How I Write
February 13, 2016 § Leave a comment
How I write
One of the questions that I’ve been asked from interviewers, teachers, classmates, and even friends, is my writing process: how do I come with an idea and develop it into a polished, written, document.
I usually find these questions more akin to rhetoric than methodology. After all, every writer is different and every writing process – outside of physically sitting in front of a computer screen / typewriter / note book and typing / writing words into sentences, into paragraphs, into pages until the end – is unique. I mean, how do you walk?
But the question is persistent and over the years I’ve learned that is worthy of inquiry. People have an insatiable curiosity for how things work, and understanding the creative process is our holy grail. After all, who wouldn’t want to know what Da Vinci saw when he painted Mona Lisa’s elusive smile, or how Hugo knew what he knew about human nature when he captured it so eloquently in Les Misérables, or even when Rumi looked into himself and seemed to understand the powerful lure of spirituality that he then explored in his Divan and Masnavi . Or even Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, and Charles Dickens, documented in this delicious blog post by brainpickings!
I am by no means a creative writer (the drafts of various first pages can attest to that), but I am an eloquent writer who loves words. I am able to explain a process, conceptualize an idea, and explore a feeling. I am able to engage with my reader through the written word, which is both a remarkable and a humbling sensation. And in thinking about this process and reading writers’ responses to it here, here, and here, for example, I thought I’d document how I wrote my marketing pieces and university papers. It will not offer anything new, but I hope that it will encourage you in whatever way you feel you need encouragement, and help me grow as a writer.
Ideation. Many times I’m handed a topic and asked to run with it. That is one problem solved. But when you have to come up with your own ideas, it can get messy. Not because there aren’t ideas – ideas are everywhere! Read articles, books, blog posts, cartoons; observe the people around you; look at the places you are in at that moment, look at paintings, movies, objects, TED Talks; listen to music, to the way people speak, to their accents and their words; and Google stuff! Go down the Wikipedia rabbit hole! – There are plenty of ways to generate ideas, but it is choosing the one idea to work on that I think is the challenge. I try to keep a notebook handy (in my purse, on my desk, and on my nightstand) and every time I note something I try to add 2 to 5 points about what I thought about the topic. If I can’t think of it straight away, that’s fine too. If it was important to me, it will ferment in my brain. But it’s the ones that I write notes on that I work on first.
Why. Sometimes you need to think about why you are writing a certain piece? Is it a marketing content piece for a company; a story, essay or an academic article you want published; a technical paper that includes procedural details and a step-by-step process; a review; or even a personal journal entry for marketing purposes. Inherent in the “why” of writing is the “who” you’re writing to (and for), as well as “what” you could write about and how it will be written. If you’re writing a piece of marketing content, it could be a white paper or infographic written for a business audience; a journal article for an academic publication must adhere to a set of stylistic guidelines; and a review has its own set of conventions , such as Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism. Knowing your topic and your target audience (business, acedemics, general public) will help strengthen your paper.
Research your subject. Know what you are writing about. There are so many, many, easily available resources that it is no longer an excuse to be uninformed about your topic. Read about what other people are saying, question their ideas (a catch-phrase from a professor: question everything!), form your opinions, and then back them up.
Outline the paper. Think of the outline as a blueprint. I like to outline my paper, especially the longer pieces, because it helps me focus and remember all the points I want to make and where I think they belong. Most of the time the final work is not what I started with, but that’s the joy of writing. You learn new things as you go along. But the outline makes sure I will capture all of my preliminary ideas and whether they belong in my paper.
Pre-writing. All my professors at UMass Boston – the Medievalist, the Modernist, the Victorian, the Romantic, the Miltonian, the poet, the theorist – gave all their students the same advice: write first and the paper will develop in your exploration. That was key: you may have an idea, but you really don’t know where it will end up unless you write it down and explore that idea. When I wrote The Guide to the Top 16 Sales Enablement Solutions for the Enterprise, we knew we wanted define and differentiate ourselves in the sales enablement space, but we didn’t know what that definition was until I started researching and writing what I understood, and realized that it was a holistic endeavor that involved the entire company. Our marketing VP’s original 3 line definition finally became a short, single sentence. Consider this as draft one.
Writing that first working draft. If pre-writing creates the first draft, then writing that first working draft is actually writing the paper into unified whole. The introduction should be fleshed out, the main body and its sub-headings should begin to be defined, and there should be a working conclusion.
Proofread and re-draft. This is exactly what it says. Your first draft is not polished, refined, or complete. It is however, mostly there. This is what you read and decide: have I answered my questions; does everything flow in a logical manner; what can I elaborate; what can I remove; does it make sense; is it interesting; is it clear; etc. This is –hopefully – the working copy you can begin to polish
Edit, proofread, edit, proofread, edit proofread. Again, read what you write and edit the words, sentences, paragraphs, and essay. Shorten you sentences and paragraphs and use simple words. If you can shorten and simplify without jeopardizing the integrity of your article then please do so. If you can give it to someone to edit, please do so. I have an editor friend who will make sure the word, the sentence, and the paragraph are important to the document as a whole. I have another friend who reads the entire document and tells you if the document makes sense or not. My husband has an amazing eye for grammar and spelling! My point is any new set of eyes will help you refine your work just a little more. You do need to set a limit for yourself; if I had my way, I’d be editing and refining my papers to the nth degree because you can always make it better. My usual is 3 rounds and then I have to stop.
Other tips. These are things I keep in mind or do to help me with my writing:
Have a good copy of the dictionary. The United States uses the Merriam-Webster, but my personal preference is for the Oxford Dictionary. Have both.
Have a good copy of a style guide. I have both the MLA and the Chicago Style handy, and I am also familiar with APA.
Again, shorten and simplify where and when you can. Establish your Hemmingway, then aim for your Ondaatje, Atwood, and/or Roy.
Become an editor. I edit books on Booktrope and it has been an amazing learning experience. When you help others construct a sentence that is both eloquent and needful, then you are in a better position to look at your own work and make it better.
Make notes. Jot ideas down. Buy a good-looking, portable notebook and a pen you would snatch out of your best-friend’s hand. You want to enjoy the act of writing as much as process of writing.
Write. Write words you like; their meanings; put them sentences; write a small paragraph of a conversation with your 4-year old; write a haiku that makes absolutely no sense. Just write. Because the more you write, the less daunting it becomes. Not easier, just usually less daunting. That white page becomes a space you fill with words you love rather than a blank space.
(Disclaimer: I have written a shorter version of this article that I have posted on my marketing blog here.)