How I Write: The Craft of Wordsmithing

It is an odd thing to say at 70 years old that I am learning how to write. In my professional career, I have done a lot of writing, but the material was mostly short form. What we are talking about here is learning how to write long form novels and blog posts on a regular basis. I have been trying a number of different approaches to evolve a process that works for me. As part of that learning process, it seems to me that it would be useful to capture what I do.

To be clear, what I am talking about is the process of actual writing. In an earlier time this would been called “putting words on the page.” This is the activity that in years past might have been accomplished with parchment and quill pen, with a typewriter, or with a keyboard and screen. In my case, I am using dictation followed by revisions using a keyboard and screen.

And to be equally clear, what we are not talking about is “pre-writing” activities such as outlining or rehearsing the contents of the chapter as part of preparing to write. We are not talking about research. We are not talking about those distractions such as reviewing my RSS feeds, handling my email, reading Twitter, catching up with Facebook, or anything else that I might be doing while purporting to “write.”

As I said, the nature of material that I am writing now is different from what I have written in the past. The material in the past was short form, typically less than 2000 words. Now I am writing chapters that are 2000, 3000, up to as many as 9000 words in length. The associated strategy and tactics are quite a bit different. The biggest issue that I have had is that when I wrote the shorter form material, my expectation was that my first draft was going to be fairly well ordered and cogent. Yes, of course, I was going have to go back and revise the material but the revisions would not take up the vast majority of the time that I took to produce the material. I have found that in producing these long form chapters, I can generate the words quickly using dictation but that the revision process seems to go on and on and on.

When I started this process, I struggled because I kept wanting to produce good material on the first pass. I would dictate a sentence, realize it was not quite exactly what I wanted to say, and go back to fix it immediately. That broke up the flow and consequently slowed me down. What I have evolved over the last several months as I have learned how to write in this new way is the following:

  • I dictate the initial draft of the material, typically following an outline that I wrote and thought about for some time. I rehearse the contents in my head during other activities such as exercise. My expectation is that the result is going to be very rough. I have learned to dictate with my eyes closed. I do not want to see what is showing up on the screen. If I have a sense that what I’ve just said is not quite right, I repeat the material. I may repeat the material five or six times before I think that I have said what I want to say in the way that I want to say it. Each of the attempts ends up being captured by the dictation software. I just keep on going without stopping to edit whatever it is I just dictated. I find that I can generate a lot of material quickly. What I end up with, however, is a “steaming pile of words.” Typically there is good stuff in this pile but there is also a lot of dross that needs to be removed. That’s the next step.
  • I make multiple editing passes through the material. I remove the repetition. I fix the spelling. I remove redundancies in how I expressed things. What I have found is that if I limit the objective of a particular pass through the material to a very narrow operation, I can maintain my focus as I revise the document, complete the editing operation very quickly, and add value. The document is still very rough at the end of each of these passes, but if I have done each pass properly, the document is significantly less rough than it was before I started the pass.
  • I am not shy about re-working the material. Because the words were generated quickly and with fairly minimal effort, I find that I am not particularly attached to the words. If they are not working, “off with their heads” or something like that. I do keep a “scrap pile” of material that may be of future use even if it does not belong in the current document. I also use source code control tools to capture each version. Some revisions go astray and must be reverted to a past state.
  • I add new ideas. Going over the material as many times as I do, I become very familiar with it. And very frequently I think of new ideas which I want to inject into the material. In a very real sense, I am shaping the rough clay into something different from what I really started off to create. The chapter that I did after visiting Pearson’s Falls developed at least two extra dimensions, the notion of the cage and the notion of the cathedral, as I revised that chapter. Neither notion was present when I started the chapter but both notions emerged out of the revision process as unexpected additions. I think that they both added considerable value.
  • At some point I put the document away to let it rest for a while. The contents of the document can become so familiar that my mind knows what it says so well that it becomes incapable of seeing what is really there on the screen. After a week or so, I can come back to the material with fresh eyes. Another trick that I use is to have Dragon Naturally Speak read the document back to me. A different part of the brain is involved in listening to the document and things that I have overlooked in reading the document suddenly become obvious, generating more items to fix. Finally, printing the document out on paper, reading it on a different device, or generating a webpage can freshen up my perception of the material.

One thing that I’ve noticed about this process is how similar it is to the process of creating software.

Both processes have the notion of goals and objectives. A well-managed project to develop a piece of software should have clear and consistent written goals, objectives, and requirements. I have goals and objectives for the novel but I have not quite figured out how to write requirements as crisply for the novel as I would like. I continue to think about this issue.

Software has the notion of design and architecture which specifies in broad strokes how the software will be structured. I certainly have done that for the novel. In fact, I’ve done it several times as I’ve gotten smarter about what it was I was really trying to accomplish.

If the software is of any size, the software developer should decompose the functions of the software into manageable chunks. It seems to me that same thing is true of a novel being decomposed into chapters and scenes. In software we try to build a functional version of this manageable chunk, build a set of tests to ensure that the chunk really functions as we want, and worry about the nonfunctional aspects only after we have figured out that were doing the right thing in the right way. There is not a great deal of value in worrying about performance or reliability or other similar aspects of the software until we are sure we understand exactly what that software should be doing. The analog for the novel is that we should worry about character and plot first, and then worry about the language used to expose the characters and plot afterward.

Developing a piece of software in this way is an exercise in continuous learning. The accomplishment of each new task or activity teaches something new about the software. This enhanced understanding should inform how you handle future activities and tasks and should encourage you to rewrite, re-factor, and polish previous chunks of the software. Every software project that I have ever worked on that the client regarded as excellent has been the result of extensive revision. The same is true of the elements of the novel.

If amount of revisions somehow guarantees excellence, then I am well on my way to a magnificent first novel. Working on one chapter inevitably suggests changes for chapters that I worked on earlier. Reading about how to use a particular writing technique reveals holes all through the novel that demand revision. It is said that a software application is never done, it merely escapes. I am getting the sense that the same thing is true of a novel.

For me it is necessary every once in a while to step back and capture the details about how I am learning to write. Writing down the lessons that I have learned solidifies the learning. And I think it is important to put this material out where people can see it. I found in my professional career that the anticipation of giving a presentation about a particular topic forced one to read, study, understand, and master the material much more than would otherwise be the case. That effort did not always guarantee you that you would avoid making a fool of yourself but it was a way to improve your odds quite a bit.

I am a continuous learner. I like to learn and the profession I was in demanded that I learn new technology almost every day. While writing is not as fast moving as technology, I am just starting out. There is a whole body of technique and approach that I am just beginning to grasp. I am very far from running out of new topics to master. What you have here is just a snapshot along the way. I expect that there will be future snapshots in which I can say, I am smarter than I was yesterday and dumber than I will be tomorrow.

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