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Writing Process: a Way to Think About It

I spend much of my time teaching writing.  That means I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to explain writing to people who don't think about it very often.

Today, I broke down the writing process differently than I had before.  Here's what I came up with:

Writing can be thought of as three elements that have to work together to produce a successful piece.  Although, when I write them down, the three elements look linear, the process of writing hardly ever is a step by step movement through the elements.  There's a lot of sliding back and forth between the elements, so keep in mind that the actual act of writing is hardly ever as clear, distinct and methodical as any conversation about it makes it sound.

Mostly I'm talking about writing academic papers, but I think many of the concepts apply equally to fiction.  I've made a connection to fiction in each of the sections..

Three Elements (in question form):
  • What do I know?
  • What do I think about it?
  • How do I craft it?

What do I know:  For many students, failures in their papers start at this level.  Other than personal reflection papers, like "My Most Influential Person," or "What I Did Last Summer," writing starts with knowledge that the writer has to go out and get.  For example, my students did a paper on Henry James' The Turn of the Screw.  Knowledge necessary to write the paper would include knowing the book itself, and then knowing the essays provided in the book  (we used the Peter G. Beidler edited edition with historical documents and literary criticism).  My requirement for the essay was that they had to use quotes from the story and two other sources in the paper. 

Students who were thin on the "what do I know" element revealed themselves in the paper.  These were my minimalists.  They had one quote from the story, and one quote each from two different sources.  Not only did their papers fail to reveal much knowledge, but the papers hinted that the student didn't have much knowledge to draw on. 

I've seen the "what do I know" element impact my fiction as well.  When I first started writing stories, I didn't have to do much research because the stories were heavily autobiographical.  I "knew" the material.  But as I wrung the clearly autobiographical stuff dry, I found I had to do more and more research so that I was writing from knowledge, not ignorance, even for fiction.  Or should I say, most especially for fiction?  Most of my short stories now start with a folder full of research that is way thicker than the story I will eventually write.  Many of the fiction writers I know work this way.  They go to the library.  They research on line.  They travel to locations.  They do interviews.  They know they can't write convincing fiction about subjects that they don't know much about.  They go out and get knowledge.

What do I think about it:  I think this is the most difficult of the elements.  Thinking about the material is where the writer makes interesting connections, discovers insights, and forms creative conclusions.  It's because of the good work in the "what do I think about it" arena that readers look at essays later and say things like, "You're so clever," or "That's brilliant," or "I never thought about it that way," or "You're so talented."

Students who don't spend much time on the "what do I think about it" element write papers that don't go beyond what they talked about in class.  They parrot the book or the discussions the class had.  I find that I'm telling kids now, "Be smarter than a parrot."

Why this element is difficult is that I don't have a set of directions for how to become clever, brilliant, original or talented.  What I can tell writers is that if they spend enough time thinking, discussing and writing about anything, they will move beyond the obvious and into the more interesting.  Creativity, then, can start to look like a formula: time + energy = breakthroughs. 

Except that creativity and connections don't feel like they work that way.  It's not as simple as "If I think about this long enough, I'll gain insights."  Insights can come out of the blue.  They can show up when you're thinking about something else (they frequently do).  They can even come when you're in a hurry and writing at the last second, although I wouldn't depend on this.

When I'm writing fiction, the "what do I think about it" element starts with wondering at some point in the story writing process (often fairly early) why am I writing this?  What is compelling or interesting about this material?  In other words, I start to think about the broader connections of the story to the world.  I'm thinking thematically.  I'm no longer "just" telling a story.  I'm telling a story with a purpose.  I need to think my way to that purpose.

How do I craft it:  I think most writing classes spend too little time on the first elements and most of their time on this one.  I understand the emphasis.  Craft is teachable, and it's easily gradable.  Craft questions are really product questions.  What does the final product look like?  Craft is about word choice, sentence structure, paragraph organization, and essay structure.  It's about rhetoric and figurative language.

Craft can be so integral to writing that I will occasionally tell kids, "What you have to say is less important than how you say it."  Or another way to phrase this is "How you say something can make it important."

Craft is vital, naturally, but beautiful craft applied to papers without content creates hollow shells (I get to read a fair number of hollow shells every assignment).  On the other hand, poor craft can disguise interesting content so thoroughly that the content is destroyed.  So we do have to spend considerable time on craft.

In fiction, craft on the basic level is what makes the story readable.  For many wannabe fiction writers, this is the most visible level they are struggling with.  Often it is craft issues that allow an editor to reject a manuscript after only reading the first page.  On the basic level, craft is often just about clarity.  On the advanced level, craft makes stories soar.  Craft brings tears to the eyes of literary aficionados and elevates prose to poetic heights.

I should point out, too, that craft is valued more in some circles than others.  Certainly there's a wide variety in achievement in craft among published works, so much so that some people grow absolutely frothy about commercially successful works that they don't believe are well-crafted, and bemoan the obscurity of beautifully crafted works.

It's an unfair world.

Conclusion:  Mostly I put together these ideas because I just graded a set of papers that I thought were weak in the knowledge and thinking elements.  I thought it was an interesting exercise to put them together this way, and, hopefully, I encouraged some writers to spend more time getting to actually . . . you know . . . learn about their subjects and then to think about them. 

Writing isn't just about putting commas in the right place and knowing where to make paragraph breaks.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2012 02:27 am (UTC)
I encourage aspiring writers to read, read, read, read. Lots and lots of history, particularly primary source.

The chief purpose of this is knock one's block off. You know this has succeeded when you think of some modern day custom that it's weird. This encourages research since you know enough to know what you don't know.

The other effect is to pre-feed you with all sort of info, so you need to research less. 0:)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )