The Writing Process, Step by Step
People always ask me how to write a book. I try not to look at them blankly and state the obvious: “Start writing and keep going until you’re done.”
The thing is, they’re not asking for the obvious. They truly believe I have some kind of magical formula, a secret, and if I’ll just tell them what it is, they’ll suddenly be able to crank out a book in mere hours and become the next new writer to hit the New York Times bestseller list.
Unfortunately, there IS no secret (or, if there is one, people like Stephen King and Jodi Picoult seem to be keeping it to themselves). All I can do for the hopeful aspiring writers I meet is tell them the one piece of advice that always works: Just write.
Beyond that rather vague statement, the only specifics I can offer come from my own writing process—and that’s what I’ll tell you about today.
To date, I’ve written 21 books. Before you get all impressed, though, you should know that only 9 of those have been published and (at least right now, because very few have been revised or edited in any way) most of them absolutely SUCK. (My books are like the shoes of the cobbler’s children—being ignored because I’m too busy editing OTHER people’s books.)
That said, I DO know how to finish a book (even if it stinks). So, how do I do it?
Step 1: The Idea
I try to generate at least 50 new ideas every week—ANY kind of ideas (see https://coachtarat.com/where-dont-you-get-ideas/ for more on this technique).
Some of these ideas end up being possibilities for new writing projects, and of those, I decide to develop a select few, depending on a lot of things: how much time I have, how interesting I find the topic, how much research is involved, and of course, how lazy I’m feeling when I’m getting ready to start something new.
Mostly, I admit, I choose writing projects based on the mood I’m in—and whether I’m willing to commit the next 2 months to 2 years of my life to focusing on this one particular idea.
Step 2: Research/Prep
Once I have an idea in mind, I do some basic research and planning. I read about the subject, if necessary. I create profiles for the major characters (if the book is fiction) so I know more about them. And I jot down at least an overview of the arc of the story, even if I don’t always come up with a thorough outline.
In general, I don’t get TOO specific. I like to know, more or less, where the story starts and ends, but I like to let the details of what happens along the way come out as I write.
Step 3: Writing the Draft
Once I’m ready to write (and I try not to get bogged down in the prep stage for longer than a couple of weeks at most), I write—at least SOMETHING—every day. Even if it’s only a sentence, I force myself to make SOME forward progress every single day until the first draft is finished.
Most days, I schedule time to sit down and write at least 1 to 3 pages on the work in progress. Usually, once I get going, it’s easy to do at least 3 pages, if not more. But I try not to set my bare minimum quota higher than 1 page (that way, I don’t beat myself up on bad writing days when that single page feels like pulling teeth, and I’m pleasantly surprised on those rare days when 10 pages flow out seemingly without effort).
Although I DO occasionally write directly on a computer (especially during November’s National Novel Writing Month, which is all about speed and word count—that is, quantity rather than quality), I generally prefer to do the bulk of my first draft longhand. Not only is writing on paper more pleasant for me (and feels less like “work”), but I find my longhand writing is less self-conscious and a lot more honest than anything I type into my laptop.
Step 4: Just Keep Going.
Once I get started writing, I just keep going.
I NEVER read or edit anything I’m writing until I have a complete first draft. To me, revisiting a previous day’s writing is like sending your Inner Critic an engraved invitation, and trust me—you don’t want to party with THAT guy.
My advice is to just keep writing. There’ll be time to edit later. For me, the drafting stage is about getting the story down, no matter how rough the writing is, as quickly as possible, before I have a chance to realize the monumental thing I’m doing: writing a book. No matter how many times you do it, believe me, it’s always a huge accomplishment.
Step 5: Celebrate.
Finishing the draft of a book calls for celebration. Me? I like to recognize my victory over the blank page with a fancy dinner out, copious amounts of red wine, and maybe a cigar (yeah, I’m weird like that). But hey, that’s just me. My advice is to do whatever it takes to help yourself fully appreciate the amazing thing you’ve achieved. You deserve it.
Step 6: Put the Draft Away.
I do not read, do not look at, and definitely do not share my finished draft with anybody—not for at least 6 weeks, and preferably even longer. I need time and distance before jumping back in to the world I’ve created in my book.
But writers need to write, so my advice is to follow my lead: As soon as the hangover from my first-draft celebration has subsided, I start writing something new.
I don’t even give myself a single day off before I start writing SOMETHING, even if it’s just the sketch of a new idea or a bit of stray description that may never end up in a “real” piece of writing.
Step 7: Revise and Share.
Because I have so many works in progress (both my own and those of my clients) at any given time, I rarely get around to the revision stage for months (or even years)—hence, my 21 books, few of which are in anything approaching a publishable state.
If you only have ONE finished draft, you’re luckier than I am. Enjoy your freedom, and after at least 6 weeks have passed, get ready to revise.
I always read the draft myself first, pretending to be a regular reader (which is easy when it’s been months or years since you last visited the story), looking for holes. I make the big-picture changes, then I set the draft aside for another few weeks (or longer) before reading it again.
Once I’ve been through at least two revisions on my own, I risk the humiliation of sharing my work with other people. Usually, I approach a friend first (another professional editor), who will give genuine—and brutal—feedback.
After that, I move on to all the things everybody (including me) is always telling you to do before seeking publication: additional professional editing, beta readers, critique groups, whatever it takes until the book is ready to send out (and enter the endless process of submission and rejection).
The whole thing sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Here’s the thing: If this grueling process doesn’t sound appealing (at least on some level), the truth is that you might not be ready to write a book. And that’s okay. There are lots of other ways to make your mark in the world, and you can always try writing again down the road.
And I’m not saying this process that I use is the magical formula. I’m only saying that it’s what works for me. Maybe it’ll work for you, but maybe not. I’ve been honing my writing system, figuring out what makes me as productive as possible, for close to 40 years now. You need to figure out your own process in your own time. And I wish you the best of luck with it!