The Writing Process

graphic of the writing process

Writing is a process (and a practice rather than a product) because it is never truly finished as there are always revisions that can be made.  Consider the word ‘revision’ for a moment.  It doesn’t mean to edit.  It means to re-vision.  Significant changes can, and often do, take place in revision. 

Let’s look at the three phases of the writing process.

  1. Prewriting – includes research, reading, synthesizing, brainstorming, outlining, freewriting, etc.  Everything that is done to prepare to write.  This phase can take a lot of time.
  2. Writing – this is the actual writing of the essay, article, book, etc. During this phase, the focus is getting all your ideas down in a logical, structured manner with an introduction, body and conclusion.  Phase 2 is actually the shortest part of the writing process.
  3. Revising – in this stage, the writing is looked at as a whole to see how well ideas are expressed, developed and supported; whether the conclusion(s) are logical based on the information presented; and how well the writing meets the requirements.  Portions may be completely re-written. Editing is not a part of this.  This phase takes significantly more time than writing.

We don’t just go through each phase once.  You will go through each at least once, probably several times.  And, that brings me to the other point I want to make about writing.  It’s a practice, like anything else.  The more you write, the better you will become.  Spending a lot of time in revision will improve your writing and ultimately more of your revision time will be sent on the content and the implications of what you have written.

Phase I – Prewriting

To begin the writing process you must first discover, explore and connect ideas related to your topic.  This involves interpreting and drawing conclusions from your research.  You can use one or more of the following techniques to help you build a big picture understanding from all the data gathered on your topic.

  • Researching – Information – and our understanding of it – changes all the time. Look for recent research whenever possible, but don’t use anything older than 10 years old. Reference and Academic Librarians can help located and retrieve data from other libraries.
  • Re-reading/Reviewing highlighted passages – additional readings of research materials can help you pick up things you missed the first time through.
  • Outlining – This is a structured way of organizing your ideas prior to writing.  Each section of the essay or novel is accounted for and details are provided.  It is very clear what each paragraph is about.  This is one of the best techniques to use, especially in conjunction with one of the previous techniques to prepare for writing your essay. This is especially useful for people who are organized and like to plan. Outlining can include chapter summaries.
  • Character Sketching – For some of us, it is useful to develop our characters in advance. We consider what events have shaped our characters views and reactions to the world. We also write about how our characters look, think, feel, aspects of their lives such as career and relationship status, and their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Freewriting – This involves writing down everything you can think of on the topic.  When you’ve written everything you can, re-read what you have written.  When something you’ve written sparks a new thought or idea, begin writing again.
  • Clustering – This is a way of diagraming and connecting ideas.  It is similar to outlining.  Start with your topic in the center.  Then connect bubbles for the main categories related to your topic.  Connect more bubbles to the main categories that reflect points you want to make related to that category.
  • Brainstorming – Similar to clustering and outlining, but without the structure, brainstorming is writing down ideas as they come to you.  As you notice relationships between thoughts and points, draw lines between them.  You can highlight things that are significant and even number things according to the order with which you think they should be discussed.  There are no rules with this form of prewriting.
  • Listing – Like brainstorming, this technique involves making a list of the types of information you want to include and/or listing everything you know about a topic.

What works best for me is researching, re-reading, outlining and freewriting. I usually do the freewriting inside my outline and eventually copy paragraphs into another word document to begin the writing process.

Phase II – Writing

This is the stage where you write your first draft by organizing, in a logical progression, the information collected and synthesized during Phase I. A previous post illustrates and details how to structure the essay. At this point in the process, you will to do the following:

  1. develop a purpose or thesis statement that states what the writing will be about (based on your research question)
  2. explain your thoughts more fully in a manner consistent with your purpose and audience
  3. provide supporting evidence from your research
  4. for fiction: use research to add details, depth and richness to your story
  5. for non-fiction: detail how the data relates to your ideas about the topic and explain how all your ideas and research date prove your thesis or purpose statement

As you are writing, focus only on that. Some of us have a tendency to correct typos, grammar or word choices as we are writing, but that can interfere with the flow of ideas. Writing is, after all, a learning process. The act of writing continues the synthesizing of data begun during Phase I. Whatever you notice about the quality of the writing, Just make a note of what you discovered and keep on writing. Once you have finished the first full draft, put it aside for a day or two so that when you begin revisions, you can look at what you’ve written with a fresh outlook.

Phase III – Revision

Revising is the phase where you make many, and sometimes substantial, changes to your rough draft.  Review any notes you made during Phase II. The best course is to work on content, structure, cohesion and flow. During revision, you may need to reorder, or rewrite, paragraphs, pages or whole chapters to provide a more logical progression of ideas toward the conclusion you wish to reach. Don’t waste time on grammar and typos in sections that may be completely rewritten (more than once) before you have a final draft that needs polishing.

Many writers find it helpful to receive feedback on a revised draft from at least one other person. Ideally, this would be someone in your target audience. They can discuss the terminology, how well each paragraph builds upon the last, whether you need more or different research, and if you have sufficiently supported your thesis (aka purpose in writing).

Once you have a final draft, you will need to proofread and polish it. It is easier to make several passes at this because there are so many things to consider when revising. 

  • Microsoft Word and Google Docs can help you find and correct grammatical, mechanical and punctuation.
  • Word choices – as stated in a previous post, use better words and a variety of words.
  • Vary sentence structure and lengths – this helps with the readability and flow of your writing.
  • Subject-verb agreement – whether your subject is singular or plural, your verb should be too. Check out this resource.
  • Switching tenses – As a general rule, you should pick one tense and stick to it. For writing that is supported with evidence, that is usually past tense since the studies you will cite were completed in the past. You can switch tenses, but be sure it is for the right reasons. Here is a resource. A lot of fiction writing today is written in the present tense. Whatever tense you use, make sure it make sense with the purpose.
  • Transitions – each paragraph should flow smoothly from one to the next with each consecutive paragraph building upon the information in the preceding passage.
  • Read your paper out loud when proofreading to catch awkwardness.

Sometimes it is better to have someone else edit our work We can be too close and attached to our writing to be objective.

Engaging in Reading

Frank Dicey - The Novel
Frank Dicey – The Novel

Reading is an active, engaged exercise.  It involves considering the material and connecting it to your life in some way.  Asking yourself the following questions while you read will help you connect more deeply to literature.  What you learn from these explorations will make you a more effective communicator as you’ll be able to share your thoughts, ideas and feelings in deeper and more meaningful ways. 

How does the work you are reading make you feel?  Most literature is written to evoke an emotional response.  It is one of the clues an author provides to assist the reader in finding the theme, the message or idea behind the story.  Unlike fairy tales, the theme is not necessarily meant to teach.  A theme presents an idea in a particular way.  What we do with that information is up to us.

What scenes, sounds and tastes do you experience?  Authors use descriptive language to create vivid, animated pictures in the mind of their readers. Reading is a sensual experience as much as it is a mental exercise. 

How do you as a person, or your experiences, connect and intersect with the characters and situations in the story?  How do the characters and their lives compare to people and circumstances you’ve encountered in your life?  What can you learn about yourself, other people, and life from reading?  There is much to be gained from stories beyond the intentional themes depicted in literature.  Coming of age on a space station or in Samoa, learning to wield magic, living amongst aboriginal people or in a post-apocalyptic society where everyone is constantly monitored and freedom of choice has been eliminated are a few of the many experiences I have enjoyed or suffered, without lasting consequences, through books.

What do you notice about how the work was constructed?  Literary elements, such as the few mentioned below, not only enhance reading pleasure, they provide additional information about the work and the author.  There are many styles and literary techniques that can be used to subtly (and not so subtly – think farce) influence, highlight, and support the meaning behind the collection of words on a page.  Reading closely, carefully and actively will help you find the following:

  • Theme – The main idea that solidifies a work.  What techniques or elements does an author use to suggest or highlight the theme?  How do the techniques used support the theme?  How do these elements contribute to or detract from your experience of the work?  Why do you think that is?
  • Point of view – The perspective from which the story is being told – first person (story recounted by a character in the story), second person (reader referred to as ‘you’ by narrator), or third person (a narrator who is not one of characters tells the story and may or may not provide the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the story).  What is the point of view of the story and how does it affect your experience of the work?  How would the story change if it was told from a different point of view?  What is the impact of knowing only the thoughts of feelings of one character’ (limited), all character’s (omniscient) or no characters (objective)?  Does the point of view alternate in the story?  If so, how does that add to or detract from the story?
  • Plot – the sequence of events in a story.  How is the information being provided (i.e. chronological order, alternating between present action and flashbacks) and how does it impact the reading experience?  What picture is being painted?  How does it help the overall story to unfold in this way?
  • Story – the events or content of work.  What do the events say about the characters in the story?  How does this compare to your own experience or the experiences of people you know?
  • Setting – The time (past, present or future) or place (London, rural America, or the planet Alderaan in a galaxy far, far away) where a story takes place.  What does the setting tell us about the way characters look, speak and act?  What behaviors do we take for granted that might mean something different in another time and place?  Looking for the culturally bound meanings of words and actions can open a story in new and unexpected ways that help us understand better what it means to be human.
  • Tone – the overall mood of a piece of literature.  What does this say about what the author is trying to convey?
  • Symbolism – an object, action or person that has, in addition to its literal meaning, a figurative association that is shared by most people.  For instance, the flag of the United States is literally a piece of cloth but it also represents freedom to many people.  How does the use of symbolism contribute to your experience and understanding of a literary work?  How do you know what the figurative meaning is?  How does this relate to the theme?

Even if the content isn’t particularly interesting, studying how an author expresses ideas can be very fascinating and educational beyond the English classroom.  Reading in this manner will improve your written (and oral) communication because bringing awareness to the act of reading (or writing) transforms it.  The use of any of these or other elements in your writing and speech will provide a richer, fuller communication experience for all parties involved.  Think about people you know who relate events in a manner that evokes your emotion and imagination.  Listening to such people engages us on many levels.  Understanding how to use techniques to enhance your communication will help people engage and interact with you more fully.  Even if you aren’t a sales professional, healthcare worker, politician, customer service representative, or teacher, you can benefit from being able to express your thoughts clearly and fully.  Knowing your options, consciously selecting how to communicate, and observing your impact will keep you fully in the moment and connected and engaged with others.  And, I think, we’d all like to feel more connected – with people as well as the books that we are reading.

Writers on Writing: Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry photo
© Sara Jo West
Used with permission

JONATHAN MABERRY is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning horror and thriller author, editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. He was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. His books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

JONATHAN: Ideas are everywhere. I’ve never known a working writer who was ever short on ideas. It’s really more a matter of having the time to write all of the ideas in your head. However I’m also actively on the prowl for elements that will deepen my stories or allow me to build-in interesting hooks. I read a lot of nonfiction about politics, psychology, world news and current events, and tons of science. I subscribe to several dozen science magazines and also correspond with many of the writers and, more often, the experts in various scientific fields. If I want to build in an element of, say, genetics into a story, I typically seek out the leading experts and ask to pick their brains. I now have quite a network of world-class experts in molecular biology, infectious diseases, military technology, forensic evidence collection, hematology, surgery, and so on. It becomes a habit to see something, wonder about it, play ‘what if?’ games with it, develop it into a possible story, and see if that’s something to build into a short story, novel or comic book.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the horror and/or multiple genres?

JONATHAN: Technically I write thrillers. Horror is one of the variations on thrillers that I write. I write stories about people overcoming extreme threats or hardships. I don’t, as some horror writers will, write about monsters. I write about people confronting and overcoming monsters. That’s an entirely different head space.

The horror I write is generally built on the thriller model –the race against time to prevent something very bad from happening. I also write horror built on the suspense model –which is about dealing with things as they’re happening with no clear idea (for the characters or the reader) as to what is going to happen next or how this is all going to work out).

