How ideas come to life: a revealing look behind my writing process
In the last few months, I’ve had several unexpected conversations about the process of writing. This created an opportunity to reflect on my workflow. While I’ve thought about each step separately, I’ve never given much consideration to the entire process. My approach has evolved as I’ve incorporated ideas from other writers who have pulled back the curtain and shared their workflow. Perhaps an exploration of my approach will give you some ideas to fine-tune your own.
I’m not a best-selling author, but writing is a big part of my work. Enough people have told me I write well for me to believe it.
“But I’m not a writer,” you say. How many email messages have you sent in the last day? Everyone writes. Any effort to improve your writing is a good investment. Writing is a transferable skill that you can use in almost every area of life.
Writing is a solitary pursuit. You see a polished work launched, but you don’t see the years that it can take for the concept to develop; the early mornings and late nights giving substance to the idea; the sacrifice of entire chapters on the altar of the editor; and sometimes, the decision to terminate projects.
Sometimes the writing process flows smoothly, but more often it’s a tangled mess for most of the journey. Each work has its own personality and challenges. Much like your children, you have expectations about how they will turn out. Sometimes they stick to the path. Sometimes they go their own way.
While the challenges are different each time, the basic process is the same. I’ve used this process for blog posts, email, business documents and an ebook. I’ll outline the full version here, but I scale back or drop some steps for simpler compositions. Having a reliable process makes it easier to keep going when I get tangled in the jungle of words.
The tools available today are so much better than the ones I started with. I still remember a disturbing number of WordPerfect 5.1 function key combinations. New tools can make life easier and be a source of inspiration, but the process works with any tools. My advice is to find something that works for you and stick with it. When you experience friction, invest in learning how to use your current tools better and explore alternatives if you run into insurmountable barriers. The best tools won’t help much if your process is lousy.
Here’s a high-level diagram of the process, but don’t read it too literally. Though I’ve represented the steps as discrete stages, the reality is that they overlap. As the current stage tapers off, the next ramps up, much like a crossfader control on an audio device. For example, once I begin editing I draft new sections as more ideas and connections emerge.
There can also be multiple passes through a stage. This always happens with the drafting and editing stages, but can occur elsewhere.
The process is a cycle of diverging (generating ideas, words or images) and converging (choosing a topic, eliminating irrelevant sections and making the message clearer through editing).
1. Capture ideas
A naturally curious mind and daily reading are the raw materials for my work. We all have plenty of ideas about potential topics, but they can show up at the most inopportune times. The critical thing is to capture ideas when they occur. You might have just figured out how to make time travel work, but “buy milk” is just as likely to replace that thought unless you write it down. The capture process builds a catalog to choose from when it’s time to write.
Sometimes I capture ideas straight into a digital system. The more common pathway is to capture on paper, then to transfer to a digital system later. This second pass helps to screen some less well-conceived notions.
I keep a single Evernote note with a list of potential writing projects. I’ll write as much detail as comes to mind at the time. This could include:
- key points;
- relevant resources like books or websites;
- a photo of something I’ve seen;
- potential titles; and
- anything else that will help me get back on track when it’s time to start writing.
The idea and sub-points are moved to a separate note once the composition is complete. This avoids going over old ground when I’m choosing what to write about next.
- Pen and paper. This is still the fastest and simplest way for me to get ideas out of my head — even if the ideas happen in the shower.
- Drafts. Drafts is a wonderful tool for capturing ideas on my iPhone. The premise is to first capture the text and then decide what you want to do with it. From Drafts you can email it, create a task, post it to social media, send it to Evernote and many other possibilities.
- Evernote. As well as my idea catalog, I also keep a swipe file in Evernote. This stores potentially useful quotes or images that may support what I’m writing about. Browsing through the list sometimes reveals gems that I’d forgotten about.
2. Define the audience and objective
This is part of planning, but it’s so important that it’s worth highlighting as a separate step. Once I commit to writing a piece, the first thing I do is clarify the target audience and the objective (to persuade, inform, entertain etc).
This helps me focus my research efforts. I can go down rabbit trails all day long. It’s interesting, but not always productive. Returning to these questions helps when I inevitably get stuck or sidetracked. It helps me know what to cover, and more importantly, what to leave out.
A mind map is the starting point for planning my writing. It includes answers about the audience and the objective.
