The Three Stages of Writing

Writing is fundamentally about the communication of ideas. Processes will vary from writer to writer, but, for professionals, it is imperative to follow these three main stages: prewriting, writing and rewriting. It’s also helpful to think of writing as a continuous process. A piece of professional writing is seldom accomplished in a single linear sitting; it is the result of much forethought and constant refinement.

Prewriting is the first step of the process and is defined as ‘a blanket term for a wide range of techniques designed to start a writer off on the right foot, both intellectually and psychologically’[1]. It refers to any preparatory work preceding the drafting process. Examples of prewriting range from the tangible – i.e. note-taking, listing, charting, plotting, free writing (where one writes continuously until they run out of associations), drawing or creating other visual delineations – to the intangible – i.e. daydreaming, imagining, theorising, visualising or empathising (when responding to external stimuli). Prewriting is designed to help writers familiarise with ideas, affording them greater understanding of their own fictional worlds. With this deeper conceptual intimacy, writers are able to draw richer, more convincing details. Work will theoretically flow better, too, as the writer will have a better semblance of what they’re working towards and will therefore be able to forge more organic connections between ideas.

PrewritingExcepting spontaneous prose writers and practitioners of trance or automatic writing (who write with deliberate detachment), all writers engage in prewriting. Daydreams, fantasies and moments spent questioning reality are examples of this. These can act as mental springboards, propelling writers towards the exploration of fictional ideas. In fitness terms, prewriting is like stretching; or, to use a culinary analogy, it can be thought of as preheating the oven. Either way, prewriting directly facilitates the proceeding stages of the writing process.

Plotting, a popular form of prewriting, is particularly useful for longer writing projects, as their inherent ambitiousness makes them susceptible to wayward deviations. Long fiction projects like novels can fall prey to pacing issues or become convoluted if not approached with diligence. Plans and formal structures aren’t essential, but serve as useful guides. However, some find preparation confining; therefore, individuals must decide how stringently they will adhere to plans.

Spontaneous fiction writing (colloquially known as ‘pantsing’) is, for many, an enjoyable and viable approach. It may seem bereft of forethought, and thus not prewriting in the conventional sense, but this is not necessarily so, as the unconscious mind is always ticking over, refilling the reserves so that they may be drawn upon during fiction writing. Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, speaking to Otago Daily Times, claimed that the ideas for his popular No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels poured out fully formed[2]. He does not write detailed plans; rather, he attributes his efficient plotting process to his subconscious mind.

Conversely, prolific sci-fi author Rachel Bach said on her blog[3] that detailed outlining has rejuvenated her writing process, allowing her to isolate the prewriting and drafting processes so that she may commit wholeheartedly to one at a time.

These contrasting examples illustrate how prewriting creates a smoother drafting experience, whether the writer commits to a tangible or intangible approach.

WritingThe second part of the fiction writing process is drafting. This is the real heavy lifting; unlike prewriting, which can take more abstract forms, drafting is the literal commitment of words to page. It is perhaps the most important part of the writing process; rewriting cannot even begin until the writer has put down actual content. Until drafting begins, projects can never really come to fruition and will instead remain ideas, an abstraction.

Perhaps because of this importance, the physical act of writing is wont to cause writers the most anxiety. In its worst form, this phenomenon is known as writer’s block, and can be paralysing. Les Zigomanis, Publications Editor for Busybird Publishing, says some writers defer writing because they fear they can’t effectively actualise their ideas. They fear their work will never reach the high standard of what they’ve idealised in their heads.[4] In the prewriting phase, ideas are vague and intangible; there are infinite possible approaches, and the possibilities seem endless. Ideas feel exciting, lightweight, because they aren’t bogged down with the specificities needed to make complex, engaging plots. Writing these ideas down means committing to a single approach – a single voice, perspective, prose style, etc – an act that sullies immeasurable perfection; it kills the prospect of what might’ve been. Unforeseen issues will inevitably arise during drafting, some of which may stem from the writer’s stylistic decisions. For example: in a story about a kidnapping, the writer must choose a particular point of view – the kidnapper; or, perhaps, the kidnappee. Decisions like these have massive repercussions and will greatly affect the narrative’s tone and direction.

It is, however, advisable not to become too preoccupied with the aforementioned factors. The writing process is for making progress, and analyses should be relegated to the prewriting and rewriting stages. As Anne Lamott writes in her bestselling writing guide Bird by Bird:

‘Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.’

Of course, not all writers are so readily susceptible to writer’s block; for many, drafting is the most enjoyable part of the process. It is fair to say, for a working writer, that the drafting process, often full of discovery, is the most like play. In an article in Daily Nation[5], Waithaka Waihenya reflects on how exhilarating a productive writing session can be, drawing comparisons to other addictive (albeit unhealthier) habits, like smoking and drinking.

‘One thing about writing is that it is hugely exhilarating. … And, almost in revelatory productivity, the words start flowing. All of a sudden, it is like the beginning of weeping. The only difficult part is starting. The rest cascades down all too easily.’

