How to develop your Personal Writing Process
“What is the rhythm of a writer’s day? First, you enter your imagined world. As characters speak and act, you write. What’s the next thing you do? You step out of your fantasy and read what you’ve written. And what do you do as you read? You analyze. ‘Is it good? Does it work? Why not? Should I cut? Add? Reorder?’ You write, you read; create, critique; impulse, logic; right brain, left brain; re-imagine, rewrite. And the quality of your rewriting, the possibility of perfection, depends on a command of the craft that guides you to correct imperfection. An artist is never at the mercy of the whims of impulse; he willfully exercises his craft to create harmonies of instinct and idea.”
– Robert McKee, Story
No one can tell you what the writing process should be for you. Though there are any number of guides you can read or author’s processes you can copy, the truth is, the only thing to writing is to do it. You’ve then got to figure out what works for you. Make the decision to do so and get the work done.
Simple. You write, figure out what isn’t working about what you’ve written, and rewrite until you’ve improved. Then, you repeat the process over and over until you die. Or give up. (But don’t worry, that doesn’t mean you won’t improve in the meantime, because you will.)
You see, what we learned in school about learning, isn’t learning. Degrees may be awarded based on what you know, but results in life are based on what we do. Writers write. They do it again and again until they improve. What’s difficult is figuring out how to get yourself to do it, and how to then improve upon the mess of words you manage to get on the page.
As much as we all wish there was a magic formula, there isn’t. However, there are resources available. They have helped my practice, and I’m sure there are things that will help yours (because if I can do it, so can you, no matter how uniquely broken you might think you are). Use the following as you will and turn everything into your own. Develop your Personal Writing Process in a way that works for you.
Decide what you want
You are in control of your life, even when you feel anything but. The key to that control is choice. You choose what actions you take each and every day.
“But…” you might say.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I can’t control when my kid gets sick.” Or, “I didn’t tell my boss to give me more work during the holiday.” Or any number of excuses you can come up with, and you’re right. But that’s only one way to think about it. And, there’s an entirely different way to view your life. It involves a change in perspective that has to do with how you respond to those situations and what your attitude is toward them.
Because the reality is that you control what you prioritize.
I have a friend who complains that they can never travel. That they’ll never have the money to do so. They look at my life as if I’m some sort of anomaly. In truth, I choose to prioritize travel. I’d rather visit a new country than see a movie in theaters, or eat out at a fancy restaurant, or take a smaller trip every month. I choose to travel (and books, if I’m being honest), over many other things people want to spend money on.
And the same is true for you. Consider what you prioritize. Now, ask yourself what you want out of life. Don’t let your current subconscious thoughts tell you how to act. Really take a look at what you want (we’ll get to the how in a minute).
Do you want to be a professional or amateur writer? A good parent? A world traveler?
Don’t skimp on this. Take the time to free write, to talk to yourself aloud when no one else is around, or to actively explore different options. Think about the life you want.
Now, make the decision to get it. I’m not talking about a wish. I’m asking you to make a promise to yourself that you will become a writer. Or a painter, a good parent, a world traveler. Whatever you want to become, make a committed decision to do so. Meaning, spend the necessary time and money to get yourself there.
Because the truth is that you can set aside 15 minutes a day if you really try. Excuses aside, there’s no way you’re too busy to write 300 words in a day. And, 300 words a day is over 100,000 words a year. Stop calling yourself an ‘aspiring’ writer. Do the work; claim the title. And, even if you don’t believe me, suspend your disbelief for a while and just try it.
The key is that you need to know what you’re working towards. And, you need to take responsibility for the results you’re getting. If you say you want to write, but you don’t actually do it, you’re letting circumstances control you. You’re not a writer, you’re a dreamer.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t prioritize your children or your job, just that you probably don’t need to call your mother for a fifth time this week, clean out the closet that hasn’t seen the light of day in a decade, or finally take the dog for a walk. Well, you might need to, but not at the exact moment you plan to write.
The difference between a pro and an amateur is that the pro knows that you have to start somewhere to improve. They know the shitty first draft isn’t the end. They keep wading through the crap, keep writing despite the challenge, not letting life pile up in the way.
The thing that sets pros apart is that they know they can have anything they are willing to become. So long as you put in the work, you can become whatever you desire. A writer writes. That’s all. If you want to be one, you have to write. So, go to the page. Finish the project you’ve always wanted to. Write the crappy first draft. Once it’s on the page, you can always improve it.
What you will give up to get it?
You’ve made your committed decision, decided what you want. Now what? Now, you decide what you need to do in order to become what you want. To be a writer you need to write. You should also be a reader (and a decently prolific one at that). And, you should probably make time to study the craft either by reading books that work (or don’t and figuring out why), by studying craft guides, or by researching another author’s process.
You know what you want: in this case, to be a writer. What you have to do to get it: write, study, edit, write, repeat. What you will get in return: stories you’ve written. (Note: the book deals, bestsellers lists, etc. are all extra – the only thing you get from writing is the satisfaction from having done it.)
But how can you do it?
What if you do have sick kids or a hyperactive boss? What if you really can’t find the time to fit in 300 words?
Figure out what you can give up to get it and turn writing into a habit.
Do you watch a tv show? Turn on the news? Indulge in a podcast? Sleep a few extra hours? Take too much time figuring out what you’re going to eat each and every day? There are ways you could spend your time more productively. You have to decide what you’d rather have: a writing career or a few extra hours under the covers.