- Pen and paper. Software makes it easy to reorganize ideas in a mind map, but much of my early thinking is still done with analog tools. I think better with a pen in my hand and frequently use paper to sketch out a rough plan.
- MindNode. My mind maps often start on paper. Paper is great for capturing the ideas, but not very flexible when it comes to reorganizing them. MindNode strikes a perfect balance between features and simplicity for digital mind mapping.
- Evernote. The mind map contains the outline, but there is other information that I also track. Evernote helps me manage the writing process. I create a note for each composition beginning with the audience and objective. Later I’ll add title ideas, links to research, images I may use, and my blog post publishing checklist.
Planning has two distinct modes. First, I use a mind map to capture anything that seems relevant to the topic. This is a free-form brainstorm with no censorship. MindNode is my main tool, but I often start with a pen and paper or a whiteboard.
The second stage is to structure this output. MindNode makes it easy to group and organize ideas in a logical sequence.
This mind map is usually enough planning for me. For more complex documents I sometimes turn the mind map into an outline. I’ve also used Scrivener’s index card view when I’ve had trouble getting a structure that works.
The SCORRE process outlined in Ken Davis’ Secrets of Dynamic Communication describes an excellent method for keeping documents and presentations focused. I use this process for many of my blog posts and presentations.
- MindNode. My main tool for brainstorming and organizing ideas. Usually I’m ready to write after this step, but sometimes I need some heavy-duty options.
- OmniOutliner. When I need a more detailed outline I use OmniOutliner. This mainly applies to long-form writing.
- Scrivener. Scrivener’s corkboard view lets you see the outline as index cards. I’m not sure why, but this view has helped me get unstuck when I wasn’t making progress with the other tools.
Research sometimes begins before the planning stage — especially if I’m not familiar with the topic. The plan adapts as new ideas emerge while researching the topic.
- Web browser. Indispensable.
- Pen and paper. When I interview or discuss ideas with people, I use a notebook to capture key points and quotes.
- Evernote Web Clipper. This browser plugin lets me capture a web page to Evernote. Web pages can disappear or change, so retaining a copy can be useful. The Evernote Web Clipper automatically captures the source URL and date which aids referencing. You can also simplify the page design and remove advertisements and comments. The content can be searched just like any other note. If you haven’t used the Web Clipper, give it a try. It’s one of Evernote’s best features.
With a solid plan in place, I can usually bang out a crappy first draft without too much trouble. I set my screen up with the writing application on the left and the mind map or other research on the right. It’s then a matter of filling in details under the headings.
I do my best to live by these principles when writing:
- Limit the number of active writing projects. I work best if I stick to one project at a time. On rare occasions I have two on the go, but that’s my limit. When the shiny idea squirrels bring new material, I capture it into Evernote (see 1. Capture ideas). Everything I need will be there when the time is right.
- Finish what I start. Once I start a project I want to see it through to completion. I don’t think there has been a single project where I haven’t felt like aborting the mission part way through. I have walked away from 2 or 3 blog posts that weren’t making the cut, but unpublished work doesn’t help anyone.
Early morning is the best time for me to write. Even if it’s only 15 minutes, I feel like I’ve made progress. I can force myself to write at night, but it creates more editing work later. I’d rather do more mechanical things like adding links or searching for photos in the evening. The unpredictability that children bring means that if I leave writing until the evening, it’s probably not going to happen.
When drafting longer documents at work, I like to escape to somewhere I’m less likely to be interrupted. My preference is to spend an hour or two first thing in the day while I’m still fresh.
I’ve worked hard to fight my natural tendency to obsess with phrasing as I write. If I can’t express the idea with quite the right words I get it down as best I can, and continue on. The idea tends to simmer away in the back of my mind and a better way to express it will come to me over the following days.
While I’m in the writing mode I try to stay there. Where once I’d create diagrams or paste in web links as I wrote, now I focus only on the words. Adding links, creating diagrams, and checking references are the kind of work I can do when I’m tired so I batch these tasks up for later. I annotate places I want to include links, images, quotes or references with a comment in the text (;;; here’s an example ;;;). I stole this idea from programming days. Comments are easy to find using search tools.
I pay no attention to word count during drafting. I write everything down and pare it back later if there is a word limit involved. Most of the draft is written at my home office desk. When I get stuck, changing the environment often helps. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sitting somewhere different at home, but coffee shops also work.
