Every so often, an aspiring writer reaches out to ask me about my “process.”
And to be honest, I never understand what they’re saying.
When it comes to “process,” there are two types of writers:
- Those who absolutely freaking love talking about their writing “process” (and will talk about it even without being asked), and…
- Those who have no freaking idea what that means.
I am absolutely the latter.
The word “process” doesn’t even make sense to me when it comes to writing. People might as well be asking about my “writing contingency plan” or “writing ultimatum” or “writing carpool.” Like, I understand the word “process” in and of itself, but not within the context of my writing. At all.
So when people reach out to ask this, I am thoroughly baffled.
What the hell are you talking about?
What makes matters worse is that I appreciate everyone who takes the time to reach out and have a special spot in my heart for other writers, and this adoration only aggravates my confusion, because I want so badly to give them an answer but I fundamentally don’t understand the question.
Are they asking when I write? Where? For how long? Are they asking how many edits I make, whether I have “first” and “final” drafts, and how long I sit in between? Are they asking what kind of music I listen to, or whether I drink coffee or tea?
Sometimes I ask people to please clarify what, exactly, they’re asking, but even once we’re down to more specific questions (like those above), I’m still pretty baffled because I’m like, “I can totally answer that for you… but I still don’t understand why any of that matters.”
There’s no “process” for insight or creativity
Just like there’s no “process” for thought or play or humor or love or curiosity or hunger or arousal.
Writer Mike Zacchio agrees:
“You have to approach writing like sex: It’s supposed to be enjoyable, not stressful. If you’re trying too hard, everything will turn out awful and your partner (the reader) won’t be satisfied.”
Here are the ways I DO think about my writing
Rule #1: Just… do the writing
Like, do the work. Sit down, put pen or pencil to paper or your fingers onto your keyboard, and make words.
This is the number one “secret” of writing, and the only real thing that matters. You can listen to any music, use any tools, wake up at any time of day, and sit at any desk in the world, but the only thing that actually matters is whether you actually put words down.
I still think Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, put it best. In her TED talk on “creative genius,” she said, of her “process:”
“I’m not the pipeline! I’m a mule, and the way that I have to work is I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.”
Best-selling memoirist Mary Karr said,
“I’m not much of a writer, but I am a stubborn little bulldog of a reviser.”
And as Scott Berkun wrote, regarding his “process:”
“I start with the first word of the first sentence and then write the second word. I continue with words until the sentence is done and then I move on to the next sentence… It’s just hard to take questions like this too seriously as I don’t think there is anything magical in any writer’s process. You have to do the work and as you do the work you figure out which process works best for you.”
Agreed. Just do the work. Write.
I post almost every single day. I write even more than I post. I’m not saying this is the amount you need to produce; I’m only saying it’s what I do. I write when I feel like writing, but most importantly I write even when I don’t.
I just can’t stress enough: there is no secret. 99% of it is: just write.
Rule #2: Know who you’re writing for
(Or, for the grammar-pious: for whom you’re writing)
I don’t write for “everyone” and I don’t write for “anyone.” I write first and foremost “for me,” but after that I have very specific people for whom each piece is written. The vast majority of the time it’s two friends in particular — the same friends, unsurprisingly, I often reference in my pieces — who share a lot of the most common relationship questions.
Rule #3: A matter of making it “good”
Content: is this valuable? Does this address an issue/problem/question that readers have? And does it do so clearly, truthfully, and/or in a way that’s new?
Craft: does it have rhythm? is it a pleasure to read?
I think Scott Berkun has a really good list of questions when it comes to this.
A word on “Flow”
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a beautiful book on “flow:”
“The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”
An ex-boyfriend once asked me if I get into flow while writing, and I was like “bro, lol… of course.”
Like, yeah — hell yeah — I do. And it’s pretty much the best feeling ever. And when it happens, I know with absolute certainty that the piece is gonna be good.
But that being said: it’s relatively rare. A lot of my pieces go out the door with me having just focused but not having hit flow. I certainly don’t wait around for it. (Though you never get into flow first and then write; you get into flow only after starting.)
