From Prewriting to Rewriting

Communicating effectively through writing is a three stage process.  If your goal is  well composed prose that is organized, logical and clearly stated, the following process will make that happen.  Even a quick email will benefit from a quick review of these points.  For works such as business correspondence, memos, technical documents, or novels, it should be followed every time.

Stage 1 – Pre-Writing

Before you sit down at your computer to write take a step back and figure things out so you don’t end up writing yourself into a corner.

The pre-writing stage is where you give yourself the tools and information needed to ensure that once you start writing you won’t need to stop.  Organize your thoughts so that the message you are looking to send is the message that you write.  Outline what you are planning to do so that you have a road map later on if when you stall out.  Collect the information you need to have on hand so that you don’t spend your allocated writing time searching the internet for “resources”.

There are different ideas on how to implement this stage.  Some people may use intricate spreadsheets to fully plot every point of the journey, while others may just jot a few lines on a napkin.  In the novel writing community there is a frequent and unending debate about “Outliner’s vs. Pantser’s”.  “Outliner’s” argue that the structure provided by the outline allows more freedom in the writing, while “Pantser’s” (as in writing by the seat of your pants) argue that the creative flow will be stifled and that the story needs to be allowed to follow its own path.

Both points have merit and both camps produce great authors.  James Patterson, the best selling author in the world, is a notorious outliner.  Stephen King on the other hand ( you’ve heard of him?) is a pantser.  I use a mixture of the two, although if pressed would cast my lot with the outliner’s.  My pre-writing process is as follows.

Brain Dump –  Also known as Brain Storming.  The earliest stage.  Take a sheet of paper, or open a word file, and write the topic name at the top.  Now write down every thought you have on the subject.  It doesn’t matter if you end up with a grocery list, if it’s in your head when you think of the topic then write it down.

Eventually you’ll reach a stage where the flood tide of ideas starts to slow down.  That’s when you know it’s time to push forward.  But leave this file open so that you can add to it as inspiration strikes.

Organize –  With a fist full of ideas in hand the next step is to put them into a semblance of organization.  I personally follow the method described in the excellent essay written by Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Emmons Jr, titled “An Effective Writing Formula for Unsure Writers”.

  1. Number each of your idea’s on your brainstorming sheet.
  2. Organize the idea’s into themes.

So idea’s numbered 1,2, 4 and 8 might be filed under the heading “Backstory”, while 3, 5, 6 and & could be “Current day”.  You get the idea.

I should note that in Lt. Col. Emmons method he advises an additional step in the very beginning.  On your blank sheet, under the topic name, write “Objective” and describe what you hope to achieve with this particular piece of writing.  It’s great advice and I’ve tried it, but  never found that it fell into my workflow naturally.

Outline – With your idea’s in place and loosely organized you can continue the outlining process.  If you are writing a shorter piece then the Organizing step above may be sufficient.  If it is a longer or more complex work then you’ll need to expand on the outline.

Remember, an outline is really just a list of points that you want to be sure to hit, in the order in which they need to be presented.

For technical writing I will make up a Table of Contents with sections and subsections.  That doubles as my outline.  Then the major points from the Organize step are added under each sub-section until everything is filled in.

For other writing I use something similar to the Foolscap Method, popularized by Stephen Pressfield.  The premise here is that a single sheet of yellow lined paper is just large enough to hold the outline of an entire work.  Section the page into three, with each section representing an Act.  Write the Inciting Incident at the top of the page and the Climax at the bottom.  Now fill in the middle.

One last powerful method that I’ve looked at (but not used personally) utilizes index cards.  Each card receives a single point, which could be a quote, fact, plot point, etc.  Then all of the cards are laid out and organized into the order that they will be presented.  It seems to be a very effective system for books requiring a lot of research, as evidenced by the fact that this is how Robert Greene outlines his works.  Greene went on to teach the system to Ryan Holiday, who has posted a great explanation as well.

Research – There is nothing worse than being in the thick of writing then having to stop and look for a reference or piece of information.  I spend one hour writing each day, which may sound like a long time but really isn’t.  Every time I have to leave the page to look something up it costs at least five minutes.

The solution I have devised is to spend some time in the evening doing the research so that it is ready for the writing in the morning.  If working on a larger, more detailed work, then more research is required.  In that case it should be mostly completed prior to writing.  That way once the writing starts you will only need to research the small bits that were missed during the first go around.

Stage 2 – Writing

With your preparations in place it is time to do the actual work.  This is where you put words on paper.  This is NOT where you end up with a polished masterpiece.

People freeze like a deer in the headlights when it comes to the act of writing.  Their inner critic chatters non-stop.  The point is to just get it all down, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End”.  Agonizing over exact word selection comes later.

Consistency – Write every day.

Stephen King does it.  Ray Bradbury did it.  If you want to be a writer then you need to write.  To repeat one of my favorite quotes, by Dan Gable:

[blockquote]”If it is important, do it every day”[/blockquote]

Writing is like photography.  For every thousand pictures taken only a handful have all the elements to be truly beautiful.  Writing is the same way.  It takes thousands of written words before a truly great section of text will be produced.  Knowing that this is the case, the task is made – keep churning out words.  And the best way to do that is to write every day.

