How to Write Anything (Part III)
In parts one and two of this mini-series on writing I discussed crafting an essay with a particular audience in mind, choosing a genre and writing with purpose, followed by the inner workings of how any and all essays are written: the rhetorical modes. For this third and final part of this mini-series, I address the writing process, editing and revising an essay.
The reason I have held off talking about the writing process until now is primarily because no two writers utilize the process the same way. The writing process involves brainstorming—narrowing down a topic or perhaps even what to say about that topic—researching, outlining, writing, editing and revising—together these last two are called drafting—and then repeating some or all of these steps. Only in a perfect world does writing ever happen like this, in this order; and this is far from a perfect world. Mostly, writing is messy. If an essay looks particularly well-polished it’s because it’s just that, and that writer has struggled, perspired, and labored diligently over days, or perhaps weeks ensure it looks that way. Sure, there are some truly talented writers out there who possess the ability, on-demand, to write a beautiful essay, eloquent email, or a stunning piece of poetry or prose. As a writer, one must become aware of what process works for them. That being said, the vast majority of us struggle with writing and the process, and generally think our work is shit.
In Ann Lamott’s superb book on writing called bird by bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, she discusses writing and the process early on. (Notice how I keep stressing the difference between writing and the writing process!) There are two principles that a writer ought to take from the early chapters of this book. The first is that at some point a writer must write, even if they are uncertain of where that writing will take them, or if they think their writing is shit—hence the title of the chapter “Shitty First Drafts”. However, Lamott points out that sometimes it is as important to discover what you are not saying as it is to know what you are saying. A writer can only discover what she is not saying if she sits down to write. The other principle writers need to take away from this chapter refers to the belief that some people are just born to write:
But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much…
Very few writers know what they are doing until they have done it.
This last point is the most poignant. To understand what you are writing, you must put words on the page. I read a blog recently where the author assiduously maintained that writers must first have a title, and then, only then could the writer proceed with the essay. I understand that the author was writing to convey purpose, and that it is difficult to write without some sort of direction. However, that is the point of the draft: to discover the direction in which the writing on the page is taking you. Your title should indeed reflect the essence of the essay, but it should also reflect the essay as a finished product, not the essay that was started two weeks ago. One lesson I give to my students is that one of the last things they need to address before turning an essay in is their introduction. Again, because the intro should reflect the essay as written, not as was begun.
I generally don’t outline (though I probably should). When I do outline, it’s generally in reverse. Which means creating an outline based on what I have and working from there to fill in the gaps or more accurately state my thesis, perhaps even figure out what it is I’m really trying to say. I write first, or do a little research, or research then writer, go back after a day or two and look at what I have. Once I have a general idea regarding the conversation into which I’m wading, then I will create an outline based on what I have written as well as where I need to go, or consider additional materials I may need to include. However, I stress that this is my process. For many of
my students and colleagues, outlining first is an absolute necessity. That is their process. And yet, at the end of the day, we all write; we all outline; we all research; we all edit; we all revise. It doesn’t always happen in that order. Each writer, while utilizing the same steps in the process, must discover or come to know how the process is going to work for them.
I’m going to assume most writers know how to create an outline and brainstorm. If not, I’m happy to answer that in the comments below. What I will say here is that outlines give a good idea, in a compact view, of what the essay as a whole looks like, or should. Outlines are either retrospective or forward looking. If you are a planner, you outline first and (hopefully) proceed according to plan. If, like me, your process involves writing first, you use outlines to check the logical organization of your work and the quality of support. Sometimes it can be difficult to see that when taking the broad view.
Once a writer moves beyond a complete first draft, hitting all or most of the main points one may wish to include in the essay, the writer needs to take a step back and give the essay some time to marinate before revising. Take a day, or several hours, to put some distance between you and it. Revising is most effective with a fresh pair of eyes. Editing, on the other hand, can be done almost any time. Writers often edit as they go along, correcting spelling errors here and there, substituting one word or phrase for another, removing unnecessary words, run-ons, or fragments, etc., but revision is more substantial. For the purposes of this essay I define revision as a major change—addenda, cuts, or reorganizations that go beyond sentence or paragraph level alterations. Consider these two very different introductions from my essay on productivity, which represent revision, not editing. At first, I was trying to write a jocular piece that functioned as a conversation between a hobbit and someone who was trying to be productive. This essay gave me a lot of trouble. I later realized, as I fuddled my way through the writing process, that the reason for this was because I was trying to make the essay do something it just didn’t want to do. Here’s the initial draft:
An Essay on Productivity, with Some Additional Notes and Thoughts from a Hobbit.
Use first and second person plural to distinguish between the two? Or the more formal third person, “one” for the Hobbit.
First, let me just say that if you’re like me, and still consider yourself in the early stages of a lifestyle change, you will need to do make changes incrementally. Changing everything all at once will jar the system, frustrate you, and almost certainly lead to failure. That being said, I think readers will find the following rather helpful. Early to bed and early to rise. The adage works for a reason. Because it’s part of a routine. And if you want to be productive, the first thing you’ve got to do is establish a routine.
