Tips on the Writing Process

It’s been raining for days. The yard has become a marshland, with tufts of grass poking up from pools of standing water. The bedrock outcrop in our front yard has puddles in all its nooks and crannies. They must smell interesting, because the dogs have to investigate each and every one of them. The Cowichan River is swollen and convex, straining against its banks and bulging into the trees. The BC River Forecast Centre has put us on a flood watch, and there’s been a lot of localized flooding.

Sometimes it feels as though it’s always been raining, that there was never a time of blue skies and sun. The same way it sometimes feels as though you’ve been working on a writing project forever, and it’s never going to get done, or be any good.

A few weeks ago a colleague, Rebecca Boyle, shared her writing process in the form of a stick person cartoon. It was hilarious, and insightful.

Rebecca Boyle's writing process

Main panel: My external writing process: 1) Get an assignment! 2) Realize I have to write it! 3) Ignore it! Walk the dog, do laundry, make tea, more dog walking. 4) I suck. 5) No I don’t. Then: Research/interview x5000% more than necessary 6) Write 150% more than necessary 7) throw up my hands, say fuck it, and file. Below panel: internal process. I am actually thinking the entire time, working. Finally I get into the zone. Trust the Force. File. (Shared with permission).

She captured perfectly that period you go through where the piece you’re working on sounds like crap and you think you’re a terrible writer. It’s a tough point, but you have to trust that you can get through it and get it done. Consider this:

“When is the last time you started to make something but gave up before you finished because you didn’t think anyone would like it?”

If you want your writing to improve—and with it, your writing process—you need to commit to taking yourself seriously and getting the job done.

One thing that resonates for me is the bottom panel of her cartoon: the importance of non-writing time. Whether that’s walking the dog or gardening or doing laundry, this time allows you to mull over ideas in the back of your head. Just because you’re not putting words on paper doesn’t mean you’re not writing. You’re “trusting the force,” as Boyle says.

I find this particularly important because I get cognitive overload, which my psychiatrist describes as focusing on one thing for too long and having a mental meltdown. This happened on New Year’s Eve, which we spent doing a puzzle that fried my brain so hard that I couldn’t function the next day.

Because of this overload, I can only write for about an hour at a time. Two if I’m lucky. So I tend to take the scraps of my writing with me, in my mind, to mull over. Whether I’m having my afternoon nap, walking a dog, riding my bike, or working in the garden. This is the only way any writing gets done, as I just don’t have it in me to sit at the computer to write 1000 words a day. I write by my own rules, as I outlined in this piece for the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society.

Ingrid Rogas Contreras has a lovely piece at Electric Literature about finding her writing rhythm. She tries all sorts of approaches to “manage” her writing: productivity charts, pie charts, Venn diagrams. She makes schedules of what she will write on each day, whether it’s translation or copy editing.

“The theory was that if I could figure out the science to writing, I would be able to create the right circumstances needed in order to land on my desk at the allotted writing time feeling refreshed, unblocked, and inspired.”

Then she realizes the one thing she hasn’t been tracking is the time she’s *not* writing. And she realizes how important that is to her actual writing time:

“So much of not writing is actually writing. A writer at rest may at all times be imperceptibly writing.”

Ada Limón’s gorgeous piece on Richard Blanco’s blog is another good example. She writes about what we do when we’re not writing, of all the thoughts that fill that space between our ears and how, if we always focus on trying to understand those things through our writing, we may miss the very essence of them as they’re happening to us.

“You don’t always have to write. You have permission to just be in the world and grieve and laugh and live and do your damn laundry. Writing comes when it comes, and it’s not the most important thing. You and all the little nuisances and nuances of life are what matter most. Don’t miss this gorgeous mess by always trying to make sense of it all.”

Then there’s the importance of challenging yourself.

When I pitched Nature with a science careers Q&A, I was out of my comfort zone in terms of outlet, although I’d done Q&A’s before. My second Q&A with them comes out next week. More recently, I received an assignment from The Walrus. This will be a new challenge, as it will require more interviewing and research. But this is how we move our writing forward: we get outside of our comfort zone (in my case, just writing blog posts for Canadian Science Publishing) and try something new. Even Rebecca Boyle, whose sketch I shared above, moved from crime, courts, and politics to writing about space science!

So if you’re struggling with your writing process, don’t get too discouraged. Always aim to finish what you’ve started, even if the final product bears no resemblance to the original. Remember that you may be writing even when you’re not in the physical act of writing, and that the best way to write is the best way that works for you. And don’t forget to push your comfort zone to help your writing improve.

Please leave your writing tips in the comments!

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9 thoughts on “Tips on the Writing Process

  1. Yes! Much of writing is not in the writing. It’s in the thinking part and in the small moments of inspiration. Steven King walks during his thinking periods, what I would consider a walking meditation. Meditation is definitely a non-writing writing task for me. And the shower – when my brain isn’t really awake but the inspiration is flowing. Good luck in your new challenge!

    • Yes, we often fail to give ourselves credit for all the indirect ways in which we work on our writing. Walking, showering, cycling, etc. Anything that makes us look at things obliquely rather than head-on.

  2. The process you describe reminds me of my brother in law who is a Lutheran minister renowned for his good sermons (he is now retired). He was busy with them all week while cooking, walking, and doing other chores until he wrote them out starting late Saturday evening and writing into the wee hours of the morning.

    Rebecca Boyle’s panel reminds of of a set of drawings representing the development of Chinese characters over time that had been painted by the wife of one of the scientists I met when in Beijing.

    • That’s how my weekly blog posts work, like sermons (haha). I think about them for a few days, then write, set aside, and revise. They’re not hugely polished, but they get my points across.

  3. It’s a good thing to understand our writing processes and have “down time” to mull it all over. Thanks for writing this article and good luck with your projects!

  4. I love Rebecca Boyle’s illustration, it is hilarious. As mentioned in your post, non-writing time is so important for the writing process. Performing a monotonous or boring task which involves the use of my hands, but not my mind, is essential for inspiration. I would also like to mention artist Austin Kleon’s book “Steal Like An Artist” in which he illustrates the life of a creative project, including the dreaded “I hate this project, my work sucks,” stage.

  5. That was a great book. Also – what a coincidence – I just responded to an Austin Kleon tweet in which he said he’s blogged every day for the past 129 days and it’s been great practice for him. I also get his weekly newsletter – a broad range of interesting stuff in there.

    • In that case, I’m going to continue my own blogging. I have been wondering if it was getting in the way of other writing, but it’s interesting that Kleon sees it as practice. Did not realize he had a newsletter…something else that I will look into. Thank you Sarah.

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