The Four Essential Stages of Writing

by Ali on February 8, 2011

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In last week’s post, 7 Habits of Serious Writers, I mentioned the importance of actually writing, plus the need to redraft. I thought it’d be worth putting those stages into context – because they’re not all you need for an effective piece.

Every finished piece of writing passes through four stages:

  • Planning
  • Drafting
  • Redrafting
  • Editing

Sure, you can publish a blog post without doing any planning, or any rewriting and editing. Unless you’re very lucky, though (or writing something extremely short), you’ll be lacking a clear focus, the structure won’t quite work, and there’ll be clumsy sentences all over the place.

I wouldn’t call that “finished”, myself. I’d call it a draft.

The four stages don’t always have to be tackled in order. Sometimes, you’ll find that they can be combined – rewriting and editing, for instance. 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. If you’re struggling with a particular piece of writing, there’s a good chance that you’ve skipped a step somewhere – or that you’ve tried to do everything at once.

Stage #1: Planning

notebooksImage by Dvortygirl

You’re already planning your writing – whether or not you realise it. 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.

When you’re working on a project where you already know the subject matter – an ebook, for instance, or a memoir – then it’s worth planning in some detail. You can use mindmaps to generate and sift ideas, and construct a more linear outline as you start to shape your material.

When the process of writing is more of an exploration – I’m thinking primarily of fiction here – then it’s not necessary to plan in detail. 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.

Better Planning

  1. Plan as you go along (as well as before you start). 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.
  2. Keep a notebook. 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.

Stage #2: Drafting

Writing on a keyboard - fast!Image by laffy4k

When we talk about “writing”, we often mean “drafting”. 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. 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.  Your goal when you write is to keep putting one word after another, building up sentences, paragraphs, pages…

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.

  • Some sections from your plan don’t seem to fit any more
  • A particular chapter (or character, subplot, theme) just isn’t working
  • You haven’t explained ideas clearly enough
  • Your sentences are flabby (over-wordy) or clumsy (ambiguous, repetitive, clunky-sounding)
  • You might have notes to yourself in the text, to look up particular facts, or fill in a gap

None of this is bad. This is just the nature of first drafts. You’re shaping your material and forming your ideas as you go along – and of course it won’t always come out perfectly.

Better Drafting

  1. Keep going. 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. Don’t give up. You get to fix it all in the next stage.
  2. Write regularly. 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. Aim to work on your piece at least weekly – ideally more.

Stage #3: Redrafting

Writing from handwritten pages onto a computerImage by the Italian voice

This is the stage which newer writers often skip – but it’s just as important a part of writing as the first draft stage.

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 usually involves big-picture, structural change like:

  • Cutting whole chapters or sections
  • Adding in chunks of new material (and returning to the drafting stage for these)
  • Moving things around – perhaps chapter 5 should really be chapter 1
  • Sorting out any of those “notes to self” from the first draft – adding in facts or cross-references, for instance

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. That might mean putting it aside for a few months (I’ve just started on draft four of my novel, after a two month break), or it might mean getting feedback from other people.

Some writers find that they actually enjoy the redrafting stage more than drafting. It’s a different form of creativity – you’re able to work with what’s already there, shaping and honing it.

Better Redrafting

  1. Read the whole piece through. Make a note of any repetitive scenes/sections, and anything which you think needs cutting or adding. Imagine that you’re a reader coming to this for the first time – what might confuse you, or bore you?
  2. 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.)

 

Stage #4: Editing

Editing a piece of printed writingImage by Nic’s events

This stage often gets muddled up with redrafting. For a short piece – like a blog post or a poem – you might not need to do much redrafting or editing, and you can combine them effectively. For anything longer, though – an ebook, say, or a short story – you’ll want to edit after you’ve redrafted.

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. There’ll still be some awkward sentences and, inevitably, some typos.

Editing means going through your piece line by line and looking for things like:

  • Sentences which would read better if you swapped them round
  • Paragraphs which don’t break in the right place
  • Words which aren’t quite what you meant to say
  • Repeated phrases or words – all writers have some favourites which they overuse
  • Mistakes, like missing or mistyped words

That isn’t a comprehensive checklist, of course – but it gives you some idea of what editing involves. With some forms of writing, particular for the internet, you may also find yourself putting in formatting (bold text, subheadings, etc) during the editing stage.

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.

It’s important, though – and there’s a certain pleasure in getting things right. 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.

Better Editing

  1. Edit on paper. 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.
  2. Ask for feedback from others. 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? Which is your weakest? How could you improve?

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{ 7 trackbacks }

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary E. Ulrich February 8, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Ali, FYI: the CommentLuv box says you need to update the plugin.

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. It just takes me forever to write a post (over 6 hrs each). Of course, I follow all the steps and then add the SEO… which is like a 5th step. I don’t know if I’m being too anal about blogging. It’s like publishing a short story each post. 6 hours for a short story would be considered a short time, but 6 hours for a blog post would be considered by many to be obsessive. I’d appreciate your take on this. Thanks. M.

