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Demystifying the Writing Process

Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 2:15 PM

Finding the process that works for you.

By Peter P. Jacobi

As the esteemed E.L. Doctorow once put it: "Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."

Yes, but.

As the equally esteemed Bernard Malamud once put it: "You write by sitting down and writing ... How one works, assuming he's disciplined, doesn't matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help. Everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you."

These wisdoms came to mind a couple of weeks ago when I went through an issue of The Writer's Chronicle, the one for May/Summer 2014. In it, I found a graduation speech given at Bennington College by Bernard Cooper, the Distinguished Visiting Writer in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. His subject: "Demystifying the Writing Process."

Writing Strategies?

"Someone recently asked me to explain my writing strategy," he recounts, "and I heard myself say that I wouldn't know a strategy if it bit me in the ass.... I invariably speak with students who fear that real writers possess some kind of trade secret, some list of rules that, if followed to the letter, will transform them from a novice into a professional in much the same way that Pinocchio was transformed from a marionette into a real boy."

Cooper tosses quotes into his discourse. One from W. Somerset Maugham: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Another from Henry James: "We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

There are moments meant for chuckling in Cooper's commencement speech, such as mention of writer Bill Roorbach's experience at a cocktail party where he met a surgeon to whom Roorbach mentioned that he was working on a novel. Said the surgeon, "I've always wanted to take a couple of weeks off and write a novel." Roorbach's response: "What a coincidence. I've always wanted to take a couple of weeks off and perform surgery!"

But Cooper gets very serious; he obviously worships the art of writing. "Writing," he told the graduating students, "allows you the luxury of weighing every word. Writing offers you chance after chance to get it right. By writing, you wage a battle against silence and incoherence. You shine a light into the otherwise dim and neglected recesses of human experience."

13-Step Writing Process

And so, back to my "Yes, but" to Doctorow's putdown of planning and such. The task is difficult, and most of us, I believe, can benefit from a process, a way of getting into and through all that the act of writing entails. Way back in 1996, in a couple of Editors Only issues, I shared the points made in a speech of mine to attendees at a summer writers' conference.

I outlined, would you believe, a 13-step writing process: (1) Wandering (to get the creative juices flowing)... (2) Dreaming (awake, to tie down an idea)... (3) Gathering (information, facts, opinions, details)... (4). Understanding (to make sense of what has been gathered)... (5) Selecting (deciding what to use and what not)... (6) Constructing (giving what's to be written a logical order, a structure, an architecture)... (7) Writing (putting words to the idea and chosen material)... (8) Spinning, Weaving (to shape continuity)... (9) Listening (sound out what you're writing for clarity and continuity)... (10) Adjusting (moving around, smoothing, improving, reconsidering, editing)... (11) Reaching (question whether your message has been properly shaped for the intended reader, and have you reached out toward your fondest goals)... (12) Releasing (letting go of the article/story/essay/report)... (13 Evaluating (after a passage of at least a little time, for future reference, judge what you've done).

A list of 13 steps may overcomplicate the issue, but -- to be secure -- I probably wouldn't want to cut out any of the above. Still, when I wrote my book, The Magazine Article: How to Think It, Plan It, Write It (Indiana University Press), I consolidated.

Focus on These Four

After determining who is going to be the audience, I said to focus on four steps: (1) coming up with the right idea (tailored for that audience), (2) gather the right information (do all the necessary researching and reporting), (3) organize (decide how the collected material should best be put together, ordered, structured), and (4) write (and rewrite until you're satisfied with your product).

For me, that's the just-right reduction of steps in the process of writing. I've found if I follow through on that approach, I will save on grief and wasted motion; I will have made the always difficult act of writing just a touch easier and, probably, as easy as I'm ever going to make it.

Find What Works for You

Going back to Bernard Cooper: He made the point that "uncertainty is a state every writer needs to embrace. And doubt does have its secondary gains. It keeps you alert. It prevents complacency. It forces you to ask more questions than you can answer." I accept the uncertainty, the doubt. But I want to provide for myself a means to prevent any bit of extra worry or confusion from burdening me needlessly. For that, my process works, for me. Follow it, if you like, or create your own. But I urge you to find a reasoned way from your beginning to your end. You'll wallow less and accomplish more.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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