How To Up-Level Your Writing Process
By Christine Carron
No matter that writers are involved in the creative process, and often talk about the writing process, there is limited information and training available to help writers ace the process side of the writerly adventure. (My mission with Goodjelly is to change that.)
As a result of that traditional dearth of process support, writers are forced to cobble together a makeshift process catch-as-catch-can, grabbing for process nuggets at conferences, in craft books, and from their writerly peeps. The patchwork process that results will have many inefficiencies, can feel about as comfortable as ill-fitting shoes, and will often be far from any qualities such as fun, inspiring, and exciting.
The problem can become even more acute for debut authors, because now they are supposed to “know what they are doing.” Which they most certainly do from a craft perspective, but they may not feel so confident from a publishing process perspective.
So any process confidence they do have might falter as they are confronted with the challenges that arise on the publishing journey. It’s a great “problem” to have, of course. Still, the process challenges and process stressors for debut authors (and for already published authors, too!) can be very real.
The Problem of Outside-In
The idiom I used above—catch-as-catch-can—is quite perfect for how most writers have to piece together their process. Catch-as-catch-can is a type of wrestling, grappling, where the opponents use any means necessary to conquer the opponent.
That sense of grappling, trying to catch hold of something outside of oneself, coupled with the notion that something is actively struggling against the writers, feels accurate to how many writers are left to develop their process. With this approach, there is no space or guidance to help the writer think strategically or tactically about process in a way that takes into account their tendencies, preferences, knowledge, experiences, and skills.
Committed writers will stick with it, using grit and gumption, grappling a process into submission the best they can. But even for the writers who “win” this grappling match, their process can remain a point of ongoing frustration and confusion. They are left wondering why getting their work done still feels so fraught. And, again, that’s the writers who make it through the outside-in process gauntlet.
I have been told stories of (and have personally observed) talented writers who exit out of the adventure because they couldn’t wrestle their writing process in a way that worked for them, supported them, and helped them get through the more challenging aspects of the adventure. That always makes me sad for the voices lost and stories not told.
Effective writing process skills alone don’t guarantee literary success, but they will help a writer engage in the writing adventure with more confidence, clarity, and ease and not be derailed by unnecessary process snarls.
To build those stronger, more cohesive writing process skills requires a mindset shift. One that returns you, the writer, to yourself first—an inside out approach. One that is allowed to grow organically through inquiry, experimentation, and the integration of process best practices. Then you will not only end up with a stronger writing process, you will also end up with a writing process that is a perfect match to your creative style.
It all starts by you getting fascinated with you . . . .
The Importance of Being Fascinated
While grappling serves as an apt metaphor for the outside-in approach to building a writing process, I wanted a very different, non combative image for the inside-out approach. The image that came to my mind was an oak tree. (I love oak trees.)
When I looked up the symbolism of oak trees, I found this gem: “The oak is considered a cosmic storehouse of wisdom embodied in its towering strength. It grows slowly, but surely at its own rate.”
Embodied storehouse of wisdom growing steadily and surely is a perfect metaphor for using an inside-out approach to up-level your writing process.
My first job in the corporate world was to work as a business analyst. It’s a cool job. I got paid to be curious. To be a sleuth. To ask questions. To be fascinated with how things worked.
I invite you to get fascinated with how you work as a writer, and to trust that, like an oak, you have an embodied storehouse of wisdom. Make that the starting point of developing your writing process. When you start with you, up-leveling your writing process will be less fraught and so much more fun.
What does fascination require on a practical level? That you go metacognitive.
Metacognition and Your Writing Process
According to the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning, “Metacognition, sometimes described as ‘thinking about your own thinking,’ refers to knowledge about one’s own thoughts and cognitive processes as well as the cognitive regulation involved in directing one’s learning.”
Your own thoughts and cognitive processes are the acorn of your writing process oak tree. To go even further with metacognition, Cambridge Assessment International Education’s white paper on metacognition refers to various levels of metacognitive learners, culminating in reflective learners:
“Reflective” learners are not only strategic about their thinking (i.e., they know and apply the strategies that help them learn,) they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening, monitoring the success of any strategies they are using and then changing them as appropriate.