It’s not going to be without challenge. But, if you focus your attention on what you want, the goal you’re trying to achieve, you’ll be more likely to give up binging the newest show on Netflix to build the habit that will get you where you want to be.
Speaking of habits, they are how we get things done. Do you have to think about whether to shower or brush your teeth every day? Probably not. That’s because you built the habit a long time ago and now shape your routine around those activities.
When we pre-decide to do something, we take all the thinking (and self-arguing) out of the equation. We just do the work. Habits eliminate choices and save the time spent making them.
Let’s say you’re trying to save money for a vacation. When you know what you’ll get from not indulging on the new sweater you probably don’t need, it’s easier to say no (even when there’s a really good sale). You don’t have to have an internal argument or think about wasting money. Instead, you remind yourself of the beach in February and keep your money in your wallet. You’ve pre-decided that you’re saving for a trip and not spending money on new clothes.
For amateurs, when it comes to writing (or things in general that haven’t been made a habit yet), it’s easier to cut it from daily to do’s in favor of the unexpected but urgent. Instead, we want to set up our habits to serve us in the same way so that, when faced with the decision to get our creative work done for the day, we don’t have to think about it. We automatically do the work, no questions asked. Nothing that comes up will get in our way.
By forming a habit. By eliminating the unnecessary and attaching writing to something we do every day anyway. Say you make a cup of coffee every morning. After the first sip, train yourself to write a single sentence and celebrate once you’ve completed the task (I do so with a golden star sticker in my calendar).
Alternatively, choose a time you’re going to write (or do whatever creative endeavor you’re trying to accomplish). Mark that time in your calendar and stick to it. Perhaps it’s easiest first thing in the morning or right before bed. Or, use the time you’d otherwise be watching the news or sleeping in and fill it with writing.
Build it out so you know when you’re done. Are you trying to write a certain number of words? To write a certain amount of time? To get a story or scene done? Whatever the case, make it automatic, so you don’t have to think about it or wonder whether or not you’re finished.
Then, just do it. Every day. Don’t give yourself the opportunity to argue. Tell yourself it’s something you do, and get it done.
Take the necessary action
Action causes results. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write, but how do you actually make a career out of it? How can you improve? How do you get published?
Scientifically speaking, we can gain skill in whatever area we’re aiming. From The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle, “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.” Meaning, use deliberate practice to grow your skills and you’re bound to improve.
The definitive steps you should take are as follows:
- Pick a target.
- Reach for it.
- Evaluate the gap between the target and reach.
- Return to step one.
In other words, set a goal, attempt to achieve it, evaluate whether or not you accomplished what you set out to, and try again based on the results. Or, deliberately practice in order to improve.
Coyle defines deliberate practice as working on a technique, seeking constant critical feedback, focusing ruthlessly on shoring up weaknesses. You must “reach, fall short, and reach again” in order to grow and improve.
I like to think of it as failing your way to success. After all, you won’t know it’s success until you’ve done it and you can’t do whatever ‘it’ is without some failure along the way.
My process toward improvement is to write short stories until I have mastered the craft. (Find out more information here.) Your job is to get out the jumbled mess of words in the first place and then learn from them. How will your next draft be better?
Figuring out how to tell your story (novel, novella, tweet, short story, flash fiction, etc) can be tricky. I know I’m not the only one, but I don’t use Story Grid to write (though I couldn’t edit without it). However, I have pieced together some great tools to help me get words on the page. The following are books (or seminars) that have asked me to think critically about my writing. They have helped free myself of the paralyzing self-doubt and just get writing.
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
- Story Genius by Lisa Cron
- Anatomy of Story by John Truby
- Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
- The Robert McKee seminars
- Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
So you write.
Every day. (Perhaps an entire plot idea (or two) plop into your head completely uninvited along the way like what happened to me.) You get out 300 words and slowly build them into a story that you let sit in your drawer for a month. Then, you come back with fresh eyes to see what you’ve created. Now, you have to evaluate what’s there. The key is to do so honestly so you’re not too harsh nor too gentle.
Lucky for you, there are ways to assess whether or not you’ve hit your goal or come up short without toiling away for years in a basement on a novel that will never work. Including, but not limited to The Story Grid book, Story Grid Editors, and forming a critique group.
Once you’ve figured out where you came up short, you rewrite and repeat the process over and over until you have a story you’re proud of. If it’s a short story you can try to get it published on sites that accept them. If it’s a novel, I’d recommend hiring an editor before self-publishing or finding an agent. A great resource for tips on self-publishing vs. traditional is How to Make a Living as a Writer by James Scott Bell. Another, for where to publish is the Writer’s Digest book Writer’s Market, which is updated every year.
Just make sure you don’t cut out honest editing from your process. Taking criticism is a matter of understanding that the problem isn’t within you, it’s on the page. And, something on the page can be fixed. But, you have to be willing to get criticism from a trusted source if you want to grow, learn, and improve as a writer. It’s a vital step in becoming a professional if that’s the path you wish to take.
Where to Go from Here
“You know you understand it when you can do it. The writer works at his skills until knowledge shifts from the left side of the brain to the right, until intellectual awareness becomes living craft.”
– Robert McKee, Story
So do the work, dear writer. Write the words. Get the crap on the page. Analyze and improve it and try again. Find the process that works for you. Become the thing you wish to be.