Tag Archives: book writing

Writing Is a Process, Not a Product

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.


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….


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…]

How to Edit Out FEAR–for Good

It’s still early.

That’s true. A true sentence.

scary bridge
Don’t look down.

Regardless of how little there is left of the day, it’s still early. There’s time yet to write the daily clutch of words.

Despite the fact that my brain is doing its usual whirring with all the things to get done, the manuscripts needing edits, consult calls to make, talks and articles to write, courses to plan, a boulder to shoulder up the hill…

I know the fear is out there. And it’s strong. It’s still strangling so many great works, the words of writers yet to be written. How can I not fight to destroy this most fundamental of barriers?

This post is my Great Rebellion.

I’ve been meaning to write it for weeks, this culmination of thought I’ve listened to and spoken to myself for longer than I can remember…

I believe, despite everything else that’s pressing, there’s nothing else I’m supposed to do but this.

So with that reassurance, I’m ready to face the question:

How do we edit out fear for good?

fear quote
Roosevelt said that. I think.

1. Just write one true sentence.

Fr. Ernie had one unbeatable word of advice for himself I’ve begun repeating often:

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.

If writing is the only way for you to be truly happy, what choice do I have but to stop procrastinating and write that one true sentence?

To write the one thing I’ve been waiting so long to speak, how good would that feel? To forget all the many excellent reasons I shouldn’t? To finally deny ALL the distractions and do what I was put here to do today, as I draw this breath into my statistically impossible existence from this terrifyingly perfect blue-green spheball?

I’ve got to stop overthinking it. Just start with what I know.

2. Do Input/Output Every Day

There’s a depressing truth I’ve learned: no one, I repeat, NO ONE is born a writer but reading has made them that way. Just starting out or years into it, writing well takes reading–to find good INPUT, to make good OUTPUT. So I’m resigned that the writer I want to be is not much more than a good scavenger. When I’ve processed enough garbage, I’ll know what makes good material, and what doesn’t.

And by reading, I’ll learn to respond by doing it every day.

Fiction. News. Poems. Memoirs. Then I write and let it be what it is. My job is only to use what I have to its fullest today.

And then tomorrow, I’ll find more manna. I have to let go of any other expectation.

When I get afraid, I’m usually thinking my writing won’t be good enough. But writing isn’t about getting fancy. It’s about writing.

And you can quote me on that.

cowardly lion

3.  Stop, Then Go

I’ve been writing long enough to know it often feels stupid. It starts to seem selfish. I’ll start hearing voices. My limbs will develop phantom pains and I’ll need to, absolutely need to google “misplaced attention.”

I’m getting used to it. This is my tricky brain acting up. It’s perfectly normal. At least for writers it is. So first I have to…

Stop. Sit still and listen. Yes, I’m talking about “mindfulness,” but it’s really just cultivating awareness of the deeper reality behind reality. One Thousand Gifts is a perfect guide for this. When I slow down, I find humble gratitude and the inspiration and permission in the love God freely gives through Jesus and his endless reminders in my daily life.

And when I’m still and silent for a while, I get antsy. After I stop, it’s time to go. Pomodoros are a must to schedule focused work and breaks. But out and about, I carry a notebook and give myself permission to be the weirdo who pauses to capture fireflies.

Life is a series of trades and I’m trading everything else I could do for writing. That’s who I am. So I write to control my time and attention, or it will control me.

This stopping and going thing is based on my hunch that writing doesn’t come from a desire to express so much as from a desire to listen. To me, higher writing is prayer. It’s not asking for something so much as feeding and being fed by a relationship. It’s finding a thread of a thought that seems important to The Inspirer, and following it down the hole, across the bridge, and through the meadow.

When writing becomes no more than God-directed thought, then when I write I am praying without ceasing.

So every day I need to schedule time to practice writing the words down, time to shape them, and before that, time to read. And life happens in between that.

Stop, then go.

Yoda wisdom
The form may change. But wisdom always remains the same.

One true sentence. Input/output. Stop, then go.

These are the distilled lessons I’ve set for myself. Certainly there’s more to them than this. But these 3 keep me on the path, stepping forward, and away from the guardrails.

Remembering is how I overcome the fear. And reminding each other is our simple focus at Your Writers Group. It’s a thrilling surprise that with their continual encouragement and support, I’m facing my fears a little easier every day.

Regardless of how long it’s taken me to get here, I believe it’s still early.

[Getting excited to expand on these basics for storywriters in the 30-day YWG Story Course coming up in 2 weeks! Check the event page for details.]

What helps you face your fears as a writer? Would love to hear your secret…

How to Write What Matters

Article-1179154-04DC27E3000005DC-467_468x347 People still ask if I'm doing okay and I tell them I've never been happier. Sure, we're starting to recognize the gray insides of the silver lined clouds, but mostly, we're amazingly okay despite my decision not to return to analog publishing. 

Speaking of old publishing, feast your eyes on these libraries.

Oh, where will we bookies be in 20 years?

Incidentally, being let go in a big corporate layoff is a pretty good way to go, given the alternatives. But I've chosen to embrace the change and take my opportunity to move into the digital age. And I'm not concerned with the destruction of print so much as I am with the destruction of great writing.

I suppose in some ways I’m just more proof of the publishing implosion, the faint whispers of hope turning to rumors of impending doom. But I don't believe that. Publishing is alive and well; it just doesn't look the same as it used to. And I'm excited about the future books and what will emerge in the newly democratized land of the free.

And there's even a team spirit in the air, a widespread group of dreamers taking up the colossal fight to pull together and keep believing in great books. Part of our hope is that books can be created, shepherded, published and sold in ever more ways. And knowing that creating books is such a valiant, incredibly difficult battle, we're excited because it also makes for close friendships and complementary shaping. All of us may have different battles in this glorious fight for books and we all meet it in different ways. But we're exactly the same in heart and spirit.

The cause will go forward.

And as much as everything has changed, nothing is any different in the deep abiding love writers and book people have for great books. We may whine about how difficult it is to produce a respectable, not to mention decent-selling, book. And if you're a new author, your chances of being respected, let alone rewarded and allowed to grow are rather small even as the current publishing system expands.

It will always matter who you are and who you know.

But important books are still published every day, many by top traditional houses, some by boutique imprints, and even in the self-publishing sphere. And there are many excellent fresh voices among them. Not nearly enough. But again, that's what makes the fight so rewarding.

One characteristic anyone associated with this industry has is a joy for, or at least a pride in the struggle for books, fighting off myriad disappointments while clinging to dwindling shreds of sanity and perpetual hurry-sickness and information-saturation. I love my incredibly talented and principled friends who keep their corners of this industry pumping. And I see how their dedication involves difficult trade-offs and I hurt with them.

It matters what you write. It really does. It makes all the work worthwhile, in the end. These books that require so much more than one person to be born, if writers could only see how many hopes and dreams ride on them, maybe they'd dedicate more readily, more completely. Maybe they'd hold off accepting someone's offer to publish it before it's been critiqued and edited by someone beyond Mom and Aunt Hazel. Maybe their book would outlast the others being written that are too much like it and don't really speak of the deeper truth inside that will go unrealized and unnoticed.

Cue the ominous music…

Meanwhile, I remain hopeful that the support in bookland is there, and we're all continuing to believe and fight together.