Writing for me is generally about the story first and the genre a bit later, though I have done some projects that are specifically aimed at the center of a genre target. The short story “Chokepoint” was a straight horror, as was the novella “Jack and Jill”. Both are zombie stories and that genre lends itself well to in-the-moment horror.

My YA novels in the ROT & RUIN series tend to be adventure thrillers with elements of thriller, action, science fiction, romance, and, yes, horror. The four book series is more or less a bildungsroman because it does follow a teenager’s growth from a rather naïve youth to a powerful young man, and it showcases the evolution of his worldview.

As for writing in multiple genres, that’s both a creative and business thing. In creative terms, I both dislike personal limitations and enjoy the opportunity to broaden my artistic horizons. For that reason I’ve embraced the opportunities –offered or self-imposed—to write projects in a variety of genres. I will never allow myself to be pigeonholed. I was advised against that by Ray Bradbury and, more emphatically, by Richard Matheson, when I was teenager. I’d gotten to know them both and they each warned me that fitting into a slot is a quick path to a short and unrewarding career. I took them at their word. So, I’ve taken some creative risks in order to write all kinds of stories. It’s easiest to see in my short fiction. In the last few years I’ve done a novella set in the Land of Oz (“The Cobbler of Oz”), an homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s August DuPin (“The Vanishing Assassin”), a ghost story (“Property Condemned”), an historical horror (“The Death Poem of Sensei Otoro”), a Cthulhu Mythos story (“A Footnote in the Black Budget”), a comedy (“Pegleg and Paddy Save the World”), a thriller (“Saint John”), a John Carter of Mars/Edgar Rice Burroughs story (“The Death Song of Dwar Guntha”), a western (“Red Dust”), an apocalyptic noir (“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride”), a science fiction tale (“Clean Sweeps”), a fantasy (“Spellcaster 2.0”), a story set in the world of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood (“The Million Dollar Hunt”), a werewolf adventure (“Strop Search”), a Sherlock Holmes story (“The Adventure of the Greenbrier Ghost”), a psychological mystery (“Doctor Nine”), a gangster vampire story (“Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard”), a YA thriller (“Fat Girl with a Knife”), and many others.

The other reason, the business reason, is because I want to maximize my opportunities to sell new work. If I wrote only in one genre then that’s all I’d do. Maybe a book a year, plus some side work in short fiction. Instead I write several books each year, each in a different genre, and they are published without me competing against myself.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

JONATHAN: My reading varies between nonfiction materials, books for possible cover quotes, and novels I read for leisure. So, for the first, I’m reading about new development in paleontology –particular dinosaur evolution into birds; as well as information on remote viewing, psychotropic drugs used for interrogation, and electromagnetic pulses. That’s for a couple of novels I have in development. For cover blurb purposes I’m reading Janice Gable Bashman’s first middle grade novel, FINAL HOME RUN and will then read Clive Barker’s NEXT TESTAMENT graphic novels in order to write the introduction to one of the volumes. For leisure, I’m listening to the audiobook of Ray Porter’s narration of Robert McCammon’s THE NIGHT BOAT, and reading the print version of FIELD OF PREY by John Sandford.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

JONATHAN: When I was a young teen my school librarian introduced me to several professional writers who were part of a club. I became friendly with several, including Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and a few others. Bradbury and Matheson soon became two of my favorite writers, and one Christmas they each gifted me with signed first editions of books of which they were particularly proud. Each year I buy new hardcover editions of those books, read them on Halloween week, and donate them to a different local library. Those books are SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury; the book that introduced me to fantasy. And I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson, the novel that has most significantly influenced the kinds of apocalyptic fiction I both love and write. My other two favorites are the TRAVIS McGEE novels by John D. MacDonald and the DAVE ROBICHEAUX series by James Lee Burke. The McGee novels are, in my opinion, the very mysteries largely because of the complexity and humanity of the lead character. As for Burke’s novels –the language is lush and gorgeous, the insights fascinating and the characters are completely real to me.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

JONATHAN: My three favorite literary elements are dialogue. rhythm and pace. For dialogue, I have two separate elements that I dig. First, love writing realistic conversations that advance the story while deepening our insight into the characters. Most of my stories begin with two characters talking in my head. If you’re not a writer, this is a definite cry for help. If you are a writer this is where great ideas are born.