Much has been written on this subject but you need to develop a strategy that works for you.  But don’t take too long about it.  If you find that you are going a day or two between sessions then your strategy is not working.  Time to try something else.

Personally, I started by writing at night before bed.  But life would  get in the way.  One of the kids is sick, a report for work needs finishing, making a connecting flight; there was always some obstacle thrown in the way.  So I removed those obstacles and started waking up at 0430 every day, pouring a cup of coffee, walking straight to my computer, and writing for an hour.  No decisions to be made, no excuses.  Just plant your ass and write.

Sprint – The first draft is a sprint, not a marathon.

You need to get everything out of your head and on to the page as quickly as possible.  No it won’t be pretty but that’s what a first draft is all about.  These words are the clay that you will later use to mold something beautiful.  But for now they are just clay.

Attack your keyboard and bang it out.

The Mechanics – How you actually write doesn’t matter.  Do what gives you satisfaction and are comfortable with.  If you like to write longhand cursive with a fountain pen on artisan made paper then do so.  Is there a mechanical typewriter up in the attic that you’ve fantasized about writing your opus with?  Get it down and start clacking away.

Most of us these days will do the majority of our writing on a computer.  I’ve even done a fair bit on my iPad touchscreen, which is not ideal but did the trick at the time.  I’ve got just one point to make here that will help you immensily going forward:

Learn to touch type.

Stage 3 – Re-Writing

Re-writing is a dish best served cold.

Before starting this task you need to step back and give yourself some distance from your work.  You become attached to your creations but it is time to switch your creators hat for your editors hat.  Take a bit of time so that the words are no longer as familiar.  This will allow you to easier spot the mistakes and cumbersome language.

Personally, I re-examine my work through the lens of the ABC’s – which I’ve written about in my article 3 Steps to Better Writing.  Take a look at that and then come back.  I’ll wait.

The Goal – The goal of re-writing is to tighten up your prose, eliminate unnecessary words, and refine your message until it says exactly what you want it to say.  Every piece of writing has a job to do and the rewrite makes sure that the job is completed.

While the main focus should be on the ABC’s mentioned above – Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity – here are a few specific points to consider.

Adverbs – We’ll start with everyone’s favorite.  Look at any list of writing tips from great authors and they will expound on the evils of the adverb.  And they do so with good reason.

It’s lazy writing.

An adverb is a word or phrase that modifies another word.  Words ending in “-ly” are the most malignant.  “”Softly”, “speedily”, “haltingly”…

“Find another, more accurate word to replace the adverb” he said loudly bellowed.

As in all writing the rules are made to be broken.  Just know what you are doing when you break them.

Cut 10% – All writing can be improved by cutting words.  Cut it to the bone and remove the filler.

This is the reason we take time between writing and editing.  When you are writing, all these words sound great in your head.  But reading is another thing entirely.  Long sentences become cumbersome and interest is quickly lost.

You need to grab the reader and hold their attention.  Make sure every line has a job to do and moves the work closer to the goal of passing your message.

The aforementioned long sentences is a great place to start.  As the commas creep in consider replacing the line with two shorter sentences.  It is an effective technique and is practiced with great success by Lee Child in particular.

Simple Language – For most writing, if your reader needs to pick up a dictionary then you should use a different word.

Really the discussion here is considering your audience.  The majority of my writing is technical in nature so it is easy to fall into the trap of using words and acronyms that you are comfortable with.  But you never know who will read your work once it ships.  While you have an “ideal” audience that you write for, there is the potential for it to be read by a larger range of people.

In the case of my technical writing that includes Managers to CEO’s, not to mention lawyers.  So acronyms need to be defined at first use, as do technical terms if there is no alternative.

Don’t dumb things down however.  Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Active Voice – Writing in the active voice is dynamic and expressive.  It creates energy and a feeling of movement.  Writing in the passive voice is just that – passive.  It sounds weak; like you are stating a position but won’t commit.

Say that you are doing something, not that you did it.  Make the action happen now, not five minutes ago.  Good writing needs to capture the imagination and take people on a journey.  It can’t be done yesterday; it needs to be done today.

I struggle with this one due to the fact that my professional writing needs to be written in passive voice.  This carries over into my other writing.  I do surveys and inspections on ships.  After I depart and I’m writing the report I need to specify that it was found in a certain condition while I was there.  Use of the active voice in this case implies that the vessel is still in that condition.  But that could have changed the moment I stepped off the ship.  I have no way of knowing.

I call it “Legal Speak”.

The Final Destination

When considering the journey from pre-writing to re-writing we must not lose sight of the final destination; a finished work.  This can be anything from a novel, to a report, to a blog post such as this one.  All of these have one thing in common:

They are meant to be read by someone else.

Your work is not truly complete until you send it off on its own into the wild.  This is the final step, sometimes painful, but 100% necessary.  It closes the loop on the piece  so that you can concentrate on the next one.

Without an audience you will never receive the feedback required to improve.  The goal is to build a habit of consistently finishing something, then using the results to improve.  This also builds resilience and removes the fear of exposing your thoughts to the masses.

Start small; a letter to a friend, a personal essay.  Even a well thought out Facebook update.

Then send it out into the world.


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