How I Write

by Randy Murray on April 16, 2013

I am a writer by both calling and profession and have been for many years. It’s surprisingly hard work. I’m often on deadline, both for my clients and when writing for myself. And the work, both my own and the ones that pay the bills, is typically challenging stuff. But I understand that not everyone can write well or find it easy or enjoyable. It may never be completely enjoyable for all, but I believe that almost anyone can learn to write well.

Here’s how I work:

From a distance my process appears simple and easy: screw around for days, type furiously, screw around some more, frown and type again, seek help, more typing and then voila, it’s done!

It is, upon closer examination, a bit more complex than that.

First, I start from need. By that I mean I start when either I’ve received an assignment from a client or when an idea starts gnawing at me. I begin by making notes, often handwritten and in my trusty Moleskine notebook, or wherever I can find a scrap of paper. If I’m near a computer, phone, or my iPad, I’ll likely make notes in SimpleNote or Notational Velocity, which sync together.

Most of my notes lead nowhere. Note-making is the time for thinking, dreaming, and sometimes trying not to think specifically about the idea or assignment itself. If I’m successful, that’s great, and I don’t need to start writing yet. I only begin writing when I must.

Once the notes stage is past, virtually all of my contract writing begins with an outline. I write a proposed outline, the client responds, and we refine until we’re both happy. Much of my own work starts that same way. The outline is the bones of a piece and it’s especially important for non-fiction work. The logic, the argument, must be absolutely rock solid. Strip something down to this point and you can see if it works. When it does, that’s where I start.

Next is another “looks like he’s not doing anything at all” stage. But this is one of the most important parts. My mind is like a rock tumbler and the pieces I work on start out looking like nothing more than gravel and rocks. I have to let them grind away against all of the other stones and grit before they begin to smooth out, to show their true colors, their potential.

When it’s time, when I can’t wait any longer, I write my first draft in a great rush. Anything under twenty pages I typically write in just a few hours. A quick review to correct the most egregious errors and I’m done, at least for that day.

I return to the piece the next day and I can spot most of the problems by simply reading through it. Most are easy to fix. And when I’m done with this stage, it’s time for help. By help, I mean the assistance of a good editor, the client, or anyone I can convince to read and comment.

When my work comes back, then it’s time for another reading and the rock polisher goes into high speed. It’s also the dangerous time. A lot of the beauty of my writing is what came out in the initial rush. If I tinker with it too much there’s a risk of it falling apart. So revisions at this stage are approached cautiously, carefully. It’s sometimes better to remove a line I like all too well rather than try and fix it, twist it into something else.

How do I know when a piece is done? “It’s done when the outline is fully fleshed out, when I’ve edited it without draining it of life and color, and when I’m as close to satisfied as I can be — or when the deadline comes along, whichever comes first. That’s when it’s done.

I write better, do better work, now that I no longer have to show up in an office and remain busy all throughout the day. The tough part about being a writer is to allow one’s self to not write, to do other things, to let the rocks tumble. Some people can’t manage that; they feel guilty because they feel they’re not working. But thinking is working. I can let the old tumbler churn while I do something else. Eventually, I’ll be driven back to my keyboard because it’s simply time to get it out.

If you’re not a writer full time, but want to write well, follow these ten steps:

  1. Find out what you’re writing about. It can either be something assigned to you or an idea you want to write about.
  2. Write this down.
  3. Research, think, mull it over. You might make a few notes.
  4. Next, write your argument, the idea, in full outline form. Test it and make sure the outline is clear and completely conveys your idea.
  5. Expand the outline into a first draft. If you find it difficult, simply take each outline point and expand it into a paragraph.
  6. Set it aside for at least one day.
  7. Read it through once, marking it, but not changing it.
  8. When you’ve completed your review you may revise as necessary.
  9. Hand it off to someone else, give him or her a red pen, and tell them to “Make it bleed.”
  10. Revise, rewrite, and repeat until you are satisfied or you arrive at your deadline.

That’s it. Write, rewrite, polish. You might even come to enjoy it, eventually.

Originally published in the Read & Trust Newsletter

The How I Write by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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