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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The Importance of a Writer’s Support Network

Being a part of a writer’s support network is, I imagine, a bit like being a nurse back in the Sixties or Seventies. What I’m talking about is the popular misconception surrounding writers and doctors: that they should be held in high esteem because they alone are responsible for the work that goes into their respective professions.

The show Scrubs did an excellent job illustrating my point: it regularly emphasised just how unappreciated nurses are, particularly when it showed them being undermined by doctors with bigger egos and less experience.

Hopefully nurses today get more respect from peers and patients than their predecessors did. Unfortunately, I really wouldn’t know; I’ve been fortunate enough not to have had much experience with hospitals.

Now, I know you’re probably thinking, ‘Well, Dudemeister (sorry, still on Scrubs), a nurse and a writer’s support team aren’t the same things’. And it’s true. They aren’t. Nurses usually play a much more active supporting role than the spouse, brother or friend of a writer. But the point still stands: these are important, but largely thankless roles.

This photo is copyright © stetted and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 licence

My greatest weakness as a writer is my inability to plot (if loose, ambling stream of consciousness prose was in fashion, I’d be laughing), therefore I find discussing ideas with friends and my partner invaluable. Still, I’m much too stubborn to accept any major pieces of advice; I usually find they contradict the vague, undeveloped ideas that already exist in my head. Character nuances and logical insights are, on the other hand, extremely helpful. Having someone constructively point out a detail you’ve overlooked is a real boon. I know I would much rather have these kinks ironed out in the planning stages so I can avoid doing an even heavier redraft than necessary. Continue reading