The four stages
In last week’s post, the four stages Habits of Serious Writers, I mentioned the importance of actually writing, plus the need to redraft. Sure, you can publish a blog post without doing any planning, or any rewriting and editing.
The four stages don’t always have to be tackled in order. They don’t even have to be carried out by the same person. I’ve written blog posts to other people’s plans, and I’ve had my work edited by others. But it’s crucial to be clear about what each stage involves. You might not be creating an outline, but you’re thinking through what you want to say. If you have a brilliant idea for a blog post while you’re in the shower, and mull it over as you drive to work, that’s a form of planning. Some written pieces don’t need any more planning than that: you’ve got the idea in your head, pretty much complete.
Anything lengthy, though, will benefit hugely from a written plan. You can use mindmaps to generate and sift ideas, and construct a more linear outline as you start to shape your material. You’ll want to get some basics clear, though: your concept or theme, your main characters, and the ending. You’ll probably also have some thoughts about key scenes or chapters that’ll be included along the way. If you get stuck mid-way, take a break from the actual writing and look at what you’ve already covered and where you’re going next.
Use this as a place to record and explore ideas. Even if something doesn’t fit this project, it might become part of the next one. Writing on a keyboard – fast! We imagine sitting down at the keyboard, opening up a blank document, and typing away, filling the screen with exactly what we want to say, expressed clearly and cleverly. And maybe, once in a while, that actually happens.
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But my first drafts rarely look anything like that. And I’d guess yours don’t either. It’s almost impossible to get a piece of writing just right during the first draft. Rather than aiming for perfection, aim for completion. Not all those words will be quite right. At this stage of the process, you’ll have a mixture of problems, from the structure of the whole piece right down to the individual words that you choose.
This is just the nature of first drafts. It’s easy to look at your draft material and despair: you’ve written five pages of fluff, or you’ve realised that your main character is insufferable. You get to fix it all in the next stage. This stage takes a lot of energy: it’s an intense process of creation. If you only write when you feel inspired, you won’t get far. Redrafting or rewriting is when you take what you’ve written and rework it. That doesn’t mean checking for typos, or tidying up a few sentences.
It’s not unusual for novelists to cut out whole characters and subplots at this stage. Sometimes, what seemed like a great idea during planning and drafting just doesn’t quite work out. To redraft, you need to get some distance on your work. Some writers find that they actually enjoy the redrafting stage more than drafting. Print your first draft out, and start afresh. It’s tempting to just start revising your work by opening up the document and making changes.
You’ll do much more effective, large-scale revision if you work from a printed draft into a completely blank document. Some writers like to handwrite their first draft, then redraft onto the computer. This stage often gets muddled up with redrafting. Your redraft will have fixed many of the first draft’s problems.
Your sections will be in the right order. You’ll have cut out anything irrelevant. You’ll have added new material where it’s needed. But, even after redrafting, your piece isn’t finished.
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There’ll still be some awkward sentences and, inevitably, some typos. For many writers, including me, editing is the most frustrating stage. If what you really love is the fast-paced writing of draft one, or the freewheeling inspiration of planning, then editing can seem slow and tedious. You could have written a brilliant piece but if it’s riddled with poor grammar and silly typos, readers may not make it past the first page.
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It’s often easier to see mistakes when you’re reading on paper, rather than on the screen. Plus, on paper, you can cross out words, write annotations, etc, without making your document into a chaotic mess of red lines. Often, they’ll spot ambiguities, repetitions and typos which you’ve missed. Since you know exactly what you meant, it’s easy to miss the mistakes in your own work. Which stage of writing comes easiest for you? I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly.
I did have a question about your four stages. They are critical and you explained them well, but I am wondering if they are also for blog posts. I don’t know if I’m being too anal about blogging. It’s like publishing a short story each post. Hmm, thanks Mary, there doesn’t seem to be an update for the plugin available so not sure what’s going on with it.
Six hours for a blog post is definitely on the high side. 5-20 minutes doing a redraft and edit. I’d be interested to hear about your writing process. What’s taking up a lot of time? Do you find it hard to get words down at all, or do you spend ages tweaking what you’ve written? I always have a hard time justifying printing out my work because it kills so many trees and wastes so much ink, but I have come to realize that holding a nearly-completed work in your hands is worth it.
