For many years I taught creative writing—poetry and short stories—at the college level. Now I write poems, novels and nonfiction essays. The suggestions below apply to all genres, including those I haven’t worked in. How do I know that? Because the process of writing is remarkably similar whether you’re writing a few lyric lines or 80,000 words of prose. With some practice you’ll learn to recognize the process and use it to your advantage.
Pay attention to the work you produce, yes, but also how you felt as you were writing it. Notice when you’re happy as you work—when you disappear into doing it—and try to replicate the conditions.
If you’re a night owl, write at night. Does drinking coffee help, or going for a walk first? Do you like background music, or silence, or a table at a noisy, neighborhood Starbuck’s?
It’s often said that writing is a lonely art. That may be true, but it’s important to realize that the lonely part is only the first step. Producing that rough draft does require some degree of solitude, away from the distractions of friends, television, housework, and anything else that gets in the way of putting one word next to another.
Does that sound daunting, even a bit depressing? It’s not the whole story. Writing is also about community.
But let’s start with the lonely part.
1. It will help you to focus if you choose a goal before you start. Not that it can’t change while you’re writing—it may well change and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes the work tells the writer what it’s going to be, instead of the other way around. Choose a word count, or a number of pages, or some amount of time, but choose some kind of goal so that you’ll be able to congratulate yourself on achieving it.
2. Plan a daily time when writing is most likely to go well, and stick to that schedule. Missing a day now and then is not a disaster, but two or more days away from imaging worlds onto paper will erode your momentum.
3. Write it all, whatever it is. Don’t revise as you go. Every time you stop to make it better, you’re preventing yourself from finishing the poem or story or novel in roughly the same mind-set you started it in. Editing and writing are two different things. So write.
Ah, you have a first draft? Great! But don’t think the work is finished. You’ve just begun, and the most enjoyable part of the writing process lies before you.
4. Put the draft away for at least a week. For some mysterious reason, most people value their work less immediately after writing it.
5. Find a group of writers who critique each other’s work. This may take some doing, depending on where you live. Cities often have such groups organized at libraries, or you can look for them through MeetUp. Or start your own, if you have friends who write and need feedback about their work.
Workshop styles vary, but try not to be defensive. When your work is published, you won’t be there to explain what you meant. So listen carefully to your fellow writers as they identify places they’re confused or bored by your piece. Clarify and tighten—in other words, revise. Don’t argue with your readers.
And give back to them with your own thoughtful comments, kind but honest.
Now you’re part of a community, sharing the things you’ve written about. And since the things we write about are important to us, our writing groups often become groups of friends.
Congratulations! You’ve taken your work to a new level by keeping an eye on process.
Or maybe your writing has taken you to a new level.