Writing Tool #50: The Writing Process
Writing Tool #50: The Writing Process
Use these tools to demystify your writing.
In 1983, Donald Murray wrote on a chalkboard a little diagram that changed my writing and teaching forever. It was a modest blueprint of the writing process as he understood it, five words that describe the steps toward creating a story. As I remember them now, the words were: Idea. Collect. Focus. Draft. Clarify.
By Roy Peter Clark (Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute)
A map of the writing process can help focus your story.In 1983, Donald Murray wrote on a chalkboard a little diagram that changed my writing and teaching forever. It was a modest blueprint of the writing process as he understood it, five words that describe the steps toward creating a story. As I remember them now, the words were: Idea. Collect. Focus. Draft. Clarify. In other words, the writer conceives a story idea, collects things to support it, discovers what the story is really about, attempts a first draft, and revises in the quest for greater clarity.How did this simple diagram change my life?Until then, I thought great writing was the work of magicians. Like most readers, I encountered work perfected and published. I'd hold a book in my hand, flip through its pages, feel its weight, admire its design, and be awestruck by its seeming perfection. This was magic, the work of wizards, people different from you and me.Murray's model of the writing process revealed a new path. Finished writing may seem magical to the reader, but it is the product of an invisible process, a series of rational steps, a set of tools. Writing teachers at The Poynter Institute have been playing with Murray's model for more than 20 years now, revising it, expanding it, adapting it to various writing and editing tasks. Here's my annotated version.Sniff around: I got this from Don Fry. Before you get a story idea, you get a whiff of something. Journalists call this a "nose for news," but all good writers express a form of curiosity, a sense that something is going on out there, something in the air.Explore ideas: The writers I admire most are the ones who see their world as a storehouse of story ideas. They are explorers, traveling through their communities with a special alertness, connecting seemingly unrelated details into story patterns. Only two kinds of writers exist in the world: the ones with ideas, and the ones with assignments.Collect evidence: I love the wisdom that journalists write not with their hands, but with their legs. The great Francis X. Clines of The New York Times says he can always find a story if he can just get out of the office. Writers collect words, images, details, facts, quotes, dialogue, documents, scenes, expert testimony, eyewitness accounts, statistics, the brand of the beer, the color and make of the sports car, and, of course, the name of the dog.Find a focus: For Chip Scanlan, who was with me when Murray unveiled his model, the process is all about focus. Finding what the story is really about requires careful reporting, sifting through evidence, experimentation, and critical thinking. The focus of a story can be expressed in a lead sentence, a summary paragraph, a headline or title, a theme statement, a thesis, a question the story will answer for the reader, three little words.
Select the best stuff: There's one great difference between new writers and experienced ones. New writers often dump the contents of their notebook into a story. By God, I wrote it down, so it's going in. Veterans use a fraction, sometimes half, sometimes one-tenth of what they've gathered. But how do you decide what to include and, more difficult, what to leave out? A sharp focus is like a laser. It helps the writer slice material that might be tempting, but does not contribute to the central meaning of the story.Recognize an order: Are you writing a sonnet or an epic? As Strunk & White ask, are you erecting a pup tent or a cathedral? What is the scope of your story? What shape is emerging? Working from a plan, the writer benefits from a vision of the global structure of the story. This does not require a formal outline. But it helps to have a sense of beginning, middle and ending.Write a draft: Some writers write fast and free, accepting the inevitable imperfection of early drafts, moving toward multiple revisions. Other writers -- my friend David Finkel comes to mind -- work with meticulous precision, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, combining drafting and revising steps. One way is not better than another. But here's the key: I once believed that writing began with drafting, the moment my butt hit the chair and my hands hit the keyboard. I now recognize that step as deep in the process, a step that is more fluid when I have taken other steps first. Revise and clarify: Murray once gave me a precious gift, a book of manuscript pages titled "Authors At Work." In it you see the poet Shelley crossing out by hand the title "To the Skylark," revising it to "To a Skylark." You see the novelist Balzac writing dozens upon dozens of revisions in the margins of a corrected proof. You can watch Henry James cross out 20 lines of a 25-line manuscript page. For these artists, writing is re-writing. And while word processors now make such revisions harder to track, they also eliminate the donkey work of re-copying, and help us improve our work with the speed of light.Sniff. Explore. Collect. Focus. Select. Order. Draft. Revise.Don't think of these as tools. Think of them as tool shelves or toolboxes. A well-organized garage has the gardening tools in one corner, the paint cans and brushes in another, the car repair equipment in another, the laundry helpers in another. In the same way, each of my process words describes a mode of writing and thinking that contains its own tool set.So in my focus box I keep a set of questions the reader may ask about the story. In my order box, I have story shapes such as the chronological narrative and the gold coins. In my revision box I keep my tools for cutting useless words.A simple blueprint for the writing process will have many uses over time. Not only will it give you confidence by demystifying the act of writing. Not only will it provide you with big boxes in which to store your tool collection. It will also help you diagnose problems in individual stories. It will help you account for your strengths and weaknesses over time. And it will build your critical vocabulary for talking about your craft, a language about language that will lead you to the next level.Workbench:1. With some friends, take a big piece of chart paper, and with colored markers draw a diagram of your writing process. Use words, arrows, images, anything that helps open a window on your mind and method.2. Find one of your stories that did not work. Using either of the writing models described above, can you identify the part of the process that broke down? Did you fail to collect enough information? Did you have a problem selecting the best material?3. Using the steps of my writing process, create for yourself a scoring grid. Reviewing a portfolio of your writing, grade yourself on each of the categories. Do you generate enough story ideas? Is your work well-ordered?4. Using some of the categories above, interview another writer about her writing process. Turn it into a conversation in which you describe your own methods. Should Writing Tools Become A Book?
Thanks for sticking with me during this last year, working your way through my Writing Tools. I am so glad that many of you have found them useful. Now I could use your help. I am in the process of creating a proposal to turn the Writing Tools into a book. An agent who is advising me thinks it would be helpful to have some testimonials. In other words, if these tools have been useful to you, I would love to hear from you in the form of a personal e-mail message. A simple paragraph describing the value of the Writing Tools might influence potential publishers. And, of course, if you can think of ways to sharpen these tools, I'd gladly receive such feedback as well. These messages will not be posted in a public forum without your permission. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading. Who knows? There may be more tools to come. -- Roy Peter Clark(Source: http://poynteronline.org/)