On the Writing Process

Posted on: October 6, 2014

Post from Professor Laura Giovanelli

As a teacher of writing who also tries to write, I think a lot about how we get it done. Writers’ processes, that is. My process. My students’ processes. Other writers’ processes. How do we go from a fuzzy notion–what Roland Barthes called a “seed,” the beginning of writing–to a polished piece? It’s kind of a miracle.

Right now I’m working on what I hope will be a novel, and it’s easily one of the most challenging writing I’ve ever done. I was a full time daily newspaper writer for nine years, and during that time, I wrote and wrote and wrote nearly every day. The upside of all that reporting and writing was that the nearly instant gratification: my byline, in print, a least a few times a week. Even the longer term, more narratively driven reporting projects were measured in months, not years, and that’s generally true about journalism across the board–news, after, needs to be timely.

This novel making is really some of the longest and messiest writing process I’ve ever encountered. In addition to the slow and often scary task of just getting words down on the page–any words–to later revise and reshape into something that feels more alive, I’m attempting to work in historical fiction. A lot of my time is spent tracking down details of everyday life to build the particular spirit, time, and place my characters inhabit. My setting for this book is a centered around an American Midwestern farm in the first half of the 20th century, so I’m very much interested in what people did and how they did it, from washing clothes and cooking to something more dramatic but unfortunately not rare, like fatal accidents. At a certain point, this research drifts into procrastination. I force myself to move on with the laying down of words, making notes about where I should come back later when I’ve given myself permission to go back to research.

I also know that a lot of my writing happens away from the computer; sometimes I forget to give myself credit for that; in graduate school, my wise thesis advisor and mentor Jill McCorkle was always reminding me of this. I may have logged a few hours one day getting down the skeleton of a scene, but often I think of a logical–or more interesting–bite of plot or characterization or detail while my hands are otherwise occupied, while I am mowing the grass, washing dishes, or walking the dogs.

All this is to say that I didn’t even realize how messy my own writing process was until I drew it this semester as a way of modeling this very circular work for my students. ¬†And I forget some of the parts, sometimes. It’s hard to see, but notice how I added outlining in later? Almost forget that vital part. I am a very sketchy outliner, but I usually find even a spare outline helps me drive forward. Which is the ultimate lesson here: writing is non-linear but also highly individual, based on the writer and the project.

laura's writing process

I asked a few of my students in one of my sections of WRI 111: The Writing Seminar draw their classmates’ writing processes, too, scribbling it down on a whiteboard as their colleagues spoke. I wanted to share one of my favorites here alongside my own process, my student and first-year student Josh Litchman, who drew the writing process of his classmate, Jen Corradi.

Jen.Joshwriting process

Jen says about her process, which is focused on the academic writing she needs to do for school, I begin by making a list of topics that I am interested in writing about and then do some background reading. I then choose the topic that sounds most interesting and do more in-depth research. I free write on what I have learned to help me come up with my argument and then generate a working thesis and my main arguments. I research more to find evidence and then head to the computer to write my first draft. I make sure to not filter myself and allow myself to get all of my ideas out on paper.

I then try and create an outline based off of my this writing and better organize my ideas. I look for gaps in my work and continue to research to strengthen my argument and rewrite and rewrite. I then share my work with others to get some outside feedback and make necessary changes. I continue to edit until I am pleased with my work and submit a final draft.

I think it helps more novice writers to hear that someone who is more experienced than them doesn’t necessarily have it all figured out, but that they have the persistence and patience to see the process through to the end. We’re all trying to figure this writing thing out, and how our processes work.

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