Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.


My Five Step Writing Process

Now that I’ve been blogging for a few months, I’m slowly developing my individual process for creating content on a regular schedule [1]. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in order to create content consistently and on schedule is this: break the act of writing into smaller, discrete steps.

Here are the five steps I have been using to write my articles:

  1. Idea
  2. Research
  3. Outline
  4. Write
  5. Edit

Together these steps form a system. Having a systematic approach, ultimately, makes tackling any problem much, much easier.

None of the above steps are particularly novel or revolutionary. Other writers advocate similar approaches [2]. They might include more granularity between the steps (like a first and second draft) or they might include fewer steps by combining the researching and outlining tasks into a single step. These differences are minor. My key lesson is this: it’s easier to generate new content when I deconstruct the act of writing into its constituent tasks and focus my energy on one task at a time.

When I first started, I foolishly tried to tackle all the steps in a single writing session. This was disastrous. I’d sit down at my computer, take a deep breath, crack my knuckles and then stare blankly at the screen as my mind started to consider all the possible topics I could write about. Writers block hits immediately when I have no plan about what I am writing. This results in a downward spiral. If I’m not writing productively, I quickly get frustrated. If this situation persists, I’ll abandon writing altogether for that day. The result is zero progress for that session; objectively speaking, that is a very poor result. As someone trying to cultivate a joyful writing habit, this is the worst possible outcome.

This leads directly to the first part of the process, finding an idea.

Idea

The first step is all about finding or uncovering the ideas and topics to write about. Some people call this idea generation or ideation. Regardless of what you call it. The goal is simple but essential: identify the thing you want to write about. And this can be anything you want to write about. If you have a topic, a thing, even the smallest inkling of something you want to write about, your chances of actually following through and generating a short article about that thing rise exponentially.

In my entrepreneurial circles, there’s a commonly believed sentiment that “ideas are worthless, execution is everything.” This is true, to a degree, but while ideas might be dime-a-dozen, you still need one—and preferably a good one—as your initial catalyst. For a writer, an idea is far from worthless. Collect ideas and you will have plenty to write about when you sit down at your computer to actually write.

The strategy I use for collecting and organizing my ideas is to maintain an ideas list. This is a bulleted list where I collect ideas that might be interesting to write about someday. These ideas range from short, descriptive blurbs to more detailed, thoughtful paragraphs. Find the format and style of note that works for you. The key lesson is to constantly collect these ideas by writing them down.

If inspiration hits me in the shower, I write the idea down immediately in Ulysses (the app I use for my notes). If I am listening to a podcast or reading an article and I make an interesting mental connection, I’ll write that down. The key is to make the collection of these ideas a habit. If you are conscientious about saving your ideas, over time you’ll have an overflowing list of ideas to work from. This is a fantastic resource for future inspiration and will serve as a strong antidote to some instances of writer’s block.

Since this master idea list can get unwieldy if left to its own devices, you have to periodically review, edit and prune the list. I regularly revisit and review my idea list for new things to write about. You’ll be surprised at some of the ideas you’ve saved but completely forgotten. You might also find some related items in your list and other interesting connections you hadn’t noticed before. Editing, combining, refactoring your ideas is another part of the process.

After I’ve reviewed the list, I might take the most promising idea and create a document in Ulysses for it. The idea is then removed from the list as it has been promoted to its own dedicated document file (which will eventually turn into an article). The next steps in the process–researching and outlining–can begin.

Research

The goal of the research step is to bolster your argument or your idea with more ideas, facts, thoughts and content. You are assembling the critical pieces of information you’ll need in your article. The resulting assemblage of these pieces will inform both the content and the structure of your final output. This is why this part of the process happens at the beginning. The research step may involve notes and citations for source material like books, articles, authors, and other forms of data. It might involve gathering material from your own experience and personal notes. Either way, this is the step where the initial kernel of an idea gets fleshed out with more meat and substance.

Research can be an ongoing part of the writing process all the way up through the editing phase. It doesn’t have to stop once you’ve moved onto the outlining. Every step in the writing process can be highly iterative. Ultimately it’s up to the writer to decide how many times they want to cycle through the various tasks before they are finished with a piece.

Once I have the requisite critical mass of information necessary to put together a coherent blog post, I am ready to move onto the next step in the process.

Outlining

By the time I start outlining an article, I have my two necessary ingredients:

  1. The germ of the initial idea.
  2. An expanded collection of content gathered from my research.

With these raw materials in hand, I’m now ready for the next step: shaping the idea and supporting research materials into something coherent. I often start the outline with a one or two sentence overview summarizing the objective of the article. For example, this article I started my outline with this: “The five steps I use to write my articles: idea, research, outline, write, edit.” The beauty of the 5-step process is that, by the time I reach this step, having spent the requisite time thinking about my idea, the summary sentence often writes itself (and at this point, I'm already effectively dodging the dreaded writers block!).

Once I have the gist of the article down I start identifying the main points I want to cover in greater detail over the course of the piece. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of moving and reshuffling the material culled from my research into a more coherent narrative. Either way, I’m at a point where I’m starting to shape and figure out what I want to do with that idea.