- TextExpander. TextExpander is one of those tools that you don’t realize how much you need until you start using it. It lets me type complex and frequently used expressions with a few keystrokes. Examples include entering today’s date, building HTML links, and grabbing the current browser URL and inserting it into the document. TextExpander saves me hours. It rocks!
- Byword. Anything destined for the web is authored in Byword using Markdown. Byword is a nice lightweight text editing tool with just enough features. Markdown makes it simple to include basic formatting without fiddling around with toolbars and keyboard commands. This inexpensive application has a clean and simple interface which gets out of your way and lets you focus on writing. iCloud syncing works well if you want to continue working on another device.
- Scrivener. Scrivener is my heavy-duty writing tool, but it still emphasizes writing over formatting. It’s exceptionally good at managing long documents. Other great features include: storing notes and research with your draft, viewing several parts of the document at once, and extensive export capabilities.
- Google Docs. Google Docs is fantastic for co-authoring documents. On one occasion we had six people simultaneously editing the same document with no problems. Google Docs doesn’t have the advanced page layout features of Word, but it’s improving all the time. It’s a good choice when collaborating with others, or where the formatting isn’t so important. Once the content is settled, it’s easy to export the document to Word to apply more advanced formatting.
- Microsoft Word. I use Word less and less but still use it for formatting and page layout work for documents intended for print (or PDF). Word’s change tracking features are valuable when working with editors and during contract negotiations.
Now the real work begins. The next step is polishing the draft until it’s good enough to circulate. This happens in several passes focusing on one kind of change at a time. These include:
- Structure. Here I look for a logical transition from one idea to the next. Are the ideas presented in a sensible order? Some restructuring is always needed. Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Is this even necessary? This article isn’t a great example, but it’s not unusual for my first draft to be twice the length of the final version. This is where a clear idea of the audience and objective helps. Remove anything that doesn’t further the objective. I prefer to dump everything in first and cut out what isn’t needed later. Sometimes this can be reused in other work, so it’s not always wasted effort.
- Spelling, grammar, and clarity. I read through the document correcting spelling, grammar and awkward or confusing phrasing. Simple, clear, clutter-free expression is my goal.
- Consistency. Once the draft is in good shape I check that terminology, capitalization and formatting are consistent.
- Writing Tools. I edit with the same tool I used for the draft (Byword, Scrivener, Google Docs or Microsoft Word).
- Dictionary.app. A dictionary and thesaurus are essential tools for all writers. Having them integrated with the operating system is one of the things I love about using a Mac. When drafting, I often overuse certain words or struggle to find a suitably nuanced term. I use the closest word that comes to mind, press Ctrl + Cmd + d, and the thesaurus comes to the rescue. This keyboard shortcut works almost everywhere, so it’s worth learning. It’s also handy for checking the meaning of words when you’re researching.
- CoSchedule Headline Analyzer. Since discovering Headline Analyzer a few months back, I’ve used it to tweak headlines for blog posts. Headline Analyzer suggests ways to make headlines more interesting to potential readers. The changes are usually minor, but most times I finish with a headline I prefer over my starting point.
- Hemingway. Paste your draft into Hemingway and it will check your work for readability, long sentences, complex phrasing, excessive adverbs, and sentences using passive voice. Judgment is still needed, but Hemingway helps me simplify my writing. A desktop app is also available for Mac and Windows.
- Grammarly. English is a complex language, even for native speakers. Grammarly takes a nit-picky look at your grammar and punctuation to flush out things like squinting modifiers, faulty parallelism, missing commas and subject-verb agreement problems. (No, I didn’t know what most of those were either).
- Pen and paper. Maybe I’m old-school, but I still find it easier to read on paper. Since I started using text to speech I’ve done much more editing on-screen.
- Text to speech. Text to Speech has caught hundreds of silly mistakes that I’ve read straight over. I’ve previously written about how to use text to speech to catch errors that are otherwise invisible.
7. Review with stakeholders
There is more editing to do, but after the first pass I seek feedback from some stakeholders. This helps to confirm that I have correctly interpreted the purpose and that the document is heading in the right direction.
The trick here is to get input from people who actually understand what you’re trying to achieve. You need to be selective about who you listen to. Select people who:
- Understand and support your objectives;
- Have your best interests at heart; and
- Will give you honest feedback.