The second element is the rhythm of the storytelling. A long time ago the wonderful and brilliant writer Harlan Ellison told me to try to write my stories the way the eye sees them. He was one of the pioneers of shattering the standard paragraph block into smaller bits. Short paragraphs. Sentence fragments. One word paragraphs. The effect is like listening to a piece of improvisational jazz. Instead of a straight workmanlike performance, you set to see the story the way the musician (or writer) does. That way the eye sees a flow of paragraphs of different sizes on the page and it follows the flow. Longer paragraphs slow things down, which is fine if you want that to be the pace. Sometimes what you want is a series of seemingly disjointed elements cascading down the page. This is a style also used by Ed McBain in his 87th Precinct novels. I’ve used it since about my second or third novel.

As for pace, I don’t allow my characters much time before I make life very difficult for them. I do character development while in gear, and I explore how the stress of certain kinds of events strips away affect and reveals true nature. Plus, I write very fast and I want the story to move along at top speed. That’s why there is a thriller element

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

JONATHAN: I tend to let an idea bang around inside my head for a while, then I’ll start jotting down ideas. Story elements, snatches of dialogue. Like that. Once I have enough of it, I rough out a plot. I always want to know where my stories are going, so I spend a lot of time developing the logical and exciting end to the bits and pieces. During the actual writing, however, I allow the story to change in the telling because that is a very organic process. But I keep the plot handy, and often revise it as the story changes.

One thing that I’ve found very useful in terms of hitting deadlines, reducing the number of revisions I’ll need, and telling a stronger overall story, is that I often jump forward and write the ending first. Then I back up and aim everything at that bull’s eye.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

JONATHAN: I am a professional writer. Except on days where I have business meetings or time-intensive author events, I typically write eight or nine hours a day. Lately my schedule has been to be at my laptop by eight-thirty or nine in the morning and write until midday. I eat and do an hour of fitness training in my pool, or walk on the beach with my dog. Then I go back to work and write until dinnertime. I set my word count goal at about three thousand words per day, but I often hit closer to four thousand.

I typically work on one novel at a time, and take short breaks during those to write short stories and comic book scripts. Currently I’m writing two monthly comics, ROT & RUIN and V-WARS, both for IDW; and will likely add a third title next year.

I also have to integrate time for business –emails, phone conferences, contract negotiations, creative meetings, etc., with the various publishers and agents with whom I work. And I need time to edit. I’m currently editing volumes three through five of the V-WARS prose anthology series; as well as three simultaneous X-FILES anthologies, and a young adult horror anthology.

Time management is key. I do not waste time. And, yes, sometimes I have to work overtime. That’s always a risk for the self-employed.

At my current pace, I’m writing four novels per year –average word count of 120k each; two monthly comics; a dozen short stories; plus interviews.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

JONATHAN: I have my next six novels already sold and waiting to be written. They include KILL SWITCH (book #8 of the Joe Ledger series), WATCH OVER ME (book #1 of the Dylan Quinn teen mystery series), VAULT OF SHADOWS (book #2 of The Nightsiders middle-grade science fiction series); GLIMPSE (a standalone horror-suspense), COLD COLD HEART (#2 in the Dylan Quinn series), and BITS & PIECES (a collection of Rot & Ruin short stories). I only do short stories on invitation, and I have a dozen of them on the calendar. And my comics are pre-sold. So…yeah, the ideas are there, the projects are there, all I need to do is make sure I have the time to do each one at the best of my skill level.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

JONATHAN: Unless a project wraps at the end of a work day, I generally take a ten minute break and then leap into the next thing on my schedule.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

JONATHAN: I don’t believe writers block exists. Writers who say that they encounter it most often are those who are trying too hard to make their first draft read like a polished final draft. They are imposing unrealistic expectations on themselves. First drafts should be done quick and dirty –get the story out of your head and onto the page. That process taps into the part of us that is instinctive –we’re either storytellers or we’re not. Once the essential story is down, no matter how flawed and clunky, we then shift mental gears and approach the revision with an entirely different process. Craft. That’s something we learn. The skills of craft include figurative and descriptive language, point of view, person, pace, timing, dialogue, metaphor, and so on. These are things we learn in order to refine our stories. Writers who understand that these are separate stages of the writing process never get writers block.