As evident in the earlier quote, Anne Lamott champions writing what she calls ‘shitty first drafts’. She believes many writers aspire to produce perfect drafts from the onset because they mistakenly believe that is the practice of professional writers. This mindset trickles all the way down to the book-buying public, where a common perception is that writers are wordsmith magicians who effortlessly communicate without need for revision or collaboration. This is likely because, in publishing, authors are typically awarded the lion’s share of praise. Editors, whose specific contributions to the final product may be sizeable (see, for example, the relationship between American writer Raymond Carver and his editor, Gordon Lish[6]), seldom receive much fanfare. This perpetuates the notion that writers alone are responsible for the quality of their own work. But drafting is not the stage for fretting about quality. According to Lamott, having low expectations for first drafts is healthy, and helps alleviate pressure. Steven King shares a similar sentiment in his instructional craft book, On Writing.

RewritingThe third part of the writing process is arguably the most labour-intensive. Rewriting can be a long, arduous process, depending of course on the nature of the work and its issues, and the meticulousness of those working on it – the writer, editor/s and, sometimes, the publisher. A common misconception among newer writers and non-writers is that good fiction is produced in a single, linear process. In actuality, constructing genuinely good stories involves relentless rephrasing, reduction and reinterpretation. Good fiction seamlessly marries all the elements together – voice, character, style, etc – and it is extremely unlikely (almost a certifiable impossibility) this will occur in a first draft.

Although drafting is of utmost importance, rewriting is a close second. Rewriting is really the only way to ensure the work reaches a publishable standard. It is the stage where plot problems are addressed, inconsistencies are ironed out and characters are culled or amalgamated. Misspellings and other technical issues are also addressed during rewriting. This is crucial if writers wish to be taken seriously and effectively communicate their ideas.

In her immensely successful punctuation book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss stresses the importance of a steadfast command of grammar. The book’s opening chapter, ‘Introduction – The Seventh Sense’[7], is an extended meditation wherein she mourns her nation’s declining literacy rates and lampoons businesses and other so-called professionals for their amusing syntax errors. Truss represents those who wish to uphold the sanctity of correct grammar usage. For many, a book with mistakes or substandard writing is not worth reading. This is especially important with the advent of self-publishing, which commonly sees writers put their work out into the fray without adequate revision or guidance from a proficient editor. It can be difficult to identify errors during the drafting process, as one will be too close to the work, too emotionally invested in it. Therefore, rewriting is the crucial third stage of fiction writing.

Symbolism is another popular way to enhance a narrative’s effectiveness and is usually reverse engineered into a work (or at least its implementation is improved during rewrites). In his instructional craft book, On Writing[8], Stephen King stresses the importance of rewriting, and the beneficial factors of symbolism:

‘When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony or musical language … but it seems to me that every book – at least every one worth reading – is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft – one of them, anyway – is to make that something even more clear. This may necessitate some big changes and revisions. The benefits to you and your reader will be clearer focus and a more unified story.’

Rewriting arguably trumps prewriting in importance, as a fiction project can theoretically be embarked upon without any planning at all. It can also make up for any planning deficiencies; with time, talent and drive, there are no narrative problems that can’t be fixed. According to Dr. Marc D. Baldwin, owner of Edit 911, a business staffed entirely by PhD-holding editors, rewriting is crucial for chipping away extraneous details and strengthening constructions.[9]

Busybird Publications Editor Les Zigomanis wrote in his article ‘Writers Write: The Ten Commandments of Writing (Maybe)’[10]:

‘If there’s one nifty comparison [to writing], it’s more like sculpting. The shape’s in the stone. It’s about chiselling to get that shape as right as you can.’

Stephen King shared a similar belief in an interview with Writer’s Digest:

‘When the story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.’[11]

To summarise: rewriting is the stage where redundancies are removed; the writer scours their manuscript for anything problematic, and strengthens their ideas and communication in order to tell their tale in the most efficient and economic way.

Prewriting, writing and rewriting are hugely beneficial steps to good fiction writing. Writers would do well to implement all three into their working process.


Bibliography

  • King, S 2000, On Writing, Scribner, New York.
  • Lamott, A 2008, Bird by Bird, Scribe Publishing, Carlton North.
  • Truss, L 2003, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Profile Books Ltd, Great Britain.
  • Zigomanis, L 2011, ‘Writers Write: The Ten Commandments of Writing (Maybe)’, Page Seventeen, 9, June 2011, pp. 25–30.