Establish a schedule or a routine.
The very first part of that routine should be, has to be, waking up early. Perhaps this is the easiest part of the routine. I mean, really, no one likes to get up, but waking up is generally not very hard. Set your alarm, preferably early, before the sunrise—definitely before six a.m., swing your feet over the edge of the bed, put on your slippers, shuffle into the kitchen to make your morning cup of coffee, and you’re up. Now you can sit in the quiet of your home and write. Or perhaps your routine includes going for a walk, or a run. Maybe it’s morning Yoga. It doesn’t matter. Now that you’re up, you can start ticking items off your list for the day ahead. If you’re not already in a routine that you follow religiously, it may take some time getting used to, but once you start consistently knocking off that first item, I think you’ll find the rest will begin to come somewhat more easily.
On the other hand, one mustn’t rise too early. Even the turkeys don’t come down from the trees before the sun comes up, nor do the birds begin to voice their song. It’s all well and good to establish a routine for being productive, but really, why ruin a perfectly good sleep. Moreover, one might injure one’s self rising before the light of day breaks over the horizon and creeps through the window dressings. It’s no good stumbling about in the dark. A stubbed toe, a banged knee, scraped hip… Dreadful that. And why make yourself uncomfortable? These New England Spring evenings remain rather cool. No. Best to keep to a warm, soft, comfortable bed and let the body acclimate to its own unique cycle of rising and falling. But neglecting to rise altogether would be folly. After all, you’d miss your first breakfast… Speaking of which…
If it wasn’t obvious, the first three-quarters of the excerpt is written from the perspective of someone only just putting into practice what it takes to be productive. The last paragraph is a hobbit’s response. Over the course of several drafts—I have six drafts saved in my folder—I came to realize that no matter how badly I wanted to include the hobbit’s commentary, this essay resisted every attempt to do that. If I was going to write and write humorously, I simply had to cut the “hobbitary” (hobbit + commentary; is that a thing? I feel like it’s a thing.). My audience can also see me struggling with just where to take this essay. At this point I was still trying to work out how to distinguish the two voices in the essay. Should the productivity “expert” talk in first person, or second, while the hobbit speaks in the more formal third person? I even considered using italics to help my audience navigate this shift in tone and attitude. In the end, though, it didn’t work. So out the door it went. Here’s what I ended up with in the final cut:
Change. Life’s great constant. Humans possess a remarkable ability to shape their circumstances in life. While there is no doubt that there exists a great many factors in life over which people have no control—circumstances of birth, the past, what others think, life and death, catching up with the Joneses—there also exists a good many things in life over which they can exert some degree of control—personal associations, health and wellness, treatment of others, diet and exercise, a daily routine. In fact, change so preoccupies daily routines that entire industries have been built around it: “lose thirty pounds in thirty days”, “be more productive tomorrow”, “become a better you now”, “make perfect caramelized onions in five minutes”. However, instant panaceas don’t work; attempting to change everything all at once or too quickly will almost certainly lead to failure. Think of all the unused gym memberships and failed resolutions after the “January high” wears off: “I’m going to eat right, go to the gym, lose that weight, be more productive, make those onions, and I’m going to do it all today.” Sure. See you back at the pub for “wing-ding Wednesdays” February 1st. Yet, there are those that manage to make permanent changes to their lifestyles. They do this not by buying into and sticking to the “change now” mentality, but by realizing that significant, meaningful change only happens over time. Success = Small changes + persisting in them + adding more only when achieving success in small things + repeating the process. She persisted; and over time became a radically new person and inspired others.
The essay that I produced over the course of these six drafts, while retaining the central idea from the first, changed radically. Whether it’s objectively good writing I won’t say, but I will say that I think the final introduction far superior to the early drafts. Had I not given this essay several days to mature, had I not taken the time to craft the essay, on and off for perhaps a week, had I not let this essay say what it so badly wanted to say, that is to say, had I forced it to say something it did not want to say, it would have been a far inferior product than it turned out to be.
Great writing, even good or decent writing, does not happen of a sudden or due to a sudden burst of inspiration. Great writing comes from doing everything that comes after the shitty first draft. Only after writers edit, draft, outline, entirely cut something they love (perhaps the hardest lesson), research, brainstorm, repeat, can an essay be said to be finished. But even then, I don’t personally know of a single writer who is always happy with the final product. Perhaps, like the Mona Lisa, a piece of writing will always be in the process of becoming. At some point, you must let it go. In a recent conversation with a colleague of mine, whom I respect greatly, and whose writing surpasses excellent, they referred to their own writing process as “painful failure”, and confided that they struggle with “fear and perfectionism”. There is only one way to become better at writing and that is to write.
What’s your process? How do you feel about your own writing? Whom do you admire? Let me know in the comments. Get out there, and don’t forget to write.