How We Write

How We Write and How We Talk About How We Write

How We Write

For the past week I’ve been mulling over this excellent post on Neurodiversity, Writing Process, And Writing Instruction by Leah Pope of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She talks about how academia sometimes fails students by not making it apparent that there is no one best writing process and that if a student can’t follow a process proscribed to them by some professor or professional writer, it doesn’t mean they’re doing writing wrong.

The narrative we spin through the mainstream writing processes we learn and teach is not always an accessible one. As Rick Godden’s essay in How We Write demonstrates, not all of us have the option of following a model of daily writing or scheduled writing periods. Physical realities make highly regimented writing rituals impractical, even impossible, for Godden, as well as a not insignificant number of our colleagues and students. Preferring or needing to use dictation or screen-reading software in order to write might mean that recommendations about drafting or revision practices sometimes simply won’t work or will be excessively time-consuming within that physical reality. Such diverse groups of writers — at the undergraduate, graduate, even professional academic level — are often left on their own to sort out an effective writing process, frequently without resources like the standard Writing Center conference, which does not easily accommodate accessibility software.

I would suggest that writing is always a neurodiverse process. Regardless of label-happy diagnoses, one “normal” writer, if there is such a thing, will always be different in some way than another “normal” writer. We already acknowledge this with matters of timing: I am a morning writer, but that is considered no better or worse than my friend who writes best in the middle of the night. The logic behind accepting and encouraging our students to explore writing at different times of day (in different settings, in different media, etc) could be extended to make advice about writing processes more accessible to a more diverse range of students. No one (to my knowledge) is saying that having difficulty following one writing process or another makes a student a bad or ineffective writer, but I don’t believe we are saying often enough that there are endless possible ways to write by which a person can be an effective writer.

On that bolded point–Pope may not see that in the UW Writing Center, but it certainly happens among fiction writers.1

At the start of my short fiction classes I talk to my students about this Daniel José Older piece where he reads the idea that a writer must write every day for filth:

Writing advice blogs say it. Your favorite writers say it. MFA programs say it.

Write every single day.

It’s one of the most common pieces of writing advice and it’s wildly off base. I get it: The idea is to stay on your grind no matter what, don’t get discouraged, don’t slow down even when the muse isn’t cooperating and non-writing life tugs at your sleeve. In this convoluted, simplified version of the truly complex nature of creativity, missing a day is tantamount to giving up, the gateway drug to joining the masses of non-writing slouches.


Here’s what stops more people from writing than anything else: shame. That creeping, nagging sense of ‘should be,’ ‘should have been,’ and ‘if only I had…’ Shame lives in the body, it clenches our muscles when we sit at the keyboard, takes up valuable mental space with useless, repetitive conversations. Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not.

wild applause

From here I do actually assign them a daily writing exercise for the duration of the class (I lay out the reason why in this post), but I hope I don’t make them feel like they have to keep doing it forever to be a Real Writer™. My hope is that they’ll figure out what works best for them and to try, at least for some weeks, to do regular writing each day.

Pope’s article has me thinking more about my approach as a teacher and whether I’ve thought enough about neurodiversity as I plan out classes.

I’m fully on board with the truth that no one way works for every writer and that the process that works for you is the best process. It can be hard to find a process that works as long as you keep hearing that things must be done this one way. I agree with Pope that this can be solved by more openness and that there’s not enough discussion about writing processes–discussion without judgment, that is. It would be beneficial for writers to be able to talk about what works for them without making it sound as though one way is a certified Best Way and also without having their way scoffed at by people who do things differently. There’s a fine line between advice or suggestion and a command from on high (which has less to do with intention and more with framing). It would be nice to find that line, make it thicker, and stay firmly on one side of it.

At the end of her post, Pope makes this call to action:

I believe it would be good for us… to talk more honestly about how we actually write. By sharing our psychological experiences of writing, we might just find our way toward happier, healthier, and more productive writing.