And on that note…
A word on “Inspiration”
One of the biggest crocks of the universe is “inspiration” (or its ugly bastard cousin, “motivation.”)
Sometimes people ask me where I get “inspiration” and this, too, baffles me, because I’m like “uhhh… life?”
Writing, for writers, is like breathing or eating. Like, guys: it’s literally thinking, but then you just put your thinking down on paper.
So, inspiration is: Everything. Anything. We can’t not. We always are.
Going back to the sex metaphor, asking about a writer’s inspiration is like asking: “where do you get the ‘inspiration’ to fuck?” I mean… wat.
And sure, there’s a degree of “better idea” filtering or brainstorming or outlining or coercing ourselves to churn through the work, but for the most part “inspiration” just is.
That’s the long and short of it
Sorry not sorry there is no “secret sauce.” Not for me, anyway.
But to answer some specifics anyway…
Because I know sometimes people still want to know.
For whatever reason, writers always feel compelled to share what time they wake up, so I’ll tell you: 6:30 Monday through Friday, and maybe an hour or so later on the weekends. And I write pretty much first thing each morning.
I get into the office around 8 am and I try to publish something beforehand. If I don’t, however, I’ll get to it in the evening.
Timing and Edits
“You post, like, an article nearly every day… they must at least take you…hours.”
I mean, they do and they don’t. Some pieces take 30 minutes; others I edit for days. But at some point I stop.
“Once you write… do you feel like you’ve done the subject justice? or do you sit on some articles for a while til you get them write, er, right?”
Well, “my work” / “subject” is not each piece — it’s the overarching “block of thought.” I never feel like I’ve done the subject justice, but it’s bigger than that. “My work” is, by nature, always in progress, and no article is “precious.”
They’re all imperfect, partial thought pieces.
Drafts and an “editorial calendar”
“I’d be curious to know if you keep a list of subjects/titles or an editorial calendar. or just a bunch of starts.”
Lol, no I don’t have an editorial calendar. I’m not even sure I know what that is. (But if a calendar works for you, then damn, do it. See “Rule #1”)
I have drafts, sure (at the time of this posting, I have 31 drafts in Medium, including one behemoth draft titled “Ideas,” which is exactly what it sounds like.) And yeah, sometimes I start writing and decide I’m not really feeling that piece that day, so I table it. I just ship what I want to ship most each day.
But like, HOW do you write?
“Do you outline, or do you wing it? Are you a speedy first-drafter, or do you take days to perfect? How long do you let sit in between drafts? Do you work with critique partners, and how many, and when do they see it?”
I don’t outline, I don’t perfect, I don’t sit between drafts, and my readers are the absolute best critique partners I could ever hope for.
In terms of getting it down: it varies. Sometimes I start with a couple of bullet points and then build them out, sometimes I stream of consciousness; sometimes I start with a block quote and build off of that.
In short: whatever gets it done. See “Rule #1.”
“Images…how long does that take you? do you have a special secret source?”
Lol, Google. My “special secret source” is literally Google images and I shamelessly steal (until someone stops me.)
Not usually in the first “go-round” of a piece, no — it’s hard to find music that matches my mental “rhythm.” (Though that being said, it’s a real delight when I do. One month I rode Angus and Julia Stone and Bon Ivor through 50,000 words worth of love and heartbreak.)
Edits, though? Hell yeah — bring it. My faves are usually gritty, guttural stuff like the Whilk and Misky Pandora station. But anything will do — I don’t care.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee, fam — you know this.
But honestly, my best writing happens during my second beer.
And you could’ve guessed that, too.
When it comes to “process”
It doesn’t matter what works for me. It only matters what works for you, as measured by “whatever gets you to write” — again, it’s Rule #1.
If you think you’re struggling with “process,” it’s because you’re really struggling with just sitting down and writing. If you focus on that, the rest of what does and doesn’t work will become apparent.
Sit down and write. Take note of what situation or stimuli compels you to write more (or better) and/or what holds you back from it. Do more of the former and/or less of the latter. And sure, research what others do, if that helps. But mostly, just write.
Give yourself what you need, then get out of your own way.