Modes of writing

by little red pen

Those who teach writing often break the writing process into three stages, recommending that you spend one-third of your time on each. The stages are:

  • Planning and research
  • Writing
  • Editing and revision

In general, I agree with this (a writing project will have more planning and research time at the start and more editing time at the end), but the stages of the process usually aren’t completely discrete. One of the best writing teachers I know, Sharon Stevens, talked about the difference between seeing the process as an arrow —  focused, moving in one direction, passing swiftly and confidently through these stages, never to return —  and seeing it as a spiral — a swoop forward, a curve back, another turn forward, gradually getting to the end of the line, but passing back and forth between the stages within that overall forward momentum. And this spiral seems closer, certainly, to the way I write: I might start with some big ideas, then write a bit, crunch my sentences into a tighter shape as I go, pause to reconsider the overall shape of my piece, write some more, tidy up a paragraph, write, re-structure, write, edit, notice that the centre section makes no sense, rewrite, edit again, and finally, a long way down the track, proof and polish.

So lately I’ve been thinking that instead of conceptualising the writing process as a series of stages, it might work better for me to think of being in different modes as a writer at different times, to consciously notice and shape my mindset, my frame, my point of focus. And here are the modes I’m working in, along with a table summarising their characteristics (because tables, yum):

  • Contemplative, generative mode
  • Active writing mode
  • Reflective, tidying up mode
Contemplative, generative mode Active writing mode Reflective, tidying up mode
WHAT: Think about content, purpose, audience, structure. Do research. Generate ideas. Gather the information you need. Draft headings. Jot down bullet points to cover. Delegate sections to colleagues. WHAT: Get ideas down. Write your way through a bit of analysis. Hammer out paragraphs. Turn jotted points into paragraphs. WHAT: Check structure. Make sure you’ve covered everything you need to. Review formatting. Edit and proofread.
HOW: Use a whiteboard or a notebook. Talk things over with a colleague. Go for a walk. Have a meeting. Use the internet. Go to the library. Search databases. Review previous work. HOW: At your computer. HOW: On screen or on paper. Get other people involved in this process, but be clear about what sort of reviewing you need.

And what I’ve found most useful about this shift from stages to modes is that when I get stuck, it’s easier, somehow, to get over the hump. Maybe because I’m not wedded to being at a particular stage of the project, maybe because I feel more confident recognising that I’m not in the mood to write or edit, or that I need to bang out a few paragraphs before I can stop and think about the structure of the whole piece.

I like the way this brings the process a little closer to home, more connected to my mood, the music I have playing, the interplay between me and a text, between the words I have, the words still to come, and my thinking, typing, wandering, mulling, pernickiting, singing, dreaming, pruning self.