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Being able to go through with a not-red pen and marking all of the mistakes or things you want to change, justify the ink usage. It can be painful, but it makes all the difference! It does indeed make a real difference, and I think it’s worth doing — even if you’re not revising your work, it’s nice to value it enough to have a printed copy! What helps is to have time on your side. I have stuff published in my name, but whenever I rushed, I turned out shoddy work. When you are on a deadline, this can happen. It can also happen if you have an anxious personality that worries over end results like credits.
Writing is a funny thing and writers are funny people. Sometimes, ideas flow and sometimes you are blocked. Even a daily writing habits does not work for all writers. Some writers, like me, swear by the lightning bulb. It goes off and you are in the flow.
Also, the step by step approach may not work for some writers, who can go from point A to point Z directly without the interim steps. But a fabulous post, Thanks for your contribution here. I must admit that I am beginning to enjoy the redrafting and editing phase of my work a whole lot more since working with you as my Writing Coach, I now spend time looking at specific words and phases and really making sure if they fit with the message I am conveying. I am really enjoying the process but worry that the constant redrafting may be holding me back as well. It’s a bit of a balancing act.
I’ve got a time limit for my redraft of the Staff Blogging Course cos I’ve set a launch date. Pingback: Are You Over-Editing Your Work? I’ve found this both insightful and a good reminder. The more I think about the re-drafting and editting stages and how much work is waiting for me when my novel gets there, the more eagerly I approach my work in the drafting stage. I do sometimes lose focus and go a full week thinking and plotting, but not writing.
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You also make a totally valid point about editing on paper. My tree-saving mesure has become to make an ebook from my manuscipt and read it on my kindle. I highlight the mistakes and read on. This forces me to read on, rather than getting bogged down in the technicalities of a particular passage. The potential for instant editting gratification leads to the inability to focus on both the little errors and the overall sense. I’ve not used the highlighting function much, must give that a try!
Me: Oh this looks like a good writing website! I HAVE TO GO DRAW AN OCTOPUS! Thanks for the helpful tips, Ali. You’re right, new writers including myself skip the redrafting phase. I’ve regretted that a lot lately, especially when I look back at my older posts in another blog.
Josh Sarz’s last blog post . Thanks Josh, glad you enjoyed the post. And I think however much we redraft, we’re always going to look back on our old work and feel that it’s not good enough — it’s a good thing, really, as it shows we’re always growing and moving forwards as writers. Well that was another interesting article. I guess my weakness is the planning stage as much as the editing stage. And I used to be pretty good at it.
I tried to write a novel twice so far, but abandoned both attempts after about 200 pages. That’s of course no book, but it’s a nice page number for a try, I think. Not that it hasn’t been frustrating in the past, but since I discovered how much fun it is to write fanfiction and to actually get reviews, I can’t seem to find the focus to work on one of my book-ideas. But maybe I just need to find a place and a time where I can focus and try to plan my story. Thanks Kathy, glad you found it interesting. I find it tough to plan novels, too — I tend to plan out a few chapters at a time, gradually feeling my way forwards. But I agree with you about needing to know that the story is actually going somewhere.
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For me, that usually means making sure I have enough plot for a novel, not just a longish short story! I think fanfic makes a brilliant learning-ground for writers — though I hope you do manage to make time for original works too. Trung Nguyen’s last blog post . Thanks, Trung, glad you enjoyed it! I am more of a listener than a reader but still love to write. My computer has the option to read it back to me out aloud and it is amazing how you can pick up spelling, punctuation, repetition and logic problems. I can edit as I go along , and it saves paper.
But best of all I can tell whether what i have written is interesting or not. Stumbled on this, enjoyed it tremendously. Seems that everyone is writing yet complaining about the death of literature. Felt good to read a piece from someone who understands the technicals, the shitty stuff, despite the necessity.
Millions of bloggers will scratch their heads after reading this, the ones that pay attention will keep going. This is a great post, Ali. You’ve made a complex task as simple as possible. If I could add anything, it’s that I’ve found that time spent in planning is almost always repaid tenfold by time saved in redrafting.
Of course, people need to be able to deviate from a plan on the fly, because you’ll almost always be struck by great tangential ideas as you’re writing the first draft. Of course, people’s mileage may vary, but I couldn’t commit to writing a novel without having a very good idea of where most of the elements within are going. I also recognise that having a plan that I actually stuck to would definitely save me some time! This is the most helpful article I’ve found on this topic. I love your style, your tone and especially your method. It is clear, concise and practicable.