Whether you’re writing an essay, an article, sales copy or the great American novel, there’s a basic three-step process that, if understood and applied, can make it a whole lot easier for you.
If you’ve ever found yourself struggling to get the words out, or unable to get beyond the first couple of sentences, it’s probably because you’re trying to do the wrong step in the wrong order. Once you’re clear on how to apply this universal three-step method, you’re certain to find the process of writing easier, more effortless and hopefully more enjoyable too.
The three steps of writing are:
That may appear to be pretty much common sense! Yet you’d be surprised at how often we tend to get these steps muddled up, resulting in all kinds of problems. Each stage needs to be understood and done in sequence before moving onto the next.
Here’s a rundown of each step.
Planting a seed
Any creative endeavour begins with the planting of a seed. You get, wait for or are given an initial idea about what to write. Perhaps you have an idea for a story, or have received a brief for an essay or article.
Allowing it to grow
Once you have a starting point, you need to give yourself time to brainstorm and play with ideas. If you started out with a fairly broad focus, then you have to gradually narrow and refine it. If you’re writing fiction, this is the time to explore your story, theme and characters, to run with your imagination and allow the story to unfold and take shape.
If you’re writing nonfiction, perhaps you need to do some research and gather information and then arrange and structure it. The initial seed you planted begins to germinate and grow. It’s best to keep this stage as organic as you can, allowing it to unfold naturally. Trying to force it can restrict your creativity and obscure insights, inspiration and fresh ways of looking at things.
Creating a blueprint
Once you have a fairly clear idea what you want to write, it’s time to take things up a notch and create a blueprint. Whereas the first part of the planning stage should be quite free-flowing, it’s now time to arrange things into a cohesive structure. Some people skip the blueprint stage altogether, and that’s a matter of personal preference and also depends on what you’re writing and why. But I find rushing ahead to write before I have a clear idea what I’m writing about often leads to dead-ends and a lot of frustration and wasted time. I like to have a blueprint for what I’m writing — or at the very least a clear idea of the beginning, middle and end. Then I can simply relax into the next step and be confident that there’s an underlying structure in place to keep me right.
To create a blueprint, you simply arrange your ideas or information into the appropriate structure. If you’re writing a story or novel, try to put all the elements of your plot into place so you know roughly what happens when. What this does is enables you to get a sense for the structure, rhythm and balance of the story. It’s helpful to have this in place before you start writing, because it’s a whole lot easier to change elements at this stage than it is when you’ve written the whole thing and realised that the basic structure of the story doesn’t work (doh!).
This doesn’t mean the blueprint needs to be rigidly set in stone. It should be flexible enough to add, subtract or move around elements as you write. But it gives you a solid foundation and the confidence to start writing. If you’re writing an essay or article, your blueprint will set out your introduction, each key point in progression and end with clear summary or conclusion. Once you’re happy with your blueprint you can move onto the next step.
The mistake a lot of people make when writing is to assume that writing consists solely of — well, writing! But jumping straight into the process of writing without having a clear idea what you’re actually writing about is generally a recipe for muddle and frustration. So I’d generally advise people not to bypass the first step.
Once you have your blueprint in place, it’s time to get into the flow of writing. Make sure your first draft is just that: a first draft. It might be helpful to even think of it as a zero draft. At this stage it’s not about making it perfect; it’s simply about getting words down on the page. Now’s the time to write for your life and not look back!
Forget about formatting and editing and try not to read back over what you’ve written if you can help it. You may have a tendency to edit as you go along, trying to ‘perfect’ each sentence before moving onto the next, but it’s best to avoid that temptation. The next step is the editing stage; this is simply the writing stage. So make it easier on yourself: don’t skip ahead. You can edit and refine it when it’s finished, and not before.
The key to good writing is to get into that state where the words just flow with ease and effortlessness. There are different ways to reach that creative flow, and you may need to experiment to find what works best for you. One of the keys to entering the state of flow is to simply focus on the step you’re on; in this case, the writing. You’ve already got your blueprint in place so you don’t need to worry about that, and you don’t need to worry about editing what you’re writing — that’s the next step. Try to bypass your inner critic. Don’t judge the work before you’re finished, or you may never finish: you’ll simply end up in the sticky web of perfectionist paralysis!
Just let go, relax and write. It can be helpful to do a writing warm-up exercise before you start. For example, you might take a random word and do some free-flow association. Just write whatever comes to mind; complete stream-of-consciousness writing. Try that for five minutes and see if it loosens you up and gets you into the creative flow.
The final step is the editing and polishing stage. Once you’ve finished your first draft, take a break if you can and then go back read over it. It’s now time for the inner critic take the reins for a while — although do make sure that any criticism is constructive!
You’ll likely get a sense for the flow and structure of the text. How does it read? What areas need improving? What needs to be added and, more importantly, what bits can you take out? I naturally tend to overwrite, so my editing stage largely consists of pruning things back. Try to remove redundancies and be alert to repetition. A good mantra for the editing process (and perhaps life in general) is: “if in doubt, cut it out!”
Perhaps your piece only needs some minor modifications or it may need several successive drafts. Keep going until you’re happy with it. An excellent tip is to actually read the text aloud. This helps you get a feel for the rhythm of the words and sentence structure and is also helpful for spotting errors that may have otherwise slipped through the radar.
And those are the three steps to writing pretty much anything! Even though it seems so simple and self-evident, it took me a number of years to figure out this three-step process and to apply it to my work. The difference it made was immeasurable.
The most important thing is to know which step you’re on and to stay on that step until you’re ready to move to the next. No premature skipping ahead! This is especially important when you’re in the writing stage. If you’re always slipping into editorial mode and trying to make each sentence ‘perfect’ before moving onto the next, you’re almost certainly going to struggle. Besides, the sobering (or perhaps liberating) truth is that there’s no such thing as a perfect sentence. So just let go, relax–and write!
This article was originally posted on my other blog, Beyond The Dream, a couple of years ago and ezineArticles.com