Building a Writer’s Toolkit, Part 2: My Writing Process

Jamie Todd Rubin
Oct 1, 2015 · 7 min read
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In Part 1, I talked about my favorite word processor, and what made it my favorite. Word processors are the most obvious tools (beside pen and paper) that writers use to create. But professional writers (at least this one) do more than just write. In order to help define the scope of what my ideal writer’s toolkit should be, I wanted to touch on some of the things that I do as a writer, and the tools that might help with these things.

Things I do as a writer that don’t involve writing

Over the years I have learned that being a writer means quite a bit more than just writing. That makes things all the more difficult for those of us with limited time to write. Even if you have not yet made a sale, but intend to write for publication, there are things beyond writing that you have to do.

As a writer I get ideas. I can’t really speak to how this happens. What I can say is that over the years I’ve learned not to let these ideas get away. So, beyond actually writing stories or articles or blog posts, one of things I do as a writer is capture ideas.

Tracking my work is important to me, and has been a big factor in motivating me to write every day. Depending interests, goals, and motivations, what gets tracked varies from writer-to-writer, but tracking itself takes time. People track word counts, and time spent writing. With a tool like my Google Docs Writing Tracker, I’ve managed to completely automate the tracking of both of these things, but it is still something to consider for a more generalized toolkit.

Protecting my work is another important activity I engage in as a writer. I’m not talking about copyrights and other intellectual protections. I’m talking about the stuff I create itself. Once a week or so, I see someone in my Twitter feed griping about how they lost a document they’d been working on — or they’d accidentally deleted what they’d written that afternoon. With a limited time to spend writing, I want to ensure that what I write doesn’t get lost.

Most markets have a specific format for which they request manuscripts. These formats can vary from market-to-market, but they generally gravitate around Standard Manuscript Format. Producing a manuscript into standard format takes time. I am not talking about writing here. I am talking about taking what you’ve already written — whether on paper, in Microsoft Word, in a text editor, or on the pack of a napkin, and transforming it into standard manuscript format. Some tools — like Scrivener — make this very easy, but regardless of how easy or hard it is, it is something that I spend precious time doing.

When you begin to submit stories, you need to manage submissions. This involves keeping track of where the story was sent, and what the result of the submissions was: hopefully a sale, but rejections happen. So do requests for revisions. Tracking submissions is useful in order to avoid making amateur mistakes, like submitting a story to the same market after the story has already been rejected. It also provides a means of knowing when to query on an outstanding submission.

The day I sold my first story was one of the more exciting days in my writing life. It also introduced me to an entirely new aspect of writing: managing the business. This involves things like filing contracts, recording payments and expenses.

And, of course, there is the marketing and publicity aspect of writing. I go to conventions, sit on panels, give readings, do interviews and podcasts. I spend time on social media announcing new stories, or reprints of older stories. The conventions are fun because I get see friends and fellow writers who I don’t ordinary see very often. I have mixed feelings about the marketing and publicity aspect, but I know that it is an important part of being a writer today. Still, it is time not spent writing.

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Everything I do as writer that is not actually writing

When I look at all of these activities, and when I consider that I have — on average — about 30–40 minutes per day to spend writing, well, you can see why I am looking for a better writer’s toolkit. My goal in building a better writer’s toolkit is to maximize the time I spend actually writing, while attempting to automate any task that is repeatable.

The things I do when I am actually writing

Since I’ve covered the things that I do as a writer that do not involve writing, let me talk about my actual writing process. It is best illustrated in this diagram:

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My actual writing process, illustrated

1. Concept

So I have this great idea. It comes out of nowhere. I jot it down so that I don’t lose it. I can begin to tell you how many ideas have been lost forever simply because I said to myself, “Oh, I don’t need to write it down, I’ll remember it.” Two hours later: nothing.

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My Field Notes notebook and pen.

A toolkit needs to include an easy way of capturing ideas. This might be simple notebook. These days, I don’t go anywhere without my Field Notes notebook, and a pen in my pocket. I used to capture notes with the Drafts app on my iPhone, which would save the note to Evernote for me. But you know what? I found it faster to jot the idea in my notebook. That is key for me. If it takes too long to capture the idea, I won’t do it. Later I capture the page in Evernote later using Scannable.

2. Telling myself the story

Next, I write a draft in Google Docs, and I tell myself the story. This is something I learned from Stephen King’s fantastic book On Writing. No one ever sees this first draft, and there is a good reason for that. It gives me the freedom to write without worrying much about it. Since I am not plotter, this first draft allows me to work out the story in my head. I rarely delete anything I write, and so my first drafts — even in Google Docs — will contain lots of cross-outs. I will move passages around. But these changes are captured each night by my Google Docs Writing Tracker, and the GDWT sends the day’s work to Evernote so that I can see everything I’ve added, changed, or deleted.

3. Telling the audience the story

Second drafts, for me, are completely new documents, and complete rewrites. The first draft let me figure out what the story was about. The second draft allows me to take what I know about the story, and tell that story to an audience in what is hopefully, an interesting way. This is my favorite part of the writing process.

4. The feedback loop

When I have a completed second draft, I shared the document with trusted writer friends, who give me comments and feedback. Google Docs provides some useful automation for this, and hints at what a fully-equipped writer’s toolkit should be capable of. I can share the draft with my writer friends, and give them permission to comment on the document, or make changes and corrections. I take their feedback — which I always find helpful — and revise my story with the feedback in mind. I generally don’t write a brand new third draft. Usually the feedback is such that I can incorporate it directly into the second draft. But again, my GDWR is capturing all of the changes, so I can see the story evolve day-to-day, and revert to any version that I want, if needed.

5. Submit or trunk

Finally, there is decision time: based on the feedback I get from writer friends, and my own feelings about the story, I will either decide to submit — at which point we move into some of the non-writing tasks I described above (producing a manuscript, managing submissions, etc.) — or I’ll trunk the story.

Trunking a story does not mean it waste of time to write — at least not to me. For me, all writing is practice. I learn something new about the craft with each story I write, regardless of whether I submit the story or not.

Submission can be an onerous, time-consuming process, but since most markets take a close variant of the standard manuscript format, it is a process that is ripe for automation using tools in the writer’s toolkit.

Coming in Part 3

I’ve outlined all of the non-writing tasks I perform as a writer, as well as the process I go through to produce a story from start to finish. In Part 3, I want to take the first step at mapping the activities one performs as a writer to tools in the toolkit. Once we have the activities mapped to generic tools, it becomes possible to see where we can automate some of the processes so that I can spent more time writing. We can also begin to overlay specific variants of generic tools (Microsoft Word or Scrivener for “word processor”) to see how those tool might fit in to a larger, integrated toolkit in a kind of plug-and-play framework.

Building a Writer’s Toolkit

Thoughts on how to build an optimal writer’s toolkit that…

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