawing board, redesign it, and then build a better model.” I’ve always liked what Oliver Wendell Holmes said that echoes this process:
For the simplicity on this side of complexity,
I wouldn’t give you a fig.
But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity,
for that I would give you anything I have.
A draft is not “tweaking” or correcting a manuscript, it’s a redesign—it’s a complete recasting of the material. There are things that are so important in initial drafts that they completely blot out the importance of other things until much later drafts. For example, creativity gets a front-row seat in draft one and editing is sent to the back of the classroom—which will be completely different for when it’s time to do the finishing work (think “finishing carpentry”) on your manuscript.
To use a metaphor, the discovery and essaying process is digging up all the rocks in a field you want to build a path across and planting some grass. At the end of the first draft, all of the rocks are turned over and laid out in some kind of organization, but the path is a mess. There are also huge holes in the yard that need to be filled in. You can now see the shape and size of all the rocks, though. For the first time, you have all the information you need to better design your path. It can feel as if, only now, are you qualified to write the book that started as an inkling or will be the culmination of years of study, because no matter how much “pre-work” you have done, you don’t really know what you have until it’s all dug up and properly laid out as an initial prototype of what you are trying to create.
That might sound a little discouraging. I mean, you’ve done all that work and it can feel like you have only just begun. At the same time, though, this is where the magic of your writing happens. This is where something transforms from a compilation of thoughts into one coherent idea. It’s the phase I like to call “The Big Rethink.”
4. The Big Rethink
The most successful books I have worked on—the ones that have sold the most copies or have been the best tools for leaders to build their organizations—have demanded a massive overhaul between drafts one and two. They have needed, in a word, a new framework. Essentially, this means figuring out the best order and placement of the rocks across the field and completely reconfiguring what you’d done before.
It might mean switching from chronological order into a thematic organization, or vice versa. There may be elements that are best told out of order to build tension and suspense. (I’m sure you’ve watched TV shows where the main character is in crisis and then it quickly cut to “Two weeks earlier” or something like that and now you have to keep watching not only to learn how they got into that fix, but how they will get out.) Sometimes personal experiences or client stories are a great way to introduce a principle (starting with a story is always a good way to draw readers in). Sometimes a story has more impact if it is told in the first person rather than the third, or it needs an all-knowing narrator or else the story falls apart. Maybe there’s a controlling idea or list of steps that will determine the order of your chapters that you don’t even realize until you’ve finished your first draft.
Each book is unique and deserves a good rethink at the end of the first draft to determine the best way to present the material. While there are format formulas that will help create a book and make it easier to write, finding the right one takes a deeper understanding of the whole than authors generally have at the beginning of the process. Having the right framework emerge can require “resting” the manuscript for a week or more to let your thoughts mature as your subconscious makes new connections.
Screenwriter David Seidler suggests,
It’s often good to do a fishing trip between the first draft and the second draft, because that’s where you find the howlers—that’s where you see the weaknesses. . . . You need the distance to see it.
That’s true whether you like to fish or not—you need something that will completely distract you from the line of thinking you were in when you write the first draft. Only then will you have the objectivity to do the work to write it again as it needs to be presented.
5. Draft 2: The “put it all together better” draft
With your new blueprint from your big rethink, it’s time to dive into rearranging all the stones you’ve turned over into a beautiful pathway. If that doesn’t work, you can begin again more intelligently for another draft. Here, you stick with it until you have all of the ideas in place, in the right order, to tell the story or teach the big idea in the clearest and most concise way.
Note again for this draft, your editor still needs to be sitting in the back row. The first seats are still given to your creative self and your inner teacher. Clear communication is the order of the day for this draft, not getting all the commas in the right places. Not yet, at least.
If you are considering having beta readers, after this second draft is the first place I would consider inviting them to read what you’ve written. Let them know you are not looking for copyeditors to catch all your mistakes (though marking the typos they see is welcome if it helps keep mistakes from being distracting), but you want them to see what they think about how things are presented and where the murky points are. Again, you’re all about clearly communicating your ideas here above all else. The rest of what makes for good writing will come in the polishing drafts.
