Writing Is a Process, Not a Product

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I absolutely love the classic wisdom from Donald M. Murray, Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.

Speaking to English teachers and writing instructors, he says too often we become frustrated because we focus on the product, which is subpar. We want literature and what we’re holding is obviously not it. So we use our training and attempt to point out the errors with the product.

But….

Ilsted
Danish painter Peter Ilsted, Interior with a Young Girl Writing, 1905

“The product doesn’t improve, and so blaming the student—who else?—we pass him along to the next teacher, who is trained, too often, the same way we were. Year after year the student shudders under a barrage of criticism, much of it brilliant, some of it stupid, and all of it irrelevant. No matter how careful our criticisms, they do not help the student since when we teach composition we are not teaching a product, we are teaching a process.”

Many people remember that shudder in English class…. How many beleaguered souls might find it hugely freeing to see their writing work as a process rather than a product?

And what is the process?

Murray: “It is the process of discovery through language. It is the process of exploration of what we know and what we feel about what we know through language. It is the process of using language to learn about our world, to evaluate what we learn about our world, to communicate what we learn about our world.”

Imagine the freedom if instead of striving to be finished writing, we sought to learn how to communicate well through writing. Not to complete the collection of all the right words just yet, but to continue the search for the one best word.

To get into that frame of mind, we first have to let go of that tyrannical concept of the “Product-as-End-Goal.”

“This is not a question of correct or incorrect, of etiquette or custom. This is a matter of far higher importance. The writer, as he writes, is making ethical decisions. He doesn’t test his words by a rule book, but by life. He uses language to reveal the truth to himself so that he can tell it to others. It is an exciting, eventful, evolving process.”

We can make this important shift easier by dividing the process into three stages: prewriting, writing, and rewriting. And how much time each stage requires depends on personality, work habits, maturity in the craft, and how hard it is to say what we’re trying to say….

…but how long it takes is not an issue once you break the habit of focusing on product over process.

Pasteurized process "cheez" product.
Mmm. Processed cheese product.

I think this is why it’s so difficult for consumer-blind Westerners: everything but everything is a product. We like measurable things. Tangible things. We like results.

How much? How many? How long? How difficult? How quick? 

Try to think of one thing in your life where you’re interested in the process and not the result. Go ahead, I’ll wait….

 

Nope.
Coffee? Nope.

 

Try again.
Commuting? That’s all about the anticipated result.

 

Hmm. Okay, sure. There may be a gender difference on this one...
Sex? Well, okay. There may be a slight gender difference involved in this one…

 

We even make recreational things like reading and watching movies about what it produces, i.e. “results-oriented” instead of merely enjoying the process. If something can’t be measured and quantified, we don’t even want to deal with it.

And the habit is so ingrained at this point, many don’t even notice they’re doing it. To say this is a problem for writers is a gross understatement.

Gamely, Murray tries to quantify the time involved for prewriting, writing, and rewriting processes. Prewriting–researching, daydreaming, note-making and outlining–may take about 75-85% of a writer’s time.

Writing, merely producing the first draft, “the fastest part of the process and the most frightening” (because you soon find out how much you don’t know and have to face how rough, searching and unfinished your work is), this takes about 1% of your total time!

How many writers just starting out realize this? And how many could save themselves a ton of grief if they did? (Well, now you know, so ease up, my friend. Writers are ALWAYS prewriting!)

Rewriting, reconsidering your subject, form, audience, vision, intent, viability, and all the prewriting elements too (research, notes, outline), takes the remaining 14-24% of your time. Murray says in rewriting, everything is rethought and redesigned until finally a line-by-line edit, in which “the demanding, satisfying process of making each word right” is faced.

So the whole writing process–from prewriting to writing to rewriting–is involved before there’s any clue what the end product will be.

Why, then, do we focus on product?

And this is not to mention that rewriting can take many times the hours required for writing the first draft!

I hope some of you will say “Duh! Of course!” But have you retrained your brain to relax and accept that you’re in a process? This is the number one problem I run into as a book coach. Even many published writers don’t understand that several rewritten drafts are required before a book is ready for a line-by-line edit. We need the best raw material on the page first.

Otherwise, I’m getting paid to polish turds.

Each draft may progress in a particular area–characters and supporting characters, plot and subplots, theme and metaphor, and setting, dialogue and tone. But slow, careful drafting is what eliminates the distractions and inconsistencies.

It’s also where you learn what you’re really writing. (And no, there’s no shortcut to that discovery, but I’m absolutely convinced it’s the difference between bestsellerdom and obscurity.)

Bottom line, writers who would be professionals must realize the writing craft requires shifting focus from the end goal to the “in medias res”–the “in-the-middle-of” getting there.

How many of the world’s most beloved works went through complete rewrites and multiple drafts? The vast majority? All of them? Does it matter how many once the final draft is done?

More importantly: how much fear, tension and stress could be alleviated if you focused on the process of writing rather than the product?

[Part 2, “How to Be a Great Edit” and avoid editing the heart out of your work is here…]

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2 thoughts on “Writing Is a Process, Not a Product”

  1. to make each word right
    what makes some people addicted to this insane goal?
    i have this propensity which i know will make me a loony tune in the end if i let it have its way with me.
    to let or not to let, that is the question!
    i think you have it worse than me…take care of yourself!!!
    love
    suzee B

    1. No worries–the process does have an end! And it’s not perfection. More later today on that.

      But to the bigger point: “to let or not to let” yourself try to make every word right, the answer is to let. And yet to see that it’s impossible an all language is imprecise and you do you very best and then push it forcefully away from you, like a favorite meal you’ve had enough of. Healthy and good turns unhealthy and bad after you reach the point of satiety. I don’t relish the prospect of pushing my book away, but I know when I’m full. And you do too. ;) love you, friend.

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