The Ultimate Guide to Learning Writing: The Writing Process

Behind the Scenes of Every Bestseller: The Writing Process

Pensive writer is smoking a cigarette at the bus stop when the way a woman tucks her hair behind her ear ignites a stream of poetry; he rushes home and the novel writes itself, start to finish, in a frenzied and whiskey-filled twelve days. Hollywood’s version of the writing process is as such - magically disillusioned and always spontaneous - and not to say this romanticization can’t be a reality, but more often than not, the writing process is intentional, methodical, and equally science as it is art.

In this step-by-step guide, you will learn about the writing process, which includes:

  • Prewriting
  • Writing
  • Revision
  • Editing (and finding a writing editor)
  • Publishing your work

Though there are defined steps to the writing process, consider them as macro-steps and the basic components of a recipe, with ample room for customization. As you engage in the process, you will encounter and develop your own sub-steps, additions, and substitutions. However, as with any recipe, there are non-negotiables. Bread needs yeast to rise, and quality writing needs a proper process behind it. By committing to basic steps, you will reduce anxiety and stress, avoid writer's’ block, maximize your time, and through this, produce your best quality work.

Step 1: Prewriting Stage

The prewriting stage is the number one prevention to writer’s block and just about every other writer’s affliction. The blueprint to what you build, it is everything you do before you write your first draft: the thinking, brainstorming, note taking and research, and outlining. By ensuring a strong foundation at this point, you will free up your mind to wander more freely and creatively while writing.

During the prewriting stage, you will spend time:

  • Generating Ideas: Many ideas do arrive spontaneously at the bus stop. Others are wrapped into old writing, memories, and notes, or waiting in writing prompts. Keep a notebook to capture ideas as they float in; see our guide to overcoming and avoiding writer’s block for suggestions on how to develop your daily writing ritual. Although this is the first step, you will continue to generate ideas throughout the writing process - think of it as a spiraling, rather than linear process.
  • Brainstorming Ideas: Explore all the possibilities your idea offers by brainstorming and/or freewriting. To brainstorm, center your idea on a page and expand outward with related ideas, mapping connections like a web. Find larger themes and clusters that catch your interest - these may be points of further development. Brainstorm in the way that feels comfortable; if it feels more natural to bullet point ideas, do so. Freewriting is another tried and true way to develop ideas: write via free association, starting with an idea and following the path of whichever ideas flow forth. You can try looping here - after 5-10 minutes, circle the ideas that stand out, free-write on one, and loop for another 4-5 rounds. Looping can help to surface supporting ideas and unforeseen connections.
  • Outlining: You’ve created a mess of jumping off points, now find the one that pulls and challenges you - the most compelling idea that keeps generating more questions. Start by summarizing the premise of your idea in 1-2 sentences, then break it down into supporting ideas if you’re writing nonfiction, or major plot points or shifts if it’s fiction. Continue to break your ideas down into smaller ideas, zooming in to the level that is most comfortable to you. Remember, your outline serves as a roadmap, not as a prescriptive plan - it will keep you focused on your destination, but as you write, make as many creative detours as you see fit and even revise it if your story begins to evolve. If you’re stuck at a certain point, go back to your outline to see what’s coming next - write out of order if necessary. See our guide on how to write a short story for short story outline tips in particular.

Step 2: Start Writing (Concentrate on the Main Content)

As John Steinbeck advised:

“Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

You’ve laid the foundation and you know where you’re going - now is the time to weave your ideas together. With your outline as a guide, start writing and follow each thread where it instinctively leads you. Most importantly, as Steinbeck recommends, pay no attention to editing at this point. Content trumps form at this stage. Notice, however, how your ideas might evolve as you make connections; due to the very nature of language and connotation, you may find yourself building bridges to unforeseen territory. This is the “art” of writing - here you might spiral back to your outline to make adjustments.

See our writing tips guide for more genre-specific recommendations.

Step 3: The Revising Stage

After “letting it flow” when you started writing, it can be jarring to begin the revising stage. However, as many writers say, writing is rewriting. The revision process can transform your piece from decent to magnificent even before it sees the eyes of an editor - it just requires an open mind, patience, and a meticulous red pen.

We suggest the following:

  • Keep your audience in mind: Return to your audience needs and expectations. Writing can be a selfish act and sometimes we stray from what our audience needs. When rereading, think from the point of view of your reader. Do they need to know this? Does this help them understand my message?
  • Come with fresh eyes and be your harshest critic: Consider putting aside your piece for a day or few so that you can return to it with more separation and an objective eye. Try reading some parts aloud; sometimes actually enunciating what you wrote can reveal awkward spots. If you find yourself doubting any part, address it - your editor will certainly notice it. Make all the improvements possible before you submit it for editing.
  • Get outside feedback: Have a trusted confidant who can give you quality feedback read through your piece.
  • Revise multiple drafts with a different focus each time: Approaching the revision process with a specific focus will maximize your time and ensure the most critical revisions are made first. Focus on content revisions first: do all of your ideas still relate to and support your original message? Is it logical? Examine each paragraph in relation to your outline to determine if it still serves to communicate your message. Make adjustments if your ideas evolved. Next, address organization: do you need to reorder any ideas? Do your paragraphs flow well from one to the next? Lastly, address surface level edits: examine grammar, word choice, any citations, active versus passive voice, and cut excessive adverbs. Be concise.
  • Try the A.R.R.R. approach (Add, Rearrange, Remove, Replace)
    • Add: Does your content effectively communicate your message? Do your readers have all the information they need? Consider the average length for your writing assignment (article, short story, novel, working thesis, research papers etc).
    • Rearrange: Consider the flow, pacing, and sequencing of your piece. Examine your transitions. If your piece is shorter, try a reverse outline: write one or two word descriptors next to each paragraph and consider if they still follow in a logical order or need to be rearranged.
    • Remove: After you’ve made any necessary additions, consider what you can cut to avoid information overload. It may seem counterproductive, but adding is best done before eliminating. Keep your word count in mind.
    • Replace: Get a second set of eyes on your work. Does your feedback point to any contradictory scenes? Do you need to rewrite or replace any details to clarify your message?

