Everyone’s writing process is different – here I share mine.
Sometimes writing an essay can feel like climbing a mountain. You can see the top, but it’s not always easy to see the path to reach that summit. You have a few false starts – one trail ends up in an alder-choked canyon, another trail leads to an uncrossable bog. But at a certain point you realize you’ve gotten past the lower-elevation trials and are actually making some headway up the mountain.
This is where my writing process kicks in.
I tend to come up with ideas and then journal (by hand!) about them, looking at them from different angles and seeing how they shine in the light (or not). I consider what I’ve read, what I’m thinking about, what I have on my to-read list, and I write meandering little notes to myself in my journal about how some of these things could be related.
Then I move to the digital palette, where I throw down all my journaled ideas, no matter how bizarre, and add in hyperlinks of interest and quotes I’ve copied out of the recent books I’ve read onto index cards. I write down everything I can think of that I feel is relevant to the piece.
Then I get creative. I get out my scissors and a printed draft of my notes, cut them up by paragraph, and then rearrange them into little piles of similar ideas. I might also crack out the highlighters before cutting up the text, using a different colour to highlight each different section topic.
Once I have my piles of paragraphs, I reconstitute them into a new document that now has some semblance of flow – note I said semblance because there’s no actual flow until I start working on it. I move paragraphs around in individual sub-sections, working hard to make each section hold together on it’s own. Then I move to the sentence level and make sure that each paragraph hangs together with a topic sentence and a strong link to the next paragraph.
Then I look through the essay, which is slowly starting to take shape, and figure out where to put scenes and what those scenes will be. I will always start with a scene, because I want to draw the reader in and get them to keep reading. I also try to ensure that each sub-section starts with some kind of scene to keep the reader going.
I also go over the quotes I’ve included to see if there are any I can paraphrase in my own voice, or if they’re even relevant to the text at hand (I have a quote fetish so have to be strict with myself about using them!).
Then I figure out where I need to add in my own voice and experience, to make the essay more flexible, less stiff. It’s easy for me to slip into scientific-ese, and my writing gets somewhat stilted. But I have to move beyond that to more lyrical and personal language if I want to connect with the reader. So that’s the focus of this go-round.
Then I read over the whole essay to see if it fits together from beginning to end, instead of being just a random collection of words.
At this point, I try to get someone else to read it. My husband just read my latest essay and provided critical and essential feedback about how to restructure and reword it. Two colleagues read an essay a few weeks ago and provided excellent comments. You realize from other people’s comments where you have gaps to fill and where you’ve been too repetitive – too much banging on a single drum.
Sometimes, if the essay is really long, I might do the cut and paste a second time to make sure I’ve got everything sorted out, instead of getting confused by endlessly scrolling through the document in Word. But other times I just heavily mark up a printed copy of the essay and move things around that way.
I give it a final read through, looking for typos and missed words, and – I learned this from someone in one of the writer’s groups I’m in – sometimes I’ll read sections aloud to myself to see if they make sense and sound good. This is a good way to find repeated words or phrases that you might want to edit out.
Finally, after much agonizing, I send it to the editor, and agonize over it until I hear back about revisions.
People have recommended Scrivener to me because it is similar to the index card-heavy, fragmented approach I take, but I don’t think it would be the same to do it on the computer – it’s less tactile.
I’m keen to hear what your process is – leave your ideas in the comments section!