word craft


“What is your writing process?”

Over the past few weeks, in a num­ber of venues, I have been asked: “What is your writ­ing process?”

I’m hap­py to give an answer as long as it is under­stood that I have NO notion that what I do con­sti­tutes rules for writ­ing. Gram­mar and spelling have rules (which can some­times be ignored) but “How to Write a Nov­el” does not sit on my shelves. I tru­ly believe that if what­ev­er you do works for you, stick with it.

writing process

I once knew a writer who wrote his books para­graph by para­graph on index cards, then assem­bled them when he was done. I heard a famous writer explain that she nev­er starts to write a book until she has the last line firm­ly in her mind. Natal­ie Bab­bitt once told me she had to work out the entire book in her mind, before she began to write. So it goes. Stick with what works for you. Change it only if it is not work­ing. But I keep to my mantra: Writ­ers don’t write writ­ing. They write read­ing. It’s all about cre­at­ing a read­ing experience.

I think I recall that it was said of the great Renais­sance sculp­tor Michelan­ge­lo that he would look at a block of mar­ble and see the fig­ure inside. Then he would remove, as it were, the “excess” stone to set the fig­ure free.


Of course, I do not com­pare myself with Michelan­ge­lo, but my process is just the oppo­site. I begin with an idea, usu­al­ly a char­ac­ter in a sit­u­a­tion and only a gen­er­al sense of the sto­ry I wish to tell. In my ear­ly days I worked from crude out­lines. These days I have a gen­er­al arc of the sto­ry in my head, but for the most part I invent as I go forward.

I write a first crude chap­ter. I rewrite that chap­ter many, many times, until I have a clear sense of per­son, voice, place, and the move­ment of the sto­ry. Usu­al­ly, I am adding text.

BUT, even as I go for­ward, I rewrite what I have writ­ten. More­over, I allow myself to make major changes if I feel they are pro­duc­tive. I also don’t talk to peo­ple about what I am writ­ing, oth­er than in the broad­est terms: “I’m writ­ing a book about gold rush Cal­i­for­nia.” To do oth­er­wise box­es me in. The freer I am, the more inven­tive I can be.

Thus the first draft takes the longest. Next, I rewrite the whole book any num­ber of times, per­haps sev­en­ty to eighty times. When I sense that I have some­thing whole and decent—whatever than means—I usu­al­ly read the book (pen in hand) to my wife. Let me stress, read. (Writ­ers don’t write writ­ing. They write read­ing.) When I do so I hear the book, and make count­less changes. Also, my wife is a sharp crit­ic and is not shy about say­ing what she thinks.

Then I may ask a friend to read the book—making sure it is a cold read­ing. That is, I don’t tell the friend any­thing about the book. It’s just, “Please, read this and tell me your thoughts.”

There is more rewrit­ing until I feel I am just push­ing com­mas about. Then the man­u­script goes to an edi­tor. Since I have worked on it for at least a year, I also need to step away from the work. Start­ing some­thing new helps pro­vide distance.

Inevitably, work­ing with an edi­tor means more rewrit­ing takes place, some­times major changes. That is a whole oth­er process.

But let me point out one cru­cial thing: Writ­ing a nov­el begins by work­ing alone. But at some point there are many peo­ple who have input.

5 thoughts on ““What is your writing process?””

  1. Loved read­ing about your process. One ques­tion I like to ask a writer is if they’re a plot­ter or a pantser because I’m frozen in my writ­ing. Since ele­men­tary school, I’ve hat­ed out­lin­ing, but won­dered if I have to try. I have many ideas, but no sto­ries. But, the more I think, the blanker I get. I might have a begin­ning and not know where to go from there. Or a begin­ning and an end, but the mid­dle is elu­sive. I’m think­ing what I real­ly need to do is fig­ure out who my char­ac­ters are and what they want for that arc to devel­op in my brain. I sup­pose, what I real­ly need to do is just write to see where it takes me. If I were writ­ing a mys­tery, then I would think more out­lin­ing would be necessary. 

    I know for a pic­ture book it’s sug­gest­ed you write the whole first draft and then go back to revise. It’s not prac­ti­cal to do that for a nov­el. It’s inter­est­ing how you rework your first chap­ter until you are sat­is­fied. Do you not con­tin­ue writ­ing until you’re hap­py with how the first chap­ter starts? Do you ever think, I’m not total­ly sat­is­fied with my begin­ning, but let me get the sto­ry out and when I fin­ish and do my rewrite, I’ll rework the begin­ning. Is it you’re rewrit­ing your first chap­ter to just set the tone you want to get that ride going for the reader?

    Okay! Time to open my Word doc­u­ment and start tap­ping away. Even if it’s just a scene, it’s bet­ter than just com­plain­ing I don’t know what to write.

  2. I think Michelan­ge­lo would be pleased to be in your com­pa­ny. Thank you for shar­ing your process.

  3. Thank you for shar­ing. It is so help­ful. Do you work with a dai­ly word count quo­ta in mind? Do you work on oth­er projects simultaneously?


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