6. Drafts 3, 4, 5 . . . : Revise, Rewrite, Rinse, Repeat (until you know it’s done)
You might need another big rethink at the end of this second draft, but I’ve found if you’ve done a thorough job in discovery and essaying, that’s generally not the case. If you do need a more substantive rewrite at this point (and aren’t you glad you didn’t waste time getting all the commas right in sentences you’ve now decided to cut?), then go back to phase four and work forward again to here.
If you are ready for “polishing” though, it’s now time to invite your editor and voice to sit in the front row and reread your manuscript again—making changes along the way. Now it’s time for your book to make sense in a systematic, if not traditional, way. This is you start following all the advice in Elements of Style. This is where you polish the writing until your thoughts and personality shine through.
In addition to spelling, grammar, syntax, and the like, this is where your darlings get murdered—those sentences that are too clever for their own good; the ones that stop a reader dead in their tracks and make them remember they are reading a book (and maybe want to set it down and watch TV instead).
This is where style and sentence clarity take center stage—where all the wonderful ideas you honed in drafts one and two get cleaned up and ready for public appearance. This is where every use of passive voice gets challenged, every sentence subject is unburied, where you get to decide where prepositions go, if adverbs and adjectives get eliminated or are necessary, and make sure the you in the manuscript isn’t lost in verbosity.
If you didn’t earlier, this is the next best place in the process for beta readers, or going to beta readers again (perhaps different ones than you used before). What you are after at this point is getting to the manuscript you will send to your publisher or use to acquire an agent.
7. The Finish Work: External editing and publishing
Your final draft—the one you turn in to get published—will go through yet another round of editing if you go through a traditional or hybrid publisher. It will pass through the hands of a copyeditor, a typesetter, and one or two proofers after that, or maybe even get another big rethink with the help of a substantive editor or “book doctor” before it is given to a copyeditor.
While a lot of authors feel “done” when they turn in their manuscripts to a house editor, they are still probably at least three months from the final text that will appear in their book. This allows time for other eyes to see what exactly is on the page vs. what you “know” you wrote. It’s where someone else checks your every their/there/they’re, or that you didn’t spell a last name three different ways. (One time I proofed a book cover that mentioned the “Foreword” in three different spellings: foreword/forward/and forword. Everyone was very happy someone caught that before it when to the presses.)
Those are the types of mistakes that pull readers out of books and will make them question if it’s worth reading or not. One won’t kill you, but a dozen doesn’t instill confidence. It’s why getting new sets of eyes on a manuscript is so critical—they will see things you don’t because you’re too close to what you meant to say.
To call writing a process rather than an activity is to acknowledge the growth and development that comes as you move from one iteration of your book idea to the next. Be open to the inspiration and general “better” that comes in the midst of contemplating and re-contemplating what you are writing about. (Which is, of course, more important for longer works like a book than shorter ones like an email.)
The writing process is a practice of personal reflection, not unlike meditation or prayer in many ways. Or you could consider it like sending yourself to school to study something specific and win the knowledge that comes from the readings, labs, and lectures. Do it correctly, and your reward will be a single, significant idea that could outlive you and make lives richer and healthier for decades to come.
It’s not a quest for the faint of heart. Not every book becomes a bestseller, but every author I’ve worked with has found themselves psychologically and spiritually richer and better at what they do for having written a book. That, in itself, makes the process worthwhile—although there’s also nothing like holding a book with your name on the cover or signing copies for an audience. Plus you now have a book to build your mission and spread it to places you may never go yourself.
As I said before, it’s a win-win-win situation.
If you have a big idea that needs to be turned into a book, feel free to set up a call with me to get started, or sign up for our free “Twenty-one Days of Writing Inspiration” through the pop-up window on our homepage at KillianCreative.com.