By Ann Joiner
I have been a writing teacher for, well, thirty years now, since I’ve been tutoring since I retired. The writing needs and skills of high school students are different, in many ways, from those of professionals or working to become professionals. There are some general procedures, though, that apply to all of us, I think.
And my thinking is based, not just on personal experience and observation, but scores and scores of workshops, textbooks, and lectures from those with more knowledge and experience than I could ever have managed on my own.
I’ve learned about many processes that are very different from one another, but one of the points they all have had in common is that writing is a process. The process begins in our heads, with an idea. At the end of most, but not necessarily all, of the processes is a product. The steps in between are not set in stone, but most writing teachers would agree on the basic steps, and that they most often work in a certain order. The steps are sometimes given new names, especially by textbook and workshop developers who are trying to sell a product, and want to convince prospective buyers that they are on to something new.
Generally, though, the steps can be divided into a creating stage, a developing stage, and a finishing stage. (my terms – there are lots of others, including simply a beginning, middle, and end).
The creating stage starts in the writer’s head, with that idea I wrote of above. The idea has to be made tangible by getting it on paper, or today, into a computer. some of us, especially those of us who began writing in a pre-computer era, still begin with a pencil and paper, but more and more are comfortable with a keyboard. Whatever, that idea has to be put in a form that can be read first, by ourselves, the writer, and next, maybe a few trusted readers. At this point we are still a long way from a product that we are willing to put out to a general public. It is important to the quality of the finished product, at this early stage, that we are not overly critical of ourselves. We are in the stage that Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life, refers to as “shitty first drafts.” (If you are like I was, you may feel offended the first few times you read that phrase. Our first drafts are so much better than it implies. She is merely trying to remind us that they are first drafts, and once we have them written down, and in enough of a whole piece, we may want to change the wording a bit).
When we do begin to look over what we are writing, as we move into the developing stage, it is generally agreed that it is a good idea to go from general to specific: That paragraph would be better in the introduction, maybe, rather than so near the end, or hidden in the middle. When we have a feel for the general sequence, then we can start to look at our sentence structures – their syntax, only, though. It’s a bit early for grammar and mechanics. They are part of the finishing. Developing is about sequencing, and adding or subtracting stuff, creating a flow for our ideas as we make them into a story. Once we have the complete story, told in the style and order we feel is most effective, we move from development into finishing. It is only here, and not until we get here, that we worry about the smaller stuff: Are our adjectives descriptive enough? Have we appealed to all of our readers senses that are appropriate to the tone and mood of the piece? Are their still bits where we might show more and tell less? And finally, Have we used the proper mechanics: periods, semi-colons, commas, etc. in a way that makes our intent clear? At this point, if you’re on a computer, and most of us are at this stage in this day, it’s okay to run a spell-check. Remember, though, that you can’t rely on it to catch everything. One technique that I learned early on was to go through the piece backwards. Too often, we “see” what we meant to write, rather than what we actually typed.
If this seems to be too cut and dried, an over-simplification, it probably is. I should add that the parts of the process are recursive, and each flows into the other, with no clear line of where one stops and the other starts. Some writers, especially with longer works, like to complete the process on bits at a time, some go back and forth, other do better just plowing though the whole creation before looking back at it and reflecting on changes.
At some point in the process, we individually reach our personal point where our writing becomes more reader-directed than writer-directed. The more we move into that “reader-directed” phase, the more we probably ought to muster the courage to share and ask for suggestions. This step is easier for some writers than it is for others. Our first readers function a bit like teachers.
And here, I’d like to shift gears a little, and focus on that function of being an early reader of a fellow writers work. As a classroom teacher, I learned, both from experience and training, that it is important to the writer’s finished product, that we give our advice and suggestions based on (a) where the writer is in the process, and that we focus, first, on (b) what we see as being positive in the writing. After we have encouraged the writer by pointing out the really good stuff, we can be helpful by giving our impression as a reader, of what might need more clarification, or be more interesting if it were presented in a different manner. And we need to be clear in our own minds, when we offer advice that involves making changes, that we have not allowed our own egos to get in the way.
Diversity, we are beginning to learn, is a good thing. Writers have diverse styles, too. The more fluent writers can often be recognized by their unique style. It is not our job as readers to attempt to impose our style onto another’s writing.
Now, all that being said, when a writer wants to be published and paid for what they’ve written, a point arrives where the work has to go to an outside editor. That editor ought to be someone who understands the markets, genres, and what the average reader will be willing to pay for. To my way of thinking, this is not what most writers, in the WIP stages, are looking for when they first put their creations out to readers. Not everyone has the qualifications and credentials to be an editor, and those who do, generally, I would think, would want to be paid. I think that most writers, when they get the courage to post a WIP or concept, are looking for an early reader’s advice rather than an editor’s advice. Maybe not, but it might help if we are clear about which hat we are wearing when we give advice and, if we are giving editorial advice, that we share those qualifications and credentials. As writers looking for advice from our fellows, we might want to be specific about whether or not we are looking for developmental feedback from what I’ve called “early readers,” or for editorial advice from critical readers who have experience in helping a writer achieve that professional finished product.