Let’s do this! I’d love it if working writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, stage and screen answered this “simple” question: How Do You Write? What processes do you find successful? What was your journey to what works?

I’d also love to collect these for my students. Not only as a guide, but also proof: There are many ways to make writing work for you.

You can do so in the comments of this post. Or share your process on Twitter with the hashtag #HowWeWrite. On Facebook, comment here. On Tumblr, reblog and comment on this post and tag it how we write. On Google+ tag your posts #HowWeWrite.

I can’t wait to see all the different answers and explanations.


  1. Whenever some version of this discussion happens I think of this old post by John Scalzi that I always think of as “Writing: Find the Time or Don’t… As Long As You’re A Comfortably Middle Class, Neurotypical White Man”. One of the major examples gives for a person writing under extreme hardship ignores many, many factors that made it possible for that writer to keep writing: a white collar job he wasn’t in danger of losing, medical care that was comprehensive and not tenuous, medical care he could afford, a vast support network of people specifically devoted to him. Not everyone has all of this, and that’s not even getting into different levels of ability. []

10 thoughts on “How We Write and How We Talk About How We Write

  1. I’ve been a freelance writer/artist for 30+ years. I have somewhere upwards of 40 single-author books to my credit, and probably over 70 if you count collections and such. (I need to do a more accurate count soon, I suppose.) I’ve written long novels and short stories, a lot of work-for-hire, licenses, and movie adaptations, and lately almost exclusively my own stuff.

    When writing with a deadline and a paycheck at the end of it, I’m an ass-in-the-chair-every-weekday-type writer. For my first million or two words, I aimed to average 3500 words a day over a project, including rewrites. (2000 words daily as a bare minimum, up to 10,000 or more on a really good day.) Now that I’m older, I’m a bit more forgiving on the word count. But, on the other hand, there isn’t usually a fat check at the far side tempting me anymore. (Sadly.)

    But writing your own stuff, rather that stuff other people end up owning, has its own rewards besides money.

    For long work, I’m an outliner. You know, the “old way” they used to teach in school. Numbers and letters, 1), 2), 3) – A-B-C and so on. That works well — though obviously you want to find surprising details along the way. I often also write down snatches of ideas and conversations in chapters I haven’t gotten to yet. I just jump ahead and do it, then catch up later. I’ve also done whole rafts of dialogue and then gone back and filled in the connecting descriptions afterward. When you’re in the groove, you want to get all the stuff out that you can. And _never_ stop on the up-slope; always begin your writing day with an easy down-slope to get you re-started.

    I used to try outlining for short stories, too, and discovered that outlined short stories basically turned into novellas, at the least. Nobody will pay for more for short stories that are longer than required, so I came up with an easier scheme, which was/is to write from ideas and just a few notes. Sometimes that gets long, too, but most of the time, it doesn’t.

    I’ve also been doing some serial work lately, on my own site and for friends, which is a lot of fun and is somewhat flash-fiction inspired. Short, punchy chapters with a lot of cliffhangers are a great change-of-pace. I’ve also written entire books live, online over the course of 16 days (the Tournament of Death series, written live during the Olympics). That’s a bit crazy, though, so I probably won’t do another one after this summer. Four times is plenty.

    Of course, rewriting is key. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Everything gets at least 3 passes. I have a travel writer friend who does upwards of 50 passes on everything he does, but he’s kind of crazy. (Though he’s also paid a lot better than this humble fiction writer.) When I got stuck on making the beginning of a book as funny as the end, recently, I rewrote the chapters from back to front. That was interesting.

    Through it all the key is to keep writing. Maybe not every day, but often, and consistently. You need to crack that 10,000 hours (or whatever) to get good. BUT, you also need to be able to critique your own work. If you’re completely happy with your first draft, you’re probably not cut out to be a professional writer. (All first drafts suck!)

    So, just put your ass in the chair and do it.

