Thursday, March 1, 2012

Processing My Process (or Not)

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Most people have a vague notion of what writers do, and an even hazier notion of what we do.

Was that vague and hazy enough for you? Okay, let me try to explain. I’ve been writing professionally and teaching writing classes for [mumbles incoherently] years, so if I can’t tell you what it is that I do do, I may be in trouble. I bring all this confusion up because a couple of people have asked me recently about my "writing process," and I’ve been processing the question. Most English departments teach writing process as a theoretical necessity.

So what's the theory? Since the 1970s or so, "writing process" has been thought of as a five-part approach to writing.
  1. First, they tell us, we "prewrite," which essentially means we figure out what we want to write and who might read it, and we brainstorm what we should include and research the things we need to learn or confirm.
  2. Then we "draft," and when we have something that is more or less presentable, we show it to other people for feedback. (Note - "other people" should be neither your mother, who will love anything you write, nor the rabid Tasmanian devils we sometimes find in critique groups.)
  3. Next, we "revise." This is a step that many new(ish) writers resist. That’s sad, for them and their work and, if they put it into the public realm, for their readers as well. Revision is the real writing in serious writing for most of us.
  4. The fourth designated step is "proofreading." Yes, writers, please proofread. Okay, confession time. I’m a lazy bum about proofreading when I post quickly online. Manuscripts and galleys, though, are subject to my fine-toothed comb to check for my own errors and those inserted by gremlins during the production process. Alas, some still get by, but without the effort, they all would. And proofreading must be done by actually reading, not just by electronic "checkers."
  5. The final step in formal process is "publishing," which is used in the old-fashioned sense of "to make public" by sharing. Publication may be what we usually think of – print – or it may be public performance or even simply putting the work in front of a limited group of family or friends.
Is that the way creative people work? I'm sure some do. The five-step process approach may help some people take their first steps as writers, rather like learning the scales helps a fledgeling musician or practicing brush strokes helps the begining painter.

Mostly I think of the traditional five-step construct is a nice way to pretend that we understand what we do when we "go creative."

Back to my readers' questions about my process. Is it the five-step approach? Well, sort of, but my way into, around, and back out of my work is much less tidy. Rather than an orderly multi-course meal, I prefer the deliciousness of creative work in more of a one-dish affair.

Take Drop Dead on Recall, my first mystery (which will be out in October!). It began with a first line that popped into my head as I was driving home from a dog obedience trial. I had a victim with a name. I had a crime, although no idea how it was committed, or by whom. I had a setting. I knew I had a book. I even had a narrator’s voice, although the narrator herself was a bit vague. On its way to publication, the book has gone through all the steps, but definitely not in a linear progression. Not even close.

Beyond that, I can't tell you exactly what happens when I write, but I can tell you that it takes about twenty minutes at the keyboard to warm up, and then the little driver in my brain shifts gears and my writing motor takes off, and creativity happens. Does such an apparently chaotic approach work, or am I in the trouble I mentioned earlier? I’ve written 22 books and hundreds of articles, and currently have two novels, a play, two long essays, and some poems underway, so other than having a lot of irons in the fire, I don’t think I’m in too much trouble. This approach works for me. It might not work for someone else.

Rather than a process, I like to think of what I do as more of a habit. An addiction, really. I write almost every day, and I have done so for thirty years. (Yes, I did start very young!)

Occasionally I take a break, but after three or four days of no serious writing, I break out in mental hives. Please understand that when I say "write," I mean I sit down and I work. Sometimes I get into the flow and pump out five hundred, a thousand, up to two thousand words a day. Sometimes I stare at the screen or (rarely now) paper and write two words. Sometimes I brainstorm or revise or make lists or charts or squiggly diagrams of plot. Sometimes I do all of the above, a few minutes here, a half hour there. And okay, sure, sometimes I play backgammon or surf the web. But I’m in my work place (usually a cafĂ© somewhere - I like the hubbub), and even when I don’t appear to be writing, my subconscious is hard at it.

I have to assume that the people who asked about my process were really asking what I could offer them to help them write more or better (or at all). I’m sure there are writers whose "processes" are as convoluted as mine, and I’m sure there are writers who are organized and logical and linear as they go about their work. So here’s my advice if you want to write. Three simple steps.
  • Read everything you can. Read about writing and read all kinds of writing. Read writing you love and writing you don’t love and learn from all of it.
  • Try different approaches to the work, different environments, different schedules, until you discover what works for you. This is creative work, so be creative about how you do it.
  • Write. Write. Write.

(And don’t forget to play!)

Sheila W. Boneham, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming "Animals in Focus" mystery Drop Dead on Recall as well as award-winning books about pets including Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine, 2009), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat (Alpha, 2005), and fifteen others. Sheila's books are available from your local bookseller and on line. Learn more at or on Facebook at

All images other than casserole copyright by Sheila Boneham. Casserole from Watercolor painting "Pewter and Cherries" copyright Sheila Boneham.


Robin Allen said...

There's a formula, and then there's what you do with the formula. Everyone should use every ingredient, but it's up to the writer how much and how often. My own process is similar to yours, Sheila--but not exactly.

And you paint, too! Love the cherries.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Robin! I love painting (mostly watercolor, some colored pencil, occasionally oil), but these days I haven't much time for it. And right - everyone needs to know and use the basics, but also needs to find the way(s) that work best for him or her.

runchocolate said...

We wouldn't be creative if we all shared the same process. I love the post,love the pewter and cherries, and love the picture of young Sheila on the couch.

Now, Sheila (and I speak to the adult one), if only we could teach the subconscious to type...

Kathleen Ernst said...

I especially like the point about revision. When I teach or speak about writing, I often find that people really don't want to dig into that aspect.

*Love* your photos! The one on the couch is priceless.

Unknown said...

Thanks, all. Yes, I would like my subconscious to do my work whilet i go play :-). And Kathleen - yes!!! But then in school we teach kids not to revise - turn it in, get a grade, move on. Very unrealistic. I actually enjoy revising more than composing.

Unknown said...

Oh, gee - pardon my one-finger iPad typing typos!

Marni said...

Sheila, I think part of becoming comfortable as a writer is finding your own process. I agree that revision is so necessary, where that lump of clay you've drafted gets pushed and polished until it shines! Loved all the photos~

Barb said...

As a writer, I think the scariest thing about having success is feeling bound and obligated to keep writing and then not doing it! I have been stuck on quite a few ideas that ramble around in my head day after day for at least a year. I have yet to write them down or work on them as I have a fear of failure---or maybe it is a fear of success! My head tells me just do it, but then I "just don't" I find everything else to do instead. Some days I am also scared of the shear amount of ideas I have and then it becomes a process of where do I start? how would you address this sort of "block" Sheila? Thanks,Barb

Vicki Doudera said...

Barb, I think you're talking about a writer's arch enemy... procrastination! We've all had to battle with him here and there.

Sheila -- love the post and the photos! Thanks!