We think of the Writing Process as a series of steps, implying that we do each stage in order. Actually many writers, even the most devoted planners, skip around in their process, and events can disrupt the sequence. Most writers would like to have all the information before they type anything, a perfection rarely achieved and ultimately self-destructive. The novelist John Gardner, who was also a medievalist, never wrote a book on Dante because he couldn’t imagine reading all the scholarship in one lifetime.
Nevertheless, it helps to have a test or marker for moving on to the next stage. Here’s a simple version, based on knowing when to end each step:
IDEA: I can stop because I know what I’m after.
GATHER: I have the material I need.
ORGANIZE: I know what I want to say and how.
DRAFT: I have written the framework.
REVISE: I have finished this enough to publish it.
In the IDEA stage, you know you’re after a story or an explanation, what it’s likely to be about, what medium it will appear in, about how big it will be, possible starting sources, who might be involved, issues, etc. You can start out with less than all that, but you’ll gather quicker if you know what you’re after.
You end the GATHERING stage by using the tests in our discussion on how you know when you have enough. But the very process of gathering information, especially talking to sources, usually changes the idea. The topic turns out to be larger or smaller or deeper than you imagined. Sometimes the notion you start with doesn’t pan out at all. So you break the sequence of steps and return to the IDEA stage and redefine.
Some people write a little during the GATHERING stage, just to see what they’ve got, or if they understand it. The trick is to draft rather than finishing this writing; it’s really a form of notetaking.
In the ORGANIZING step, planners usually know what they want to say and how by jotting down some sort of outline or plan. Plungers skip this step and start typing to discover what they want to say. From one point of view, they DRAFT and then ORGANIZE. Actually, they ORGANIZE by DRAFTING.
The point of DRAFTING is to get it down so you can get it right in the next stage, REVISION. This step goes faster if you don’t revise at all while drafting. I like to use an analogy from sculpture to explain this counterintuitive concept. If I give you a block of marble and tell you to create a portrait head, are you going to carve the eyes first? Of course not. You shape the contours of the head, followed by the shapes of the face, and then the details of lips, nose, and eyes. Finishing details without the underlying structure makes writing hard in this stage.
You often discover during drafting that you’re missing something, so you jump back into GATHERING. Or what you’re trying to say just won’t land because it’s wrong or has big holes in it. In dire cases, you may have to go all the way back to IDEA and refocus the piece.
Events tend to bounce us out of this stage. You’re typing along, and the phone rings: new information. New in that you didn’t already know it, or new in that it just happened, a fairly common experience nowadays with social networks pouring information into the hopper. Sources call back during drafting, and everything shifts.
For some people, REVISION never ends because they never achieve perfection. However, the test is not perfection for you, but viability for your readers. You probably can’t judge when to give it up; that’s what editors are for.
Because REVISION also involves typing, it has many of the same trap doors as DRAFTING: new or missing information, unfocused ideas, etc. When revision breaks down it’s usually a problem of sincerity: you trying to say something you don’t believe. So you back up to ORGANIZE.
Some lucky writers just seem to march through the steps in order. Most real people follow their needs wherever they lead them through their process.
[When do you leap around in your writing process?]