You’ve got friends coming over at 6pm for dinner, and you want to serve fresh-baked bread. But you didn’t get around to starting the bread until about 4pm. So – what the heck – you decide to shorten the rising time. You knead the dough, shape the loaves, and throw them in the oven.
What could go wrong?
Experienced bakers would suggest that you’d end up with leaden, inedible bread that you wouldn’t serve to anyone — even friends.
Absurd as the example sounds, as writers we are often guilty of a similar sin. We skip the steps that contribute to a good result.
Trying to shortcut the process often leads to writing disasters.
The writing suffers when you skip over the necessary work of researching, outlining, and careful revision. And the writer also suffers, because you don’t get to tap into the creative joy of the work, and you know, at some level, that you’re not creating your best work.
Sticking to the Recipe
Like bread, good writing arises from a mystical combination of process and technique, mastery and luck. (See Why writing is like baking bread.)
When it comes to writing, you have to gather the ingredients, work and shape them, let them rest, and repeat the process. And, you have to decide when the written work is done, ready for consumption by others.
Yet it’s so tempting to try to do it all at once: to write something brilliant in a single pass, then retire in victory.
Even after authoring a book about the importance of process, I still feel the temptation to skip steps. For example, I try to “toss off” a blog post without taking the time to incubate and ponder the topic. Inevitably, I waste more time wrestling with the content before posting than I would have if I’d trusted the process.
Or how about this one: I publish a blog post, and the next day go back and fix the typos. Am I alone in this?
I’m great at rationalizing, and can provide any number of reasons for skipping the steps. For example:
- Lack of time: I don’t have time for the full process.
- Lack of importance: The piece doesn’t merit the full process.
- Impatience: I’m excited about topic and want to dive right into drafting.
- Laziness: I want to finish the project with as little effort as possible.
Do you use similar rationalizations? Let’s pick them apart, shall we?
Lack of time
Perhaps there’s only time for a quick draft and look-through before you publish something. That happens.
Whenever possible, let the writing sit a bit and then revise it before publishing. If time is tight, enlist another set of eyes to check.
Then ask yourself the follow-up question: Why don’t you have the time to follow the process?
Did you procrastinate getting started? Sticking to the process can help with procrastination. Breaking a project into its component parts makes it easier to get started. You can start immediately with research and incubation, before diving into the hard work of outlining and drafting.
Lack of importance
Perhaps you don’t want to go through the whole cycle of researching, outlining, drafting and revising because the work doesn’t feel important enough, or long enough, to merit the effort.
Here’s the follow-up question: Why are you writing something that’s not unimportant?
Is it work you can and should avoid? Or are you underestimating its importance?
Even if you have to do a project you’re not initially excited about, going through the steps of the process might invite creativity – revealing a different approach or something that you enjoy about the piece.
Seized by a fresh idea, I can’t wait to start writing. The words are ready to flow and I don’t want to get in the way.
But to put the best version of the topic out into the world, I have to go through the process, and treat this early writing as “inner research” rather than a first draft.
When you’re impatient, channel the early excitement into an early, free-writing file on the topic. Then use that document as notes for an outline. You might be able to use a great deal of the content you wrote in the thrill of the moment. Careful consideration generally improves the work.
Sometimes, I don’t feel like going through the effort, even though I know that I enjoy the work more when I break it into steps and phases. Laziness is a powerful master.
In the long run, it’s easier to go through the whole process than to shortcut it and live with suboptimal results.
Have faith in your process.
Identify the steps of of your ideal writing process and create systems that make taking the next step the easiest thing or your go-to routine.
Process improves the writing and protects us from ourselves.
The Writing Recipe from The Writer’s Process.
Dough image: Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash