My Writing Process
Recently, a friend in an email group asked this question:
For those of you who do a lot of writing, how do you do it? Do you have a set time that you write? When and for how long? Do you edit as you go or do you try to get as much as you can on the page in the first pass? How do you deal with writer’s block? What kind of physical environment do you create for yourself?
Here’s my response:
I don’t have a set time that I write, but I try to write every day. My writing process generally depends on what I’m writing. Academic articles and fiction are a little different.
For academic writing–which lately has been mostly about pop culture, especially television–I re-watch or re-read whatever it is that I’m going to be discussing and I take notes. My notes tend to be quotes from the work and any ideas I have about my topic. For example, I’m currently writing an article on the character of Carol in The Walking Dead (the television version, not the comics, though I love those, too). To prepare to put this article together, I started by finding transcriptions online and copying every scene with lines from Carol. Then I went back through all of the episodes and watched the scenes, making notes about what I saw and wanted to see—I put the quotes and my notes about the scenes all into one file.
I’ve also been reading articles and books about The Walking Dead and taking notes from those. My third step was to collate all of those notes (again, quotes and my thoughts) into a file. I generally keep my primary source notes and my secondary source notes in separate Word files. Then I started a third file with the draft of the essay. I generally don’t do anything like a formal outline, but I will sometimes sketch out the sections I want to include. Then I write until I get to a place where I need some of the material I’ve got in the other files. I cut and paste that information in, then discuss it. If I get stuck, I will sometimes go to the primary or secondary files and rearrange them to fit into my discussion; sometimes I copy and paste information into the article file as placeholders. Whenever I need to go back and fill something in, I use brackets so I can run searches to find the spots later; in this week’s article, I have a note that says [explain Carol’s prayer], for example. Sometimes I also do that when I have a lot of ideas coming quickly so that I can get all the basic ideas down on paper, so I’ll have a string of bracketed comments that I need to go back and flesh out.
At that point, finishing the first draft is a matter of filling in the information I want to include. I do some editing as I go, simply because the English teacher in me won’t allow me to leave grammar or punctuation mistakes or typos if I see them. Sometimes I rewrite a sentence several times; other times, I will simply bracket a problematic sentence and come back to it.
Once I’ve filled in all the bracketed material, I proofread the essay twice—once on my computer and once on a printout. I’ve recently started sending documents to my Kindle app on my phone, too; I can generally catch some issues that way, too. My husband often proofreads for me, too. And by then, I’m often sick of the essay and just send it off, hoping my editors won’t let me sound ridiculous!
Some of these elements are similar for fiction writing. I still use brackets to help me remember (and be able to easily find) sections that need explaining. I still proofread the same way. And I still do some editing as I write. And just as I tend to think in “sections” of academic writing, I tend to think in “scenes” in fiction writing. Thinking in scenes means that I often write scenes out of order. When that happens, I use a separate file from the primary one and shuffle the scenes around as necessary.
The primary difference, though, is that I don’t always know where my fiction is going. With academic essays, I have a thesis that I’m working to prove. Although I might tweak the thesis as I write, I rarely change it completely. In fiction, though, my characters will sometimes do something that I had not planned for. I usually have a general idea of the trajectory of the plot. But in Waking Up Dead, for example, I had no idea why the killer had committed murder until I was more than halfway finished with the first draft. I know the basics of my next novel, but I’m not sure where the heroine will end up; this is not an uncommon position for me, and part of the joy of writing fiction is finding out what her full story might be.
I have an office that I use for all my work: academic writing, fiction writing, editing, and online teaching. My desk is against a window so I can see outside. I’m surrounded by books and papers. I write directly on my laptop, but when I get stuck, I sometimes switch to handwriting; this seems to shift my brain onto a different track and helps me get over writer’s block. I write something every day, whether it’s academic writing, fiction, or my blog.
But the single biggest thing that I do to write? It’s narrating. I have an internal monologue—and sometimes dialogue—going on all the time. I think in words; when I have a mental picture, I practice translating it into words in my mind. I tell myself stories and I work out plot lines and I figure out arguments to make about literature. I think about the words to use to explain writing to my classes and I practice describing my surroundings. I think in my characters’ voices and in my own voice. When I get blocked, I go for a walk and let my characters take over for a while until I have another scene.
What I’ve learned in all my years of teaching writing is that writing is a deeply personal process; everyone has different writing rituals, and those rituals can change over time. I used to have to have a clean space in which to write. Now I just need a place to put my laptop (having a three-year-old child might have influenced that change). I used to have to set rules for myself: writing two hours a day, not going out to the pool in the summer until I had written three pages, and so on. I still use those when I’m stuck or resenting the need to write, but these days, the only rule I have for myself is this: Just write.
~Margo Bond Collins
Author of Waking Up Dead and Legally Undead