    — Steve Sullivan

  2. I’m a very structured person who doesn’t do chaos well. This is probably why I’ve become an editor primarily, instead of a writer! But I do that too, from time to time, for fun and profit…but usually just for fun.

    How do you write? What processes do you find successful? What was your journey to what works?

    I got started writing grants for nonprofits back in the ’90s. It’s so much easier to write short answers than essays, right? Well, that’s how I write. I give myself topics, headers, descriptors, scenes, etc. Then fill in the blanks. Stitch together. Edit until smooth. I rarely write more than 3,000 words per section.

    I also write in an honest-to-God real paper journal every night before bed. The primary reason is to record the things that stress me and prayer concerns for others. The action of pen on paper makes me think each sentence a LOT more than I do when I type. I find I drop words less, for example. And I wax more eloquently and poetic at times, often in the most unexpected ways. This is where I see the influence of whatever I’m reading shine through. I’m currently re-reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, and I find my prose more formal (with horrid run-on sentences).

    There are still times I get that tickle in the brain to write. I think about it, mull it over, and catch myself staring into space for no reason—that’s when I know I’m ready to put that thing to the page. Sometimes it’s useful stuff. I just know I can’t function until it’s out of my head!

    Hope that helps. The main advice I’ve given to my authors time and again is to just write–don’t edit while you write if you can. The hardest part of publishing anything is getting the words on the screen. You can edit your work later. Make it something you’re proud of. And then try not to pin your ego to the written work. It will be edited. Accept that you’re not perfect but you ARE essential.

  3. I do my best work at night, when I am extremely upset, and for whatever reason can’t speak to whomever I’ve had a rift with. That unresolved and fraught space feels creatively rich. For me, writing is as much a form of escapism as reading is. I want to object whenever someone says “writing shouldn’t be used as therapy,” but haven’t figured out how to do so in a graceful way.

  4. Writing is a flow thing with me. I was a visual artist before I became a writer though my career was doing technical writing. When I became disabled and could no longer work or do visual art, I turned my creativity to writing and I’m still trying to slip into the flow of the creativity part of it.

    At first I tried the prescribed “write everyday” mantra, which helped with the mechanics and the skills of writing. The things is, it doesn’t help with the creativity part of it and that is where the greatest joy is for me. Having the background I do; it is the art of the prose, rather than the mechanics and technique that drive me. The art of crafting a god story, of crafting good prose, crafting a character or set of characters that come alive and breathe on the page and in the world, that the reader can feel. This is what it is about for me.

    This being the case, I’m a very hot/cold writer. I can sit and force myself to put out a thousand or so words a day, but if the creativity isn’t there, then it is a bust for me and I end up feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing, in fact I feel I’ve wasted my time except for maybe exercising the mechanical side of writing.

    When the juices are flowing, I can get a prodigious amount done, over 6000 words a day is not unusual on those days. It is, however, a point of diminishing returns as the days go by. I also have to do a lot of editing with the output, for the creative flow is not concerned with grammar or any of those sort of mundane things.

    Polishing is always something that a good writer does, with everything they do, from email to novels. Self-editing goes hand in hand with technique and nothing should ever go off without at least two passes for grammar and content.

  5. I agree that a lot is focused on writing everyday .. even if that writing is rubish and non-productive because as I’ve heard often to be a writer “writer’s write”

    I try to organize my thoughts with Evernote and its where I also keep scraps of ideas for characters setting, scene, plot, etc

    I dont write everyday but I often jot down ideas every day

    When I do write often times its when I can spare the time. I have a 9-5 job and a family so there are days when that is easier said than done.

  6. I have been a professional writer for a very loooong time. Writing daily was my habitual practice for over 20 years. It helped me push through writer’s block and write with or without the muse’s presence. It is still my much-preferred modus operandi because it works.

    That said, two years ago I completed my writing MFA and now I only write when I force myself. It depleted me in a way writing daily for 20+ years never had.