Step 4: Matchmaking

If you want to publish your book, you need to find a writing editor - an impartial and trusted professional. But with the internet brimming with freelance editors at your fingertips, how do you find the right match for your needs?

We answer your most pressing questions below:

  • Where can I find a writing editor?
  • Editors groups or writing centers such as Independent Editors Group or Editorial Freelancers Association are a good starting point, as are online marketplaces such as Reedsy that screen and vet editors. You may also look to Facebook groups for authors for recommendations. A quick internet search of recommended book editors by self-published authors will yield helpful hits.
  • What factors should I consider?
  • Different editors perform different types of levels of editing - consider what is appropriate for your piece. A developmental editor will perform heavy content editing and will look at the big picture or structure of your work, a line editor performs more stylistic editing and will refine your text line by line, a copy editor will revise for grammar, word choice, and punctuation and a proofreader will look for typos, grammatical errors, and formatting consistency. Another factor to consider is your editor’s specialty: does your editor specialize in a particular genre? Additionally, think about where your editor is located. It's not necessary to have face-to-face time but it's definitely a nice to have.
  • Which questions should I ask of a potential writing editor?
    • What style will you use?
    • Can I send you a page/excerpt and can you provide a sample edit?
      • Compare sample edits
        • Are errors in punctuation, grammar, syntax, and word choice marked thoroughly?
        • Are edits addressing style and formatting included?
        • Is the editor’s tone constructive?
        • Did the editor respect your personal voice even if extensive changes were made?
    • Do you specialize in any type of writing?
    • Can you provide testimonials from clients? References?
    • What is your timeline/turnaround of an edit?
    • What are your rates?

Step 5: Publish Your Book

Now that you have a refined piece of work that you are satisfied with, you’re ready to publish. Perhaps the biggest decision to make at this point is whether you will pursue the traditional publishing or self-publishing route, and if you choose to self-publish, whether you will do so in print or digital format. The decision to publish doesn’t just entail shopping your manuscript to publishing houses anymore; as an author, you now have more options.

Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing: The Main Differences

  • Upfront cost: Traditional publishing is less costly upfront; in fact, you are paid an advance (the current mean is about $10,000), but this is against royalties, which means if your advance is $10k, you will won’t earn any royalties until you earn at least $10k in book sales. Self-publishing can be a costly endeavor, as you will need to invest in editors and designers upfront.
  • Royalties: Royalty rates differ significantly between traditional and self-publishing: whereas traditional publishing royalty rates hover between 7-25% of net book price and are set against royalties, self-publishing offers far higher royalty prospects. For example, if your book is priced between $2.99-9.99 on Amazon you’ll receive a 70% royalty rate, yet this doesn’t guarantee sales.
  • Timeline: Once your manuscript is accepted by a traditional publishing company, it can take up to a year or two, sometimes even three for it to actually be published. Your piece can be on e-reader devices within weeks, even days via self-publishing.
  • Distribution: Print distribution in bookstores is far easier through traditional publishing, as sales reps for the company will shop your book to bookstores. If you self-publish
  • Amount of control and involvement: If you sign a traditional publishing deal, you will lose control in the production process - your title, cover, design, layout, and where and how your book is marketed can be determined without your input. In the self-publishing realm, you have complete control over this as it is your responsibility. Consider the level of involvement you want to have in this part of the process.
  • Author’s rights: Self-publishing allows you to retain your author’s rights - you can market and sell your piece on the global market if you wish. Not being tied to a publisher doesn’t mean you can’t enter the traditional publishing world later; if you’re successful, traditional publishers and agents will seek you out.
  • Level of prestige and access to literary awards: Unfortunately, most literary awards are unavailable to self-published authors. Furthermore, traditional publishing still retains a level of prestige due to the exclusivity of the market - critical acclaim is more likely via the traditional publishing route.

Print or Digital?

If you decide to self-publish your book, you may want to consider focusing on the digital format first, then print if you wish, as digital will give your book instant availability in the marketplace (although availability doesn’t equal sales - marketing is another issue), and good digital sales and reviews can immediately help you build your platform. That said, the print-on-demand option allows authors to publish in the print format without committing to a significant amount of pre-printed copies.

Consider the following factors when deciding between print or digital formats:

  • Illustrations, diagrams, tables, etc.
  • If complex text features are essential to your piece, print may be the best option for you due to the formatting limitations of ebooks.
  • Genre trends and the shifting market
  • Although shifting, current trends indicate that romance, crime, and fantasy novels are the biggest-selling ebook genres and that fiction overall sells more in ebook form than in print. Moreover, the pendulum is currently swinging towards digital with changing reading habits as readers spend more time online.

Adapting and Refining Your Writing Process

The more you write and engage in the writing process, you will tease out the nuances at each stage. For example, if are self-publishing for the third time, you may already have a go-to editor, book cover designer, and self-publishing company you are satisfied with. Some stages, like the prewriting and start writing stages may continue to evolve as you incorporate new strategies and leave others to rest. This is just the (hefty) skeleton and everyone’s process varies - take these bare necessities and make it them your own.

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