Another reason for the myth of writers block is a lack of structure. I know some folks rail against the sacrilege of writing an outline for a novel. They don’t consider that to be how an ‘artist’ does it. Blah blah blah. A story must have some internal logic or it is simply writing without a point. The plot needs to be nothing more detailed than bullet-points for the logical flow of one event to another and on to the best and most interesting conclusion. A plot doesn’t have to be set in stone, either. However having one gives a writer a place to start, a direction to follow, and some guideposts along the way so they don’t wander off on a tangent that has no value to the final project.

I also think that many writers believe in the block because they’re trained to. It’s part of the process of mythologizing the process of writing that the writer is more of an artiste than he or she is a professional. I was trained as a journalist and came to fiction much later in my career. But could you imagine being a reporter and telling your editor that you’re blocked and can’t turn in the story on last night’s house fire? Or that the political debate you’re covering didn’t ‘speak to you’. Please. I have very little patience with the kind of writer who allows anything to get in the way of writing. After all, this is what we love to do. So, damn it…stop complaining and write. If it comes out wrong, so what? That’s why we learn the skills of revision.

Image of some of author's book covers
© Jonathan Maberry
Used with permission

Connecting and keeping up with Jonathan Maberry:

Interview conducted in August 2014.

Dystopian Fiction

Image of some recent dystopian book covers

Dystopian fiction is very popular with teens this days.  It’s less popular for some adults who think it’s too grim.  However, many writers, teachers and even doctors agree that young people can benefit from reading dystopian fiction.  Some parents are reading and recommending such novels to their teens.  Despite the recent debate, these types of books have been written for children and young adults since the seventies. 

The recent popularity can be attributed to the publication of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games in 2008.  This book brought new life to the genre.   Written in the first person, present tense, from a female main character’s perspective, The Hunger Games attracted a new audience.  Growing numbers of young women began reading these novels.  Publishers began marketing dystopian fiction to girls.  These trends broke common misconceptions that females don’t read adventure stories and that women authors don’t write action-packed books with female main characters.  

No matter what we think about dystopian fiction these stories may just be escapist literature for some teens but all good literature makes us think.  We make connections between what we already know and what we read.  We ask questions.  Discuss ideas.  If enough teens read dystopian fiction and talk with each other about it, maybe there is hope for the human race and all other life forms we share this planet with.  Since children are the future, they should know what they’re up against.  Maybe they will understand how we got to this point.  Maybe they will find a way out of the mess we’re leaving them.  We’ve got some serious troubles: global warming, terrorism, rampant capitalism, human trafficking, the treatment of women, and starving children.  Maybe they’ll figure out what to do – and be willing to do it – in order to prevent disaster.  It’s a terrible legacy, but they need to know the truth.  How can you make progress if people don’t think things are that bad?  Some people don’t believe the Holocaust happened! 

It is conceivable that because of dystopian fiction teens will be able to turn things around and create a true utopia.  They are learning from these books how a society can seem to be a utopia, but in reality be a dystopia.  These stories have shown them worlds where no one goes hungry, where people don’t get sick, where no one is poor, where women are equal to men, where no one is homeless.  Dystopian fiction introduces worlds that are both good and bad allowing teens to clearly envision the future they want.  Who knows what it will look like, this future, post-postmodern, post-feminist, post-human mechatopia?

Literature can fire desire and imagination.  It can inform readers about what they want to create or avoid.  Dystopian fiction can spur a generation to greatness.  Despite their bleakness, these books offer hope and sometimes hope is all a teenager has.  Let them have their books and their hope.