Let’s apply that same idea to writers:
"Reflective” writers are not only strategic about their writing process (i.e., they know and apply the strategies that help them write,) they also reflect upon their writing process while it is happening, monitoring the success of any strategies they are using and then changing them as appropriate.
That’s what we’re going for. Reflective writers actualize fascination with their writing process. They pay attention to how they get their writerly work done, test out options, assess the results, and integrate the new process possibility (or not) depending on the results.
At the conclusion of each process experiment, reflective writers also take a moment to celebrate, because even if the tested process improvement didn’t work for them, they still built a deeper understanding of how they work. That is valuable data and adds to their embodied storehouse of wisdom.
The “Get Fascinated” Process
Step 1: Get curious
- What is your current writing process? Or, alternatively, how do you get your writerly work done?
- Was it easy for you to answer the preceding question, or challenging?
- What is currently easy for you from a writing perspective?
- What is currently hard for you from a writing perspective?
- What gets in the way of you getting your writerly work done?
- How effective are you at protecting your writing time?
- Who or what is the biggest interruptor of your writerly time?
- What frustrates you about your current writing process?
Note: The purpose of the first step is insight, not a perfect detailing to the nth degree of your writing process.
Step 2: Run an experiment
- From all the new insight you have from Step #1, select one variable in your current writing process that you want to adjust.
- Come up with three possible ways you could create a change.
- Pick the one that you are most excited about.
- Formulate a hypothesis.
- Test the hypothesis.
Step 3: Reflect on the results
- Based on your experiment, did the change help you get your writing done with greater ease, add more clarity to your process, and/or create more confidence?
- If so, consider integrating that change into your process permanently.
- If not, let it go. No use keeping a change that adds no value.
Step 4: Celebrate and Repeat
- Take a pause to celebrate your deeper insight into your writing process AND your willingness to play and explore. Go you!!!
- Trust that as you continue to experiment and refine your writing process, your clarity around your process will grow.
- This will give you new possibilities to play with, to experiment with, and will ensure that your writing process chops evolve alongside your craft chops.
The “Get Fascinated” Process in Action
A writer friend of mine played with the “Get Fascinated” process. He was a bit skeptical about writing down his process saying, “it depends on the project.” I encouraged him to sketch out at a high-level the process he was using on his current project.
Next, he got stuck trying to detail his process out perfectly. I suggested he simply write out the 5 - 10 main steps of how he gets his writing done, reminding him the point was simply more insight about his writing process preferences. I also suggested he focus in particular on what got in the way of him writing and what helped him stay focused during his writing.
Note: In the beginning of your process refinement adventure, you will most likely discover some very low hanging fruits of potential process improvement. Which is exactly what happened to my friend.
He came back, a little sheepishly, and admitted that he had finally faced that he checked social media whenever he got stuck or blocked in a writing session, which did not help him get unstuck in anyway.
Him: “You’re going to tell me to just avoid social media when I am writing, aren't you?”
Me: “I’m not going to tell you to do anything. I am confident that you can come up with at least three different ways you might address this process snarl you’ve identified. That way you have choice and you can test options out to see what works best for you.”
Note: I was basically redirecting him back to Step #2 of the process.
He came back with three options. (1) Force block social media during his morning writing sessions by turning off his wifi and his phone. (2) Go to the library to write (longhand) without his computer or phone. (3) Write in 25-minute sprints and allow himself to check social media for 3 minutes in between the sprints.
Note: From a process tactics perspective, his first option would leverage friction strategically to make it harder to do what was getting in the way of his writing. The second option would use an environment change to support the behavior change he wanted. The final option established a baseline metric to support incremental change—he would be proactively in charge of his social media checking instead of it creeping up on him. All solid behavioral change techniques.
When he checked in with himself regarding which adjustment he wanted to experiment with first, he was most excited about the library option.
So for three weeks, he went to the library to write longhand. It worked, AND he missed drafting on his computer. So he did another experiment: keep going to the library but with his computer. That worked. The environment change was powerful enough for him that he stayed focused and off social media even when he had his computer and access to wifi.
Writing process up-level from the inside out.
The Magic of Getting Fascinated
If you want your writing process to grow organically and in a way that thrills you, attend to it with curiosity, experimentation, reflection, and celebration, i.e., get fascinated with you. Then your writing process will truly be your writing process, and a mighty oak of a process at that.