A 5-Step Process for Better Writing – Part 1

6 minute read

When you think of writing, what do you think of?

Do you imagine sitting down at your keyboard and typing away until you have a draft…

Giving your draft a good once-over to catch any minor mistakes…

And then, voila… like magic, you have a beautiful draft of brilliant copy you know your client will love?

If you’ve been at this for a while, you know this scenario is a rarity.

You know it’s far more common to sit down and not feel like writing… to struggle for every word, to wrestle with every sentence. Or to just stare at a blank page.

You know what it’s like to try to figure out the one Big Idea that will make what you’re writing feel fresh and memorable… and how elusive that idea can be.

And you know what it’s like to work and rework your organization… to bolster your proof… to verify your details.

Often by that point, you’re so close to your deadline you only have time for a quick read-through before sending it to your client with crossed fingers and a prayer for success.

If you imagine writing as a simple and magical process, it’s easy to skip steps… and that can ultimately make the whole process more difficult.

Writing actually consists of five distinct steps:  Pre-writing, drafting, revision, editing, and proofing. And, if you skip any of them, chances are you’ll find yourself in the struggle I just described.

But, the more often you use all five writing steps — and use them properly — the closer and closer you’ll get to writing “magic.” And that’s why, in this two-part series, I want to show you all the steps of the process and give you methods for getting the most out of each.

Step 1. Pre-Writing

Of the five phases of the writing process, this is one that’s often skipped. You land an assignment. You’re psyched. You’re excited. You can’t wait to sit down and write. And so, that’s what you do.

The problem is you don’t have all the information. You can’t possibly do your best work, because the work you’re doing is, at best, only half-informed.

Pre-writing involves:

  • Asking questions
  • Reading for ideas
  • Brainstorming ideas
  • Doing research: product, audience, competition, proof of benefit
  • Outlining

Before you sit down to write, spend some time with your client asking questions. Some good questions for you to ask include:

  • What’s the goal for this project?
  • What do you know about the audience I’m writing to?
  • What has worked well with similar projects?
  • What hasn’t worked well with similar projects?
  • What would you view as a successful outcome?
  • What happens if we fail to meet the objective?
  • When the reader finishes reading this, what comes next?
  • What other things should I know before I get started?
  • How will readers find the finished product?

And then ask some questions to guide your research:

  • What do I know about my audience?
  • What do I need to know to make a convincing argument? (The answer to this is usually another list of questions.)
  • What benefits does this product offer? (If you’re writing an article, it’s the product.)
  • What are competitors doing and saying?
  • What is the audience saying about similar products?
  • Where do my product’s benefits and my audience’s problem intersect?

Once you’ve spent some time getting your questions in order, it’s time to start in on your research.

The first thing I do is general reading on my topic. I try to read several articles by experts in the area just to get oriented. Often, this broad research will give me several narrower topics to pursue as I dig in further.

After my broad research, I’ll start to do more focused reading with the goal of answering my questions above, learning more about the narrower topics of interest, and providing proof to back up any benefit claims I’m making.

Come up with a system to capture and organize your research. Evernote is a great tool for this, as you can “clip” website pages into a project folder for quick reference when you begin drafting.

Once you’ve thoroughly steeped yourself in research, it’s time to begin brainstorming ideas. Just like you would for headlines, make a big list of ideas for how you can approach what you’re writing. These will help you hit up the best Big Idea to frame whatever piece you’re working on.

Finally, take what you’ve done and use it to create an outline of your article or sales letter or website… or whatever it is you’re working on.

If you skip pre-writing, that’s when writer’s block gets to be a problem. Another thing that results from skipping pre-writing is “dead-ending.” You start to write, and it goes well at first, but then your draft begins to spiral out of control — it’s disorganized and hard to follow. And you’re left wondering how to get it back on track. Spending time and energy on the pre-writing step prevents these setbacks.

And it sets you up for a drafting phase that’s easy and… you guessed it… magical.

Step 2. Drafting

vintage teal typewriter beside bookThis is everyone’s favorite phase of the writing process. So much so, that many writers try to cram the entire writing process into the drafting phase, researching and organizing as they go, and editing as they write.

You miss out on so much when you take that approach.

When you roll research, writing, and editing into one, you’re essentially multitasking. You’re asking your brain to switch back and forth between being analytical and creative. When you do that, your analytics are sloppy, and your creativity is stilted. Instead of enjoying the best of both worlds, you invite the worst.

In the full writing process, drafting is its own step. During this phase, you take all the research you’ve been soaking in and let it flow into words that become something more than the sum of their parts.

Best of all, you allow yourself to slide into and fully enjoy the creative flow. The flow-state — that’s the magical writing place where your fingers almost can’t keep up with your mind, and everything you write feels golden. During the flow-state, you’ll stumble on ideas and turns of phrase that, when you read them through later, have you wondering at your own brilliance. During the flow-state, time seems to stop moving. You don’t feel hungry or thirsty. You don’t have any desire to check your Facebook or email. You’re in perfect harmony with your writing.

These are the times when you write for an hour or two — or more — without even realizing that much time has passed. You’ll come out of your drafting like you’re waking from a dream. It’s what writers live for… at the very least, it’s why we write.

To take full advantage of the flow-state, try these steps:

  1. Shut off your email, your phone, and your Internet. Find a way to signal your family that you’re not to be interrupted unless it’s truly an emergency. I have a lime-green wristband. When I wear it, it means, “I’m writing, leave me alone.” Carline Anglade-Cole told us at one Bootcamp she hangs a sign on her door that says, “Don’t interrupt me unless you’re bleeding from your eyes.” Whatever works.
  2. Don’t even worry about checking your notes as you write. That will happen in the revision phase.
  3. If you get stuck, skip to a different section and work there.
  4. Don’t edit as you go. There’s a separate phase for that. Treat this like meditation. If you catch yourself editing, acknowledge what you’re doing and then return to writing with abandon.
  5. Don’t be afraid to pause. Sometimes you get a great swirl of thoughts, and once they’re all down, you have to wait for a few minutes for the next swirl to come. The key is to relax and let it come. Don’t get in its way by checking your email or reading back through everything you’ve written.

When you allow the drafting phase to be what it’s meant to be, you’ll write faster, you’ll enjoy your writing more, and you’ll get access to ideas that are hiding in your mind — things that might never reveal themselves otherwise.

Next week, I’ll dig into the other half of the writing process … revision, editing, and proofing. It’s these steps where, if there’s brilliance to be had, you’re most likely to find it, so stay tuned!