    When things are going well, I sit at my favorite coffee shop, blast Irish music through my noise-cancelling earbuds, and the words flow out of me. On those days, I don’t exist. It’s just story, music, and the keyboard. Nirvana.

  7. How do I write… Well, my process is something that I am CONSTANTLY working on, refining, and discovering. One lesson that I’ve learned is not only is there not ONE writing process that is correct among all writers, but that each project that I work on has a process that is right for it. There are some short stories that I have thoroughly plotted beforehand, and others that I just winged as the words came. There are novels that I’ve figured out the ending first and then wrote the rest, and then there are those that I worked on from “Once upon a time..” to “The end.” The most important thing for me is to do what works, and not worry so much about whether it’s right or wrong. If it works, then it is definitely right!

  8. Hi! I am a full-time writer who writes on average between 3 to 5,000 words per day, depending upon the project.

    “How Do You Write?”

    It varies so much, and I do this intentionally because I don’t want to lock myself into one method and then stagnate as a result. I want to keep challenging myself with every project I do, so I focus on smaller goals and completing them before moving onto something else. Often, the best way of doing that for me is to set goals on a to-do list and perform writing sprints. It makes the day hugely exciting! I’ve also found I need to have discipline in *other* areas of my life in order to focus more effectively on my work to limit distractions. Oh! And I also prefer to treat writing like a regular job. So, when I show up to work, I’m dressed for it–unless I’m in the 11th hour on a deadline. I will wear pants, and I will look like an adult. After all, if I don’t take myself seriously–who else will?

    “What processes do you find successful?”

    First of all, I have to have the right environment of sound. I can write with instrumental music, but I cannot write when I’m listening to songs with words in them. I also come up with short mantras I repeat to myself in order to beat back the darkness like “Go big or go home” and “I’m here to work.” Then, my process greatly depends upon what project I’m writing, who I’m working with, and when it’s due.

    If it’s a story I’m writing for an anthology, then I craft my pitch and identify any research ahead of time. When that’s done, I bang out that first draft as fast as I possibly can, knowing that that draft won’t be my best work. I allow myself to suck, because sucking is better than a blank page. I can fix a sucky page; I can’t fix a blank one. Then, I’ll take another pass on it the next day. After that, I set the story aside and give it space to breathe. When I’m ready to go back to it, I might read it out loud myself or use a text-to-speech app so I can hear it. While I’m doing that, I’ll take notes to make another round of revisions before sending it back to the editor. The more complicated the story, the more passes I take on it.

    Writing in a particular form (e.g. a story versus a poem or song lyrics) allows me to internalize the cues I need to revise that type of piece properly, but when I haven’t written in that form for a while I use a checklist and, on occasion, a beta reader when I can find one. If I had my choice, I’d send it out to a couple dozen beta readers, but I don’t have that option. I’m looking for commonalities in what people are saying as opposed to hyper-focusing on minutia.

    “What was your journey to what works?”

    I built my own coursework for my undergrad in Creative Writing based on various forms, and that served as a good foundation. Beyond that? Trial-and-error, talking to other writers, and a lot of self-discovery based on how I learn and what motivates me to write. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in writing, and I feel that often that gets ignored because it’s not sexy to talk about. But, the thing that’s worked the best for me is not listening to writing advice or crap about The One True WayTM. Sure, it is a balancing act learning and honing your craft while trying to figure out the difference between a piece of advice, critique, or review, but a lot of the time writers take what random people say as Teh Authority. That is not true! There is no such thing as a Writing Authority or that writers are magically wiser once they’re published. More experienced? Yes. Wiser? Not necessarily. Often, advice is freely given because it’s one of the safest things writers can talk about. For me, the less I listen to writing advice, the less I question my processes, and the more I focus on my manuscripts. The more I listen to what everybody else is doing, the greater the chances are that anxiety will set in or worse–that what I’m writing won’t matter.

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