How to Conquer the Writing Process

The interesting part about writing is that much of the “writing” process involves staring at a blank document on the computer screen.

I rock back in my chair, I play with my hair, I stretch out my back. But all the while, the ideas are churning in my head. But whether the ideas are flowing or I have writer’s block, I just need to start typing. Here’s how I start the writing process, maintain the flow and avoid distractions.

The Pre-Writing Stage

A black woman in her 20s sits cross-legged on the floor of her office meditating with her eyes shut.Writers don’t often have the time to write their article immediately after an interview, while it’s fresh in their mind. But that can be a good thing. It allows the interview to marinate. As the days go by, a sliver of my mind works on it in the background, thinking about how to feature those killer quotes or how to lead off the article. That’s why a lot of writers will tell you that great ideas suddenly come to them while in the shower or running.

If I recorded the interview, I need to transcribe it (or pay someone else to do it). While transcribing can be tedious, it’s a great refresher of the tone and meat of the discussion. Even if I don’t record an interview, I often begin the writing process by typing up my notes, particularly if it’s been several days since the interview. It keeps me from staring at a blank screen for hours and forces me to dive into the story.

The process of typing up my notes or transcribing narrows my focus and helps prevent me from surrendering to distractions like email and Twitter. For articles—like this blog post—for which I don’t have interview notes, I often write one sentence that describes the focus of my article or the message I want to convey. If the words don’t start flowing from there, or for those longer, unwieldy articles, I write an informal outline.

My outlines are more like “to do” lists than those fussy, ridiculous outlines with all the Roman numerals I was forced to create in junior high English class. I simply type a short list of all the points I want to include. It helps me to stay on track and not meander after an anecdote that, while great, doesn’t fit in with the story. (I sheepishly admit that I hear in my head the fighter pilot from Star Wars Episode IV: “Stay on target, stay on target.”)

The Writing Stage

Before I delve too far into the story, I spend time crafting my lead and thinking about how the story will end—whether it will come back to the lead, end in a quote or wrap up some other way. If I have trouble writing a lead, I don’t let it stymie me from writing the rest of the article, but I do make sure I have a nut graph or at least that focal sentence.

As I’m writing, I’m careful to focus on the words, the phrasing, the sentence structure, in other words, the actual writing. While that may seem obvious, I don’t let myself get distracted by pasting in quotes from my interview notes or get bogged down with research or attribution. Instead, I just type “QUOTE” in the appropriate space—I already remember many of the quotes I want to use because I took the time to type up my notes. I type “TITLE” after someone’s name and “CHECK” after a name, stat or fact that I need to verify later. I’m entirely focused on maintaining my rhythm. I will go back later and fill in the blanks.

The Editing Stage

After I have a first draft, there is still a lot of work to do. I skim through the story to make sure I didn’t leave anything out. Then, I always print out the article and read it out loud (or in a faint whisper out of consideration of officemates). Don’t skimp on this and read it silently. You will hear your article’s flow and rhythm (or lack of) and will catch things you want to fix that you wouldn’t have heard otherwise.

After making adjustments to the story, I read it two or three more times for different reasons. I always make sure I do this over at least two days, not all at once. It helps to step away from the final story for a while so you can see it with fresh eyes the next day. I often go through the story once specifically looking at whether the descriptions are strong, hoping to avoid clichés and attempting to always “show, don’t tell.” I also examine whether I’m using active, not passive, verbs, and I spend time writing a headline, deck and subheads. (Editors will love you for this latter effort.)

Whew, after all that, I’m ready to share the article with my client or my editor. No one said writing was fast and easy.

What does your writing process or routine look like?

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