By the time I’m done with this step, the boundary between outline and first draft is blurry. My outline may have paragraphs of rough prose interspersed with more traditional bulleted notes.

I don’t always complete this step in a single sitting. I’ll have a dozen or more unfinished outlines in varying states of completeness at any given point in time. Similar to my ideas list, I periodically return to my outline folder to review the individual outlines I am currently working on. Having an abundance of outlines in progress is a good thing. It lets each develop at its own pace and lets me pick and choose, as needed, from the most promising topics. Once a specific outline is ready, I’ll move onto the final steps of writing and editing.

Writing

With my preproduction tasks out of the way, I can finally start on what is more commonly considered "writing" [4]. If I’ve done the outlining part of the process effectively, the step of writing the article should be relatively painless. I’m still learning to string together words and sentences together to convey ideas clearly, but my focus during the writing phase is always: How can I express or explain this topic clearly and effectively?

There are those who say that writing is thinking and on this point I agree wholeheartedly. I find the biggest challenge with writing is having the patience to spend the time necessary to organize and clarify my thoughts in prose.

The good news is that, like the other steps, this can be accomplished iteratively. I aim to generate a first draft and then, I will go back and revisit the first draft and revise and rewrite entire portions of it to emerge with a second or even third draft.

With each revision my objective is continuous improvement. Can I improve the structure of the article? Can I improve the message this paragraph conveys? Can I make each sentence do more work while simultaneously eliminating redundant, ineffective and nonsensical pats? Can I remember to use a consistent style and tone?

Word choice is one dimension that creates many problems for me. I always find useless words or ambiguity on subsequent readings, prompting me to ask myself “what the hell was I thinking when I wrote this?” Another challenge is sequencing. How do you steadily build a scaffolding of ideas in sequence that makes sense and can lead to an even bigger idea than the preceding constituent parts? Closely related to the issue of sequencing is pacing. How do you get to a point quickly but not so quickly that you’ve overlooked explaining some assumptions that you failed to describe in detail to your reader?

These are just a few of the issues I have been grappling with during the writing phase. I hope to improve on these with more practice.

Editing

This is one of the most important steps in the process and, consequently, the one step that I’m most likely to skip, overlook or perform poorly. This is a shame, because editing is one area of writing where the return-on-investment is often guaranteed. I look at it this way: I’ve already undertaken a tremendous amount of effort to get to this point (e.g. idea, research, outlining, writing), why would I let it all go to waste by skimping on the final step of editing?

Done right, editing adds that final layer of polish and refinement to your article. It’s an opportunity to review my writing, to correct errors, tighten up the prose, eliminate clutter, and further clarify key points. The results are always worth the investment.

For me the problem always comes down to time. If I don’t leave extra time for editing, I won’t do it. After all, it’s a pain to do and, in my opinion, it’s the least fun out of all the steps in the writing process.

So the goal for me is to make sure that I leave sufficient time for editing in the process. Ideally I want to have one or two days before publishing an article to do this. That way, I can head into my writing session only having to worry about one task: editing. The reality is that I’m pretty terrible at this and it’s one of the aspects of writing that I’m looking to improve in the coming year.

Final Thoughts

While I’ve outlined a linear process for writing, it doesn’t always work as planned. Sometimes the steps overlap and blur into one another. Consider this a feature, not a bug. Use the system as a framework, but adjust as needed. There’s never a reason to be a slave to a process. There are no hard and fast rules here. If a step requires a dozen iterations to get to completion, let it be. Similarly, if I need to revisit a step—for instance, maybe more research is necessary during the editing phase—that’s fine too. The goal is not to burn through the process as quickly as possible. The goal is to use the system to facilitate the writing process.

I know I am making progress, no matter how slowly, as the act of writing becomes more enjoyable and less frustrating, . The ultimate goal is to get better at putting thoughts into words and words into coherent arguments. The process I’ve outlined will likely change as I improve. When that happens, I’ll be sure to post a new article with my latest thoughts on the topic. At present, I’m pleased that a few month’s practice have already yielded new and valuable insights into my personal writing process.


Notes:

[1] The publishing schedule I’ve stuck with on Mental Pivot is three posts per week—Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Furthermore, I’ve settled on a topical schedule that makes it easiest for me to come up with new content. Mondays are my Book Notes summaries. Wednesdays are for whatever I want to write about. Fridays are for my weekly link roundups.

[2] I’m far from having any expertise in this domain, but I did want to record my current thinking on this topic. I’m in the infant stage of blogging but I wanted to record my thoughts on writing at this point in the process. Naturally I reserve the right to come back to this post at some later date and mock myself or add to these thoughts. Improving a skill is a journey after all, not a destination.

[3] The internet is filled with awesome folks who have done a far better job explaining the writing process. Here the articles that have particularly influenced my current approach to the process of writing:

[4] Calling this step “writing” is a bit of a misnomer. In reality the whole 5-step process is writing. The alternative would be to call this step “drafting.” That might be more accurate but it sounds a little weird. So for now, I’ll persist in calling this step writing even though I know that all the other parts of the process are also “writing.”