It doesn’t matter if you’re a great writer, good writer, or self-loathing writer.
You can become a better writer.
What I’ve learned from these varied writing experiences is that our writing often improves when we break the writing process down into several distinct steps.
Each step requires its own skill set and separating them allows me to focus on what’s needed for each in that moment and has made my writing more simple, enjoyable, and effective.
Here’s an overview of the six steps I follow and how they can help you.
Step 1: Pay attention.
“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” — Henry Miller
Writing begins way before you write.
The first step to better writing is to develop a habit of noticing things and to pay attention to the world around us on a daily basis.
We must learn to observe our surroundings, contemplate our interactions with people, and actively incorporate a wide array of influences into our lives (here’s a great place to start).
The places we go, people we meet, things we do, media we consume, and experiences we have are all assets in our writing arsenal. Make an effort to explore and contemplate as many things as possible.
Experience is the foundation of great writing and the more we acquire, the more we have to draw on.
Step 2: Generate ideas.
“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” — Henry Ford
Idea generation and writing are not the same things.
Idea generation is the process of coming up with concepts while writing is the process of communicating those concepts. They’re related, but different.
That’s why it’s helpful to set aside some time specifically to generate ideas.
There are countless ways to do so — brainstorm, challenge ourselves to come up with 50 ideas, bounce ideas off other people, or whatever works for you to juice your creativity.
But the communication of these ideas (the writing) should be separated from the origination of them. Doing so frees us up to discover more and better ideas than we otherwise might.
And once we decide which ideas to pursue, we’re ready to move on to the next step.
Step 3: Flesh out an idea.
“If you do enough planning before you start to work, there’s no way you can have writer’s block.” — R. L. Stine
Once we’ve chosen an idea or two we want to explore in our writing, the next step is to flesh out those ideas.
This is like a spin on the idea generation phase, but this time tailored to explore further the ideas we’ve chosen to focus on.
We can dig deep into them, think through what we want to say about them, and how we want to say it.
This can also be considered our outline phase — it’s the step where we lay out what we’re ultimately going to write and how we’re going to write it.
Step 4: Write.
“Writing the last page of the first draft is the most enjoyable moment in writing. It’s one of the most enjoyable moments in life, period.” — Nicholas Sparks
Here we go — the moment we’ve been waiting for.
Writing — especially a first draft of something — is a completely different skill and mindset than idea generation and editing (more on that in a minute).
No matter how gifted we are as a writer, our first draft of anything is going to be flawed.
It won’t be our best and there’s a good chance we’re going to hate those first words we spit out on the page.
That’s ok. It’s understandable.
Because no matter how much we love to write, our initial act of writing is loaded with negative reinforcement.
We struggle to come up with the exact right words to express our ideas and inevitably get frustrated and discouraged when we discover our creation falls short of our intention.
While following the first three steps I outlined above prior to writing will make our first draft infinitely better, it won’t make it perfect and won’t protect us from negative feelings about our work.
But, here’s the good news — this is the only step in the writing process that will feel this bad.
Because once we get past the first draft, the rest of our work will improve what we’ve written. It will deliver positive reinforcement.
Keeping that in mind can help motivate us to push through this step, get something down on paper, and try not to judge our work too harshly.
Step 5: Edit.
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” — Stephen King
While the writing phase is often rooted in negative reinforcement, editing is the opposite — it’s filled with positive momentum.
Because every edit we make improves our work and gets us closer to the vision we have for our creation.
Editing is also a completely different skill than writing so it’s important to treat it as such. If we edit as we write, we’ll just slow ourselves down, confuse ourselves, and decrease the likelihood we’ll ever finish the draft.
Editing is its own separate step for a reason. And arguably, it’s the most crucial one to the ultimate success of our writing.
Step 6: Publish.
“Once you publish a book, it is out of your control. You cannot dictate how people read it.” — Margaret Atwood
The writing and editing may be done, but there’s still one more hurdle to conquer.
It’s time to publish. To share our writing with others.
It’s important to recognize this is a step all to its own and for many of us, it can be a difficult one — that’s why there are so many projects we’re forever “writing” and never publishing.
Publishing forces us to stare down our insecurities and summon the courage to put our creation out into the world. We have to do this despite knowing it may be judged, ignored, or celebrated.
It’s hard, but we have to remind ourselves why we wrote this thing in the first place and reassure ourselves that no matter what comes of it, we’ll be fine.
Publishing is a big deal and takes bravery. By recognizing it as such, we give ourselves credit for the accomplishment that it is — and give others the opportunity to benefit from that which we’ve created.
Speaking of which…it’s time for me to hit publish on this post.