Get feedback from people who know what’s important to the decision makers. This can help you target the things decision-makers care about most, and avoid sore points.
It took me many years to get comfortable doing this. Releasing incomplete and sometimes only partially formed ideas made me feel exposed. As I saw more documents from others in my workplace, I realized my rough drafts are really not that bad. Feedback confirms I’m hitting the target areas and helps prevent sinking time into peripheral issues. The value from this review outweighs any potential embarrassment from releasing incomplete work.
Nothing too sophisticated here. It’s either a marked-up paper copy, or change tracking tools in Word or Google Docs.
Now it’s time to source images and create diagrams. Images can convey an idea in a more compact way than with prose. I also tweak styles in the document to make formatting consistent in this stage. A search for comments shows the locations for images and notes I left in the drafting stage.
This isn’t really a single step. It goes through a planning, drafting, and editing cycle much like the text does. I usually finish one diagram completely before moving on to the next, so it feels more like a single step to me. For example, I sketched out a couple of options on paper for the workflow diagram before creating the best option in OmniGraffle.
- Pen and paper. I like getting rough ideas out on paper before turning to digital tools. Scannable or Carbo can convert the paper-based image into a digital representation.
- OmniGraffle. Stick figures are the full extent of my drawing ability. But even with my limited artistry, I can create professional diagrams thanks to OmniGraffle. Templates from Stenciltown and Graffletopia make it almost as simple as connecting Lego bricks.
- Microsoft Word. Word still does a decent job when it comes to laying out and formatting tables, diagrams, and images.
- iPhone. The camera that is always with me is flexible enough to capture most photos I need to illustrate blog posts and documents.
- Pixelmator. I’m only scratching the surface of Pixelmator’s capability. There’s not much it can’t do when it comes to photo editing.
- Focus 2. A simple application to simulate a shallow depth of field by blurring parts of an image. With judicious use, Focus 2 can make your images look more professional and polished.
- Fotor. I’ve mainly used Fotor to create collages. It includes a range of filters and effects which can make your photos look more interesting.
- Snap Heal. This is a great example of an application that does one thing well. That is removing unwanted objects from photos. Snap Heal is wonderful for removing unwanted blemishes and people from images.
- ImageOptim. I run the final images through ImageOptim. It reduces the file size to improve download speeds without sacrificing image quality.
- ScreenFlow. I’ve just started experimenting with video. ScreenFlow looks like it will cover my needs for the foreseeable future.
- Stock photos. Finding quality images for posts always seems to take more effort than I expect. Flickr, FreeImages, Unsplash, and PhotoPin have all provided good results.
9. Final review
Once everything is together in its final form, I do one more review. By the end of the editing stage I usually feel I’ve written a worthless piece of verbiage that no one will read. So I put it aside for a while — at least overnight, but longer if possible.
When I look at the work with fresh eyes I usually feel much better about what I’ve written. Some of it even sounds intelligent and well-phrased. That space also helps me find any awkward phrasing which has gone undetected.
I check in with the client for any final changes to reports. One last check with text to speech and I’m ready to publish or release the work. Comments and questions from readers of the published work are always valuable. Sometimes they spark new ideas which starts the process over again.
- Text to speech.
- WordPress. First I paste the Markdown text from Byword into WordPress. I then upload and insert images.
- Print to PDF. PDF is my preferred format for distributing documents if the original Word document is not required. The print to PDF capability built into the Mac operating system makes this simple. I use David Sparks’ print to PDF keyboard trick to make it even faster. PDFpen Pro handles more complex functions on the rare occasions I need them.
Writing is a difficult but worthwhile endeavour. A solid process can help you push through the times you feel like giving up. I’ve covered a lot of tools in this post, but Evernote, MindNode, Byword and Text to Speech get at least 80 percent of the job done. The other tools have been added as specific needs have appeared.
Tools are secondary to the process though. Tools come and tools go, but the process is more enduring and evolves gradually. The more consistently you work that process, the better your writing gets.
This piece has given me the opportunity to reflect on how I write. I do a lot of editing — maybe too much. I don’t want to sacrifice the final product’s quality, but I’ll look for ways to streamline this part of the process.
Question: What’s your favorite tip or tool that helps you write? Leave a comment below.