Over the past month, I’ve published dozens of essays, stories, articles, and even a few poems. And it turns out that all I had to do to become one of those annoying “prolific writers” was to break up my writing process into bite-sized pieces.
Here’s how to transform your writing process from a time-consuming chore into an addictive daily habit in four simple steps.
Your simple writing checklist
I won’t keep you waiting for the big reveal. Here are the four stages of the writing process that have helped me write every single day:
- First Draft
- Rewrites & Revision
- Editing & Proofreading
That’s it. That’s the recipe for high-quality, sustained creative output. It looks boring, right? A little too simple? Well, you’re right.
It is simple, and that’s why it works.
Because if you can actually move through these four steps you can create better writing with less effort, a lot more often.
Step 1: Ideation
Every article or story starts with an idea.
The first step of writing for a client is pitching an idea. You write a title, a short summary, some details, then open with a compelling lede (2–5 sentences). If you're a rockstar you add a few section headers and some helpful links, give an estimated word count and your rates, and click send.
When you write for yourself, the same rules apply. My ideation process always includes three things:
- An opening sentence (sometimes a whole paragraph!)
- A (good-ish) title
- At least three H2 style section headers
That’s it. When I get an idea, I spend a few minutes honing the “pitch” until I have an idea for the tone and perspective. Is the article primarily helpful, instructive, inspirational, funny? Maybe all four.
Format your idea into a draft or jot it down in your journal and walk away. Congratulations, you just finished step one of the writing process.
Reading is important for writers
If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, that’s ok. It happens all the time. But that doesn’t mean you have to just accept it.
Step away from the keyboard and go pick up a book. It doesn’t even have to be a good book.
“The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” — Samuel Johnson
There’s a reason that so many great writers are prodigious readers. You need a steady flow of quality input to create quality writing. Feed yourself words until you have something worth writing about.
And when you get that precious idea, drop what you’re doing and write it down so you can hit the ground running when it’s time for phase two.
Step 2: First draft
I don’t care how good you are, your best work rarely comes out on the first try. Writing just doesn’t work that way. And that’s why you need to write a first draft.
Basically, a first draft is your chance to get the bad ideas out of your system. Don’t worry, you’ll have a lot of them. The beauty of a draft is that you can discard the worst writing and polish anything that looks promising during the editing and revision process.
Heck, you can trash the whole thing if it’s unsalvageable. But the important thing is that you’ve already started writing. And that’s going to lead to better results.
Too many writers skip the first draft phase thinking (incorrectly) that they can produce more work by writing and publishing as quickly as possible.
And that’s a real shame.
Because your first draft is easily the most fun—and interesting—part of the entire writing process. It’s a place where you can fail without judgment, and experiment without consequence. It’s the chance to rehearse before the big show, and without it a practice run, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
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Step 3: Revision and rewrites
Writing is rewriting. You’ve heard it a hundred times, and that's because it’s true.
“You must be a perfectionist,” wrote Roald Dahl. “That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.”
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Most of my best writing is unrecognizable from the original first draft. Because unlike your first draft, revision isn’t a mad scramble to get new ideas onto the page.
Revision and rewrites are all about time, focus, and patience.
Step away from your computer. Take a shower. Make lunch. Go for a walk. Call a friend. Play with a dog. Play with two dogs. You have to mentally exit the space you just occupied as a “writer” and only re-enter the process when you’re ready to see your work with fresh eyes—the eyes of a critical reader and a merciless editor.
Or as Hemingway puts it:
After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy, as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not know truly how good until I read it over the next day.
I usually sleep on a first draft and come back to rewrite and revise it the next morning. But I know some great writers who rewrite and revise their work during the evening after dinner.
Find whatever works for you.
Just make sure that you’re ready to challenge what you’ve written. Argue with the person who wrote these words. Take each sentence apart and think about how you would do it better. Then do it better.
Also, now is the time to write and rewrite your title and subtitle. You should have a good enough grasp of your story to construct a great title. Don’t move on until you’re happy with your title and subtitle.
I understand the pressure to publish something every day. I really do. When you “finish” an article or story you want to get it up and out for the world to read as soon as possible. But taking a little more time to find your voice is well worth the effort.
Step 4: Editing & proofreading
If you’ve done the first three steps, the fourth and final stage of the writing process is the easiest part.
Run a critical eye over your rewrites to make sure the changes improve the piece and nothing got lost in translation. Edit until you have nothing left to remove. Then read your writing one more time to catch any errors or confusing language that might trip up a reader.
My favorite writing professor in college taught me to proofread by scanning my writing backward from the bottom of the page to the top. That way my eye would catch grammar and spelling mistakes without getting caught up in what I was actually reading.
It sounds a little weird, and it’s slow, but it does the trick.
Making complicated things simple
There’s a reason why brain surgeons run through a checklist before they pick up a scalpel. And it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because complicated tasks demand simple step-by-step procedures.
So why should writing be any different?
Writing is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It takes time and energy and deliberate thought to write (and rewrite) something worth reading. Doubly so if you want to write something every day.
That’s why you need a proven procedure—a step-by-step process—that will help get you through the difficult act of writing.
Give yourself the freedom to dream up bold ideas, the space to create adventurous first drafts, and the time to critically evaluate and rewrite your work before you edit and proofread the final product.
Because when you break your writing down into these bite-sized chunks the entire process not only becomes easier—you become a better writer.
Shawn Forno is a freelance copywriter, content manager, travel writer, and blogger with over twelve years of experience. He loves to talk about himself in the third-person. You can check out his writing portfolio or his super-duper helpful travel articles for more helpful tips and tricks for writers and travelers.