The Writing Process: Five Essential Stages for Anything You’re Working On
Note: This post was first published with four stages of writing in 2011, and updated in May 2021 to include the publishing stage. Images are used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.
Do you struggle to focus when you’re writing, or do you find yourself starting and stopping a lot? It might be because you’re skipping certain stages of the writing process without even realising.
Every finished writing project, big or small, passes through five key stages. These are sometimes described as the writing process:
- Prewriting: ideas, research, and planning
- Drafting: what most people think of as “writing”
- Rewriting: making big-picture changes
- Editing: making detailed changes
- Publishing: putting your work out there into the world
Sure, you could potentially 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.
It wouldn’t really be a finished piece. It would be a draft.
The five stages don’t always have to be tackled in precise order. Sometimes, you’ll find that they can be combined: a short piece might only need a single pass-through for both rewriting and editing. With long pieces, you’ll often loop back from one stage to a previous one at times, too.
These stages don’t have to be carried out by the same person, either. When freelancing, I’ve written blog posts based on other people’s plans, and I’ve often had my work edited (and published) 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: Prewriting
Image by Dvortygirl
Prewriting involves coming up with an idea and developing it. Often, you’ll do some research at this stage, though if you’re writing on a familiar topic, you may not need to. You might write a rough outline or even a very detailed one.
You’re likely already spending some time on prewriting, even if you haven’t recognised it as that. 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 prewriting.
Some written pieces don’t need any more prewriting than that: you’ve got the idea in your head, pretty much complete. Anything lengthy, though, will benefit hugely from a written plan.
There are plenty of different ways to plan. For instance, 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 you don’t necessarily have to to plan in detail. You’ll want to get some basics clear, though: your concept or theme, your main characters, and the ending.
Ideally, you’ll have thought about the crucial high points and low points of your plot, too. For more on that, check out this post about the seven key plot points you should know about.
- 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.
- Plan ahead, either at the start of the whole project (e.g. a blog post) or at the start of each scene or chapter in a novel.
Stage #2: Drafting
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, fairly quickly, building up sentences, paragraphs, pages…
Not all those words will be quite right. At this stage of the writing 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, concept) 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.
- 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, or your blog post seems to be going nowhere. Don’t give up. You get to fix it all in the next stage.
- 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 write at least weekly – ideally more. For help with this, check out the Supercharge Your Writing guides.
Stage #3: Rewriting
Image by the Italian voice
This is the part of the writing process that newer writers often skip – but it’s just as important a part of writing as the first draft stage.
Rewriting is when you take what you’ve written and rework it. (You may also hear this stage called called redrafting, developmental editing, or big picture editing.) 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 rewrite, you need to get some distance on your work. That might mean putting it aside for a few weeks (something that I’ve always done when drafting my novels), or it might mean getting feedback from other people.
Some writers find that they actually enjoy the rewriting 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.
- 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?
- Print your first draft out or put it on your Kindle, 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 copy of your draft into a completely blank document.
Stage #4: Editing
Image by Nic’s events
This stage often gets muddled up with rewriting. For a short piece – like a blog post or a poem – you might not need to do much rewriting 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 rewritten your piece.
Your second (or third) draft 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 rewriting, 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 need some work
- 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 some writers, 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.
- 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.
- 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. If you’re working on something substantial, it might well be worth paying for help from a professional editor.
Stage #5: Publishing
Image by Rene Schwietzke
The final stage of the writing process is to publish your work. If you’re doing this yourself, I highly recommend going through proofreading as an additional stage of the editing process. It’s really frustrating to find a typo in a blog post that you’ve just emailed out to thousands of readers, or a book that you’ve just printed several copies of.
If you’re seeking traditional publication for a book, then at this step, you’ll be sending your manuscript out to agents and/or editors. For you, “publishing” your work means presenting it in the requested format, as professionally as possible.
If you’re self-publishing a book, you’ll likely want to go through some extra steps before hitting “Publish”. For instance, you might seek feedback from beta readers or a paid editor so that you can refine your work further.
As with the other stages, you can still loop back to an early stage after publishing a piece. For instance, an inital stand-alone novel might become the first in a trilogy or series … taking you all the way back to the planning stage. Or you might edit a piece that you’ve already published.
1. Consider your options. It’s easy to set your heart on one type of publication (e.g. a traditional publishing deal) … but there are lots of different ways to publish your work, such as self-publishing an ebook, creating a print on demand book, or even publishing in serial format.
2. Be as professional as you can. If you’re self-publishing a book, budget for cover design (and for help with formatting unless you’re happy tackling the techy side of things). Even if you’re simply publishing a blog post, spend some time on formatting elements like images, headers, and so on.
The writing process isn’t some artificial framework you need to force yourself into. Instead, it’s a natural set of steps that help you get from “idea” to “finished, published piece”. You don’t have to tackle the stages of writing in strict sequence — you can and likely will jump back and forth between some of them. But if you get stuck, use writing process as a handy checklist to make sure you’ve covered all the essential steps.
For more help, particularly with the drafting, rewriting, and editing stages, check out my self-study seminar packs. These are sets of full seminars that you can download and work through at your own pace. Each seminar comes with a full transcript plus a worksheet to make it easy to put what you’re learning into practice.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
If you're new, welcome! These posts are good ones to start with:
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