Is there a Writing Process?

Sunday, July 08, 2012
In this startling report, scientists declare that there is no "scientific method." Scientists do not strictly follow a process in their exploration of the natural world because some experiments may be too expensive, too difficult for current technology, unethical, or various other problems. In fact, the report asserts that some scientists just disrupt a system to see what happens: curiosity wins the day.

Instead, says Heidi Schweingruber, deputy director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council, in Washington, D.C., kids should be studying "Practices of science"-- "or the many ways in which scientists study problems."

Hurrah! Science is finally on our side, because there isn't a strict "writing process" either. Instead, writing a novel is a messy route toward something that falls within the continuum of what we traditionally call a novel. We can talk about the need for prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and then publication all we want, but it is only partly true. I do believe in the writing process; I even wrote the entry on prewriting, which has been viewed 7338 times in the last 90 days. But I don't believe you can definitively say you must follow these steps in this order. It's a much messier process.

When I teach a Novel Revision Retreat, I talk about strategies of writing, much like the "principles of science." Writers trying to create a character might list character qualities, do a freewrite of description, tape record dialogue, flip through catalogs looking for a model face, sit in a McDonalds and listen for the "right" voice, manipulate sentence length and vocabulary choices in search of a character's voice, type with a blacked-out, powered-off computer screen the better to "hear" the character's voice, or any number of other strategies.

Once, when my daughter was in fifth grade, she wrote a great essay. The teacher promptly asked her to write down the exact steps she took to write that essay. Sigh. Not helpful. It's not the ORDER of the steps that matter, it's the particular strategies and riffs on them that matter. You will NEVER follow exactly the same steps for two pieces of writing.

Instead, pay attention to the strategies you use. Do you like lists? Do you like free writes? Do you like sitting in a noisy place and writing? Find habits of writing that tie you into your creativity and work to make those habits yours. Don't be so tied to them that it becomes obsessive/compulsive; rather, work to find comfortable habits within which you can experiment and play with the assurance that your work will get done.

The article on scientific method also says, "Scientists also recognize something that few students do: Mistakes and unexpected results can be blessings in disguise." Yes, even the practice of science is messy and sometimes, it's a blooper that reveals something new, fresh, exciting. If scientists can embrace a messy process, it's an open door for us to have a blast with our writing process.

Darcy Pattison blogs about how-to-write at Fiction Notes and blogs about education at


Melissa Ann Goodwin said...

Thank you for that Darcy! It makes me crazy when people talk about "the way to write" as if it is a set of rules that works for everyone - leaving out the very obvious and very important fact that PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT! And, as you say, one person may approach different projects differently ....

Unknown said...

Three cheers, Darcy! Diversity is everywhere, including writing strategies!

T.K. Marnell said...

For anyone who studied the sciences after high school, hearing people talk about "the scientific method" is a lark. That whole "problem, hypothesis, testing" thing we learned in middle school? Doesn't happen. Yes, there are some rules you must follow to produce results that are empirically valid. But the process leading up to them is winding and messy. You don't look at a problem, sit down and think, "Gee...I wonder what causes this?" and come up with potential explanations off the top of your head. You read. You attend conferences and hear other people talk about the issue. You read some more. You come up with ideas, and then change them constantly as you readreadread. Then you reduce everything to a handful of true/false statements that address only a tiny part of the whole problem, plan out a meticulous method to test them, apply for grants, execute, do your analysis...and find out you were wrong. If there isn't much established literature, you pretty much just try everything, and then make up hypotheses afterwards (um, I mean, conduct an "exploratory study").

Similarly, I think there are certain steps that must be taken to produce a great book, but the process is highly individual. Sometimes it's best to outline. Sometimes you should just roll with it. Sometimes you'll write half of the first draft of a novel, and then find resources that tell you your premise is all wrong, and you have to rework the entire thing. Often it's best to get beta readers in on the early drafts to let you know your characterization missed the mark, but sometimes it's better to trust your own instincts and not let other people mess with it.

Editing, however, is non-negotiable. There is no such thing as a valid study without statistical analysis, and there is no such thing as a polished book without editing. Even when professional editors write, their books will need editing. Even if you are a genius destined to be the next Nobel laureate, your first (or even second or third) draft of any story will have problems. But everything up to that...yeah. Have at it.

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