Note: This post was first published in 2011, and updated in July 2018.
Do you struggle to focus when you’re writing, or do you find yourself starting and stopping a lot? It might be because you’re skipping certain stages of the writing process without even realising.
In my post, 7 Habits of Serious Writers, I cover the importance of actually writing, plus the need to redraft. But writing and redrafting aren’t the only stages you need to go through to produce an effective piece of writing.
Every finished writing project, big or small, passes through four stages:
Sure, you could potentially publish a blog post without doing any planning, or any rewriting and editing. Unless you’re very lucky, though (or writing something extremely short), you’ll be lacking a clear focus, the structure won’t quite work, and there’ll be clumsy sentences all over the place.
It wouldn’t really be a finished piece. It would be a draft.
The four stages don’t always have to be tackled in order. Sometimes, you’ll find that they can be combined – rewriting and editing, for instance. They don’t necessarily have to be carried out by the same person. (When freelancing, I’ve written blog posts based on other people’s plans, and I’ve often had my work edited by others.)
But it’s crucial to be clear about what each stage involves. If you’re struggling with a particular piece of writing, there’s a good chance that you’ve skipped a step somewhere – or that you’ve tried to do everything at once.
Stage #1: Planning
You’re already planning your writing – whether or not you realise it. You might not be creating an outline, but you’re thinking through what you want to say. If you have a brilliant idea for a blog post while you’re in the shower, and mull it over as you drive to work, that’s a form of planning.
Some written pieces don’t need any more planning than that: you’ve got the idea in your head, pretty much complete. Anything lengthy, though, will benefit hugely from a written plan.
When you’re working on a project where you already know the subject matter – an ebook, for instance, or a memoir – then it’s worth planning in some detail. You can use mindmaps to generate and sift ideas, and construct a more linear outline as you start to shape your material.
When the process of writing is more of an exploration – I’m thinking primarily of fiction here – then you don’t necessarily have to to plan in detail. You’ll want to get some basics clear, though: your concept or theme, your main characters, and the ending.
Ideally, you’ll have thought about the key high points and low points of your plot, too. (K.M. Weiland has loads of great stuff to say about novel structure in her book Structuring Your Novel: there’s a visual summary here.)
- Plan as you go along (as well as before you start). If you get stuck mid-way, take a break from the actual writing and look at what you’ve already covered and where you’re going next.
- Keep a notebook. Use this as a place to record and explore ideas. Even if something doesn’t fit this project, it might become part of the next one.
Stage #2: Drafting
When we talk about “writing”, we often mean “drafting”. We imagine sitting down at the keyboard, opening up a blank document, and typing away, filling the screen with exactly what we want to say, expressed clearly and cleverly.
And maybe, once in a while, that actually happens. But my first drafts rarely look anything like that! And I’d guess yours don’t either.
It’s almost impossible to get a piece of writing just right during the first draft. Rather than aiming for perfection, aim for completion. Your goal when you write is to keep putting one word after another, fairly quickly, building up sentences, paragraphs, pages…
Not all those words will be quite right. At this stage of the process, you’ll have a mixture of problems, from the structure of the whole piece right down to the individual words that you choose.
- Some sections from your plan don’t seem to fit any more
- A particular chapter (or character, subplot, concept) just isn’t working
- You haven’t explained ideas clearly enough
- Your sentences are flabby (over-wordy) or clumsy (ambiguous, repetitive, clunky-sounding)
- You might have notes to yourself in the text, to look up particular facts, or fill in a gap
None of this is bad. This is just the nature of first drafts. You’re shaping your material and forming your ideas as you go along – and of course it won’t always come out perfectly.
- Keep going. It’s easy to look at your draft material and despair: you’ve written five pages of fluff, or you’ve realised that your main character is insufferable, or your blog post seems to be going nowhere. Don’t give up. You get to fix it all in the next stage.
- Write regularly. This stage takes a lot of energy: it’s an intense process of creation. If you only write when you feel inspired, you won’t get far. Aim to write at least weekly – ideally more.
Stage #3: Rewriting
This is the stage which newer writers often skip – but it’s just as important a part of writing as the first draft stage.
Rewriting (or redrafting) is when you take what you’ve written and rework it. That doesn’t mean checking for typos, or tidying up a few sentences. It usually involves big-picture, structural change like:
- Cutting whole chapters or sections
- Adding in chunks of new material (and returning to the drafting stage for these)
- Moving things around – perhaps chapter 5 should really be chapter 1
- Sorting out any of those “notes to self” from the first draft – adding in facts or cross-references, for instance
It’s not unusual for novelists to cut out whole characters and subplots at this stage. Sometimes, what seemed like a great idea during planning and drafting just doesn’t quite work out.
To rewrite, you need to get some distance on your work. That might mean putting it aside for a few weeks (something that I’ve always done when drafting my novels), or it might mean getting feedback from other people.
Some writers find that they actually enjoy the rewriting stage more than drafting. It’s a different form of creativity – you’re able to work with what’s already there, shaping and honing it.
- Read the whole piece through. Make a note of any repetitive scenes/sections, and anything which you think needs cutting or adding. Imagine that you’re a reader coming to this for the first time – what might confuse you, or bore you?
- Print your first draft out, and start afresh. It’s tempting to just start revising your work by opening up the document and making changes. You’ll do much more effective, large-scale revision if you work from a printed draft into a completely blank document. (Some writers like to handwrite their first draft, then redraft onto the computer.)
Stage #4: Editing
This stage often gets muddled up with rewriting. For a short piece – like a blog post or a poem – you might not need to do much rewriting or editing, and you can combine them effectively. For anything longer, though – an ebook, say, or a short story – you’ll want to edit after you’ve redrafted.
Your second (or third) draft will have fixed many of the first draft’s problems. Your sections will be in the right order. You’ll have cut out anything irrelevant. You’ll have added new material where it’s needed.
But, even after rewriting, your piece isn’t finished. There’ll still be some awkward sentences and, inevitably, some typos.
Editing means going through your piece line by line and looking for things like:
- Sentences which would read better if you swapped them round
- Paragraphs which don’t break in the right place
- Words which aren’t quite what you meant to say
- Repeated phrases or words – all writers have some favourites which they overuse
- Mistakes, like missing or mistyped words
That isn’t a comprehensive checklist, of course – but it gives you some idea of what editing involves. With some forms of writing, particular for the internet, you may also find yourself putting in formatting (bold text, subheadings, etc) during the editing stage.
For many writers, including me, editing is the most frustrating stage. If what you really love is the fast-paced writing of draft one, or the freewheeling inspiration of planning, then editing can seem slow and tedious.
It’s important, though – and there’s a certain pleasure in getting things right. You could have written a brilliant piece but if it’s riddled with poor grammar and silly typos, readers may not make it past the first page.
- Edit on paper. It’s often easier to see mistakes when you’re reading on paper, rather than on the screen. Plus, on paper, you can cross out words, write annotations, etc, without making your document into a chaotic mess of red lines.
- Ask for feedback from others. Often, they’ll spot ambiguities, repetitions and typos which you’ve missed. Since you know exactly what you meant, it’s easy to miss the mistakes in your own work. If you’re working on something substantial, it might well be worth paying for help from a professional editor.
Which stage of writing comes easiest for you? Which is your weakest? How could you improve?
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