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Ali February 10, 2011 at 12:07 pm

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. The stages don’t necessarily have to take a long time (perhaps I should’ve made that clearer in the post) – I typically spend around 5-10 mins planning a blog post, then perhaps 30 – 90 mins writing (depending on its length!) and probably 5-20 minutes doing a redraft and edit. Of course, I’ve sometimes written posts which take much longer, but that’s for “typical” ones.

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?

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Katie February 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm

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. 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!

Katie

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Ali February 13, 2011 at 8:36 am

If the eco side of things is a concern, you can always buy recycled paper, use both sides, print in “draft” mode…

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!

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Archan Mehta February 12, 2011 at 8:26 am

Ali,

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.

Cheerio.

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Ali February 13, 2011 at 8:37 am

Great point. Time definitely helps, at all of these stages – if you rush any of them, you’re going to end up redoing work further down the line (or producing something which isn’t really up to scratch).

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Ainslie Hunter February 13, 2011 at 6:14 am

Hi Ali,

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.

Ainslie

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Ali February 13, 2011 at 8:40 am

It’s a bit of a balancing act. I find it can help to set a time limit on redrafting/editing … otherwise you could spend forever doing it!

(I’ve got a time limit for my redraft of the Staff Blogging Course cos I’ve set a launch date. Eek…!)

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farouk February 13, 2011 at 8:44 am

i do skip important steps!! i guess i need to free some more time so that i can give each post the time it deserves
thank you Ali

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Kseniya Slavsky July 17, 2011 at 1:33 am

Ali,
Thanks for this. 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. When I read articles like yours, though, and remember the sea that separates a first draft from a presentable narrative, I focus and get to work like a respectable semi-writer should.

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. You are absolutely right. The potential for instant editting gratification leads to the inability to focus on both the little errors and the overall sense. I wonder why that is…. But it definitely IS.

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Ali July 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Thanks Kseniya, glad this helped!

I use my Kindle for manuscripts, too; it’s a good way to read them more naturally and to look out for big-picture style edits. I’ve not used the highlighting function much, must give that a try!

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Smorez November 24, 2011 at 3:57 am

*me on stumbleupon with my friend who draws*
Me: Oh this looks like a good writing website!
Friend: COLORFUL HIGHLIGHTERS! I HAVE TO GO DRAW AN OCTOPUS!

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Ali November 25, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Ah, “distraction”, the fifth essential stage of writing … ;-) (Welcome to Aliventures, Smorez!)

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Josh Sarz December 29, 2011 at 12:39 am

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. Hah. Thanks for the good read.
Josh Sarz’s last blog post ..The After-Reading: Every Bush Is Burning

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Ali December 30, 2011 at 11:54 am

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.

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Kathy February 2, 2012 at 7:14 am

Well that was another interesting article. I guess my weakness is the planning stage as much as the editing stage. I’m more of a “go with the flow” writer, there’s nothing like just sitting down and writing down whatever comes to mind. 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. Nowadays though I find my inspiration lacking. I can’t just sit down and write ten pages anymore, I feel like I need to know it’s going somewhere and like I don’t want to waste my time with another fruitless attempt. It’s frustrating.
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. Like draft a storyline or write down ideas… Thanks for the post however!

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Ali February 7, 2012 at 5:27 pm

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. 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. (With a bit of luck, the people who enjoy your fanfic will be thrilled to have the chance to buy your book…!)

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Trung Nguyen May 14, 2012 at 3:04 am

I’ve just known your post thanks to my new guest blogger, Hayley Huong, your post is great for those who wants to improve writing, thanks for share :)
Trung Nguyen’s last blog post ..How to Start a Blog: 7 Steps to Start a Blog Yourself

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Ali May 15, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Thanks, Trung, glad you enjoyed it! :-)

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Precious January 25, 2013 at 11:25 pm

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.

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Bill April 10, 2013 at 10:56 pm

Hey-
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. Thanks.

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Rhys May 10, 2013 at 2:33 am

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.
Rhys’s last blog post ..Five things I learned from my favourite horror films, part 2

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Ali May 17, 2013 at 7:52 pm

Rhys, great addition: I tend to do a *lot* of redrafting when I’m writing fiction, and while I’m happy with that (it seems to be how I work best), I also recognise that having a plan that I actually stuck to would definitely save me some time!

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Shane Harley May 16, 2013 at 6:24 am

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. It will work well with my own style of writing and I think it is just the help I’ve been looking for to take my writing beyond first drafts. Thank you. Keep writing!

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Ali May 17, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Thanks so much, Shane — I’m really glad you enjoyed this piece! :-)

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Fathima November 12, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Do you draft on the computer or on paper? Which do you find more effective? I’m new here. Maybe you’ve already addressed this in detail somewhere and I just have to find it. :)

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Ali November 20, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Welcome, Fathima! Nowadays, I draft straight onto the computer — I type faster than I hand-write (and I can type comfortably for hours whereas my hand cramps up if I write with a pen for too long). I used to draft on paper, though, and found the initial transition to drafting on the computer a bit jarring.

(Plus counting words is a heck of a lot easier on the computer!)

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