Demystifying the Writing Process

This is the first post in our series of workshop recaps. Hala Herbley led our workshop on process-oriented writing on May 3 at White Light Studio.

When I was asked to do a workshop on the writing process, I jumped at the idea. One of the best ways to become a better writer is to talk about it—to demystify the process so that it becomes transparent and approachable. So often the act of writing feels like something shrouded in mystery and secrecy, like some kind of alchemical, mystical process that only the truly talented know how to undertake. So I basically wanted to call bullshit on that whole idea. 

The main thing to remember is that writing is difficult and time-consuming for everyone. Whoever says otherwise is lying or putting up a front—or they don’t realize that their writing sucks. Romantic notions of genius won’t help you get words on the page, and furthermore, it’s masculinist bullshit. 

The best writing I’ve done, and read, has been the result of a time-consuming and largely collaborative process. The single author’s name on the title page is often there by virtue of the many other writers who have helped the author brainstorm, revise, and edit their project. That’s why it’s important that writers talk to and support each other as part of a practice where writing is just as much part of the process as it is the final product. 

The idea that one has to produce “good writing” and nothing else has always led, for me, to paralysis. It helps me to remember that good writing is, at base, writing that is appropriate to its audience. Ideally, it’s writing that is both appropriate to and that challenges that audience. This isn’t easy—you have to know your audience and have a good idea of the expectations of the form or genre you’re working within. But thinking of good writing as “effective” writing, rather than some platonic ideal of “good writing,” always helps me freeze up a little less. 

Some Common Problems

One of the most common complaints I hear is not knowing how to start. Mainly, it’s important to get something, anything really, on the page. To do this, I always have to remind myself that the first draft of pretty much anything I write is going to be shitty, and that that’s normal and expected. Nothing comes out perfectly at first, and why would it? We mostly don’t think or talk in beautiful, musical, grammatically correct sentences, so it makes sense that a first draft wouldn’t come out that way. Revision has always been the bulk of my process. Most importantly, once you have something there, you have something you can work on, revise, play around with. But getting something on the page can still be tricky. Here are a couple of applications I’ve used to help me do that. 

There’s also the kind of block that happens when you’re in the middle of writing and you hit a wall. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the writing I’ve done and don’t know where to start editing or what to do next. In that situation, organizing and sorting all the pieces of writing that you have can help. The following are both software programs that you do have to purchase, though I think both offer free trial periods: 

  • Scrivener: This is a basic organization tool that functions kind of like a binder with separate tabs so you can organize writing by idea, chronological sections, or whatever you choose. (Their other product, Scapple, looks super interesting too.)
  • Ulysses: This one allows you to create different pages/sections and to organize them through a tagging system, too, so that you can organize and re-organize according to different ideas or themes. 

While those two tools are good for conceptualizing structure at a global level, I’ve used WorkFlowy on a smaller scale to help me structure my writing into clear paragraphs that flow well internally. This is actually a to-do list app, but the way that it allows you to make bulleted lists with smaller “sub” lists also works really well for outlining, I find. And you can use it as a to-do list tool too!

Making writing part of a daily practice rather than something you do only when “the muse” (another bullshit writing myth) pays a visit also makes it easier to get over writing paralysis. I’ve always found that using something like Morning Pages makes it easier for me to feel okay with producing “bad” writing. It can also help me clear my mind by enabling me to get all the insecure crap out of my head. mytomatoes.com is a super useful tool that helps me focus by breaking up working time into 25 minute blocks, and incentivizes working by rewarding you with a break once you finish a block of time, or a “tomato.” I also really like how it allows you to catalogue what you’ve already done, so that when you feel like you haven’t done anything all day, you can look back and have “proof” that you actually have been working. Similarly, something like KanbanFlow is good for managing large projects, and has its own pomodoro timer built in. 

The last thing to remember is that many women have their own particular burden when learning how to express themselves clearly and directly, and that’s the fact that women are generally socialized to turn their thoughts and feelings inward rather than expressing them and sending them out into the world. This tendency can manifest at the most basic level, influencing what words we use and what form our writing takes. An old advisor of mine used to call it “feminine undercutting” when I phrased my own writing in such a way as to call undermine my own authority. So, for example, in a persuasive paper I might have written something like “The nineteenth century novel may have been the most important social development of that era” when what I really wanted to argue was that “the nineteenth century novel was immensely important for the social movements of the era.” Use qualifiers and conditionals, but use them deliberately. Use passive voice, but use it deliberately. Become both a generous, kind and observant and critical reader of your own writing, and above all, rely on each other for support, both intellectual and emotional.