Sources

[1] ‘Prewriting’ n.d., Thompson Writing Program, Duke University

[2] Smith, C 2014, ‘Novel Ideas: Alexander McCall Smith Interview’, Otago Daily Times

[3] Aaron, R 2011, ‘How I Went from Writing 2,000 to 10,000 Words a Day’, Pretentious Title

[4] Zigomanis, L 2014, ‘Ten Excuses’, Busybird Publishing

[5] Waihenya, W 2013, ‘One thing about writing is that it is hugely exhilarating’, Daily Nation

[6] Wood, G 2009, ‘Raymond Carver: the kindest cut’, The Guardian

[7] Truss, L 2003, ‘Introduction – The Seventh Sense’, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

[8] King, S 2000, On Writing, Scribner

[9] Baldwin, Dr. M n.d., ‘Book Editing by Published Authors’, Edit911.com

[10] Zigomanis, L 2011, ‘Writers Write: The Ten Commandments of Writing (Maybe)’, Page Seventeen

[11] Petit, Z 2012, ‘13 Stephen King Quotes on Writing’, Writer’s Digest

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Guest Speaker Recap: Sam Cooney, Editor of The Lifted Brow

Sam Cooney was my most anticipated guest speaker this semester – partly because I’ve long enjoyed his ‘sweet petite tweets’ and partly because he’s been currently killing it (from my perspective) as the editor and publisher of one of the country’s most respected literary magazines, The Lifted Brow. I don’t want to blow too much smoke up his dress (unless he’s into that), but suffice it to say his CV, entrepreneurial skills and general work ethic impressed me. For someone just a couple of years my senior, he’s accomplished a hell of a lot. He also wears many professional hats. I wouldn’t be surprised if his business cards have stapled-on amendments that enfold two or three times.

Sam began his presentation by telling us about his unconventional career path. Apparently, with the advent of the internet, unconventional is the new conventional (like, hadn’t you heard?). Old career models are becoming obsolete; these days, a professional writer’s career path is invariably defined by its random discursions. It’s unsettling to think that the degree I’m working towards could count for everything or nothing, but that’s the nature of the gig. Unlike more traditional careers, the trajectory of a writer’s path is seldom linear.

Sam’s was no exception. His journey began with a false start university enrolment where he worked towards a business degree. He considered this avenue partly because he’d yet to realise his true calling, but also because his all-boys private school had conditioned him to aspire to traditional work. Fortunately, Sam spent his leisure time indulging hidden literary aspirations and it wasn’t long before he realised writing was what he really wanted to do with his life. Though he didn’t say as much, I suspect Sam’s business classes contributed to his entrepreneurial edge. If this is true, it shows that no life experience is ever truly wasted; writers will always find ways to draw from their pasts. It saddens me, though, that there are high schools out there actively discouraging students from pursuing creative or unconventional career paths. But it’s not particularly surprising, given society’s low opinion of the humanities. Continue reading

Conquering Fear, Realising Potential

It dawned on me recently that I’ll soon be turning twenty-six. Getting older has never fazed me (I know – easy for a twenty-five-year-old to say!) and I’m certainly not going to start wasting energy reflecting on what could’ve, should’ve or might’ve been; for the most part, I’m happy, and I realise that the life I have is proportionate to the effort I’ve put into it.

For those who aren’t aware, I’m a publishing student about to embark on his fourth consecutive year of full-time study. By societal standards, I’m what’s known as a ‘dropkick’; I’m sure there are plenty out there who’d think I’m getting too old for the student lifestyle. (Certainly Tony Abbott wouldn’t approve my recent unemployment streak.) It’s a weird feeling: the period of grace twenty-somethings are afforded to flounder and find their feet is, for me, coming to an end. It’s time to lay down some roots – or at least start thinking about it. Continue reading

Review: ‘Good on Paper’

9780980740547Good on Paper is the debut novella of Melbourne writer Andrew Morgan. According to his bio, Morgan was a recipient of an Australian Council Varuna Writers’ Centre mentorship and won the prestigious Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award, and so, guided by word of mouth and those impressive credentials, I sought this out. It’d been awhile since a book had tickled my funny bone, and this looked primed to do it. Continue reading

An Update (Inc. News of Recent Publishing Successes)

Just an update on what my last few months have been like, writing-wise.

Study

In late November, I completed my third year of study and attained an Associate Degree in Writing and Publishing. This was my first year at a new campus, and I only knew one other person going into it. (Ever the introvert, I know about three–four coming out of it.) Overall, a valuable way to spend my year. The course has helped me further refine my writing, editing and publishing skills. The highlights were the fantastic lecturers and the guest speakers, who came from all walks of the industry. I’m looking forward to 2014, the year I commence working towards a Bachelor of Writing and Publishing. (This will also be my final year of study, unless I go on to do a PhD.)

Published Work

I’ve been a little lax about sending work out this year. Although I came away with a string of rejections (mostly the encouraging, personalised kind), the string was not as long as 2012’s. Nevertheless, here are my two recent publishing successes.

  • The first was in the ninetieth issue of American literary journal, Crack the Spine. This story, ‘The Wall’ (found here), and I have been through a lot together; it had been knocked back – always with positive comments – and subsequently redrafted many, many times. I always believed in this one, so the fact that I was eventually able to place it feels like a lesson in perseverance. Notably, this marks my first international publishing credit. (Unless I count Vine Leaves – a journal that operates from Greece, but is run by two Australians.) Continue reading