Camp Hill, Penna.
Revised August 2007
(excerpted from Programmer's Writing Notebook)
I can't find the actual quote but it goes something like this:
It usually takes me two or three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.
— Mark Twain
These notes were written specifically for computer programmers who typically would rather write for machines than for people. They are general enough, though, that anyone who has been out of school for some time—or who never really got comfortable with the "writing thing"—may find these notes useful.
These notes are intended to be helpful; they are not a cure-all. Try them out a few times before you decide if you like them or if you find them useful. Their aim is to give you a different perspective on writing that you currently may not have.
These notes reflect the author's many years of painful writing experiences until he was, at long last, taught the "process method" of writing far too late in his university career. These notes are my version of this method of writing. I have used this method for over a decade and now find writing for people as much of a joy as I do writing for machines.
Unfortunately, writing is both a difficult and an easy task. It is difficult when we think writing is like talking; it is not. It is easy, or easier, when we view it as a process or cycle whose result is a written document. It is much like, say, baking cookies.
Writing is not like talking. Somebody, Aristotle maybe, said, "The spoken word is like an arrow, once shot it can never be retrieved." Well, the written word in this regard is completely unlike speaking and we should consider the two as very different beasts.
Conversation is highly impromptu. We typically utter whatever thought comes to mind. It may or may not be a complete sentence and is very unlikely to have correct grammar. The person who hears it probably doesn't care, either, since your words will trigger more utterances from them. And so the impromptu dialogue goes.
Writing in English involves developing several complete, distinct thoughts into the desired result. The thoughts need to be coerced into well-formed grammar as well as having correct spelling and a cogent line of thought. This takes time and effort.
There is a dialog in writing but it is usually with ourselves as we write. This monologue takes the form of: "Do I mean this?" and "Does that sound right?" and "What do I mean, anyway?" We may not be concerned with our audience at all, only upon bringing our thoughts into focus.
The first problem is that it's often very hard to start this dialog. When we can't seem to start, it's often because we want to have all the cookies baked before we begin to make them! In other words, we want to have all our thoughts perfectly laid out in our minds before we begin to write. This is impossible. The process of writing is just as much a process of self-discovery as it is of communicating ideas to others.
Another problem is to collect your thoughts into a meaningful monologue. "Where to begin?" or "How to start?" are common symptoms of this problem.
The method of writing that is presented below is intended to solve both of these problems and to aid you in your self-discovery process while still producing a readable work.
First, think of writing as a process of re-writing or a cycle of continual revision. It will never come out right the first time. Never. So don't force it to. In fact, because of computers and the ability to fiddle with text they provide, there is always something more to change or word differently. This is another problem but one which we will not deal with here.
The goal is to converge upon an acceptable result in a reasonable and predictable amount of time.
The first part of achieving any goal is to get off to a start—any start will do. In this method, there really is no such thing as a bad start.
The first stage of the process is to do some serious muddling. That is, putting down all your thoughts on paper in whatever order they come and wherever they may fall on the page. They don't have to be neatly placed just so. Just throw them on the page. They don't have to be grammatically correct; that comes later. They don't even have to be spelled correctly; again, that comes later. These notes are for you and you alone.
Essentially, this stage helps you to begin a dialog with yourself and ultimately with your reader. It is intended to help you put down all your thoughts on the topic. In many cases you will discover that you have more thoughts than you ever imagined you had. Or that you have fewer thoughts. Either way it doesn't matter. Many of them will be thrown out; many will not. The physical location of your notes on the paper will help you to realize new relationships and insights. Computer programs exist to support this kind of non-linear thinking; they are sometimes called "mind-mapping" programs. I have found, however, that a program cannot replace pen and paper for this stage of the process.
As you do this, step back and look at all the ideas, phrases, words, pictures, and whatever else you put down. After a bit of writing down ideas and standing back and looking at them, you'll see that more ideas will be triggered by what you have written. This is the reason for this phase of the process. Through this process, you are discovering your own thoughts. You are making connections from ideas to other ideas you hadn't connected before. You may also come to new realizations or you may bring past, forgotten ideas back to the fore. Any and all of this is good because it helps you to give shape and definition to your own thoughts.
The next stage is to begin organizing your thoughts. Note that this is a beginning not an end. Very often you'll begin to organize things one way and at the last minute completely change the order. You may even find that once you have clarified your thoughts in Stage 1 reorganizing them is much easier. You may also find as you reorganize thoughts that you will have new insights and ideas.
Somebody once said of creativity, "It's 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." In most cases, the 99% of work has to come first; the inspiration usually comes last after all the perspiration. Therefore, the first phase of putting ideas down should be considered part of the work—a necessary step—not part of the inspiration.
One very good way to organize your thoughts in the second phase is to write a first draft. Note that this implies that several drafts will be created before you begin to think of your work as approaching final form. At this stage, a computer is an excellent tool because the words can be moved around easily without having to re-type everything.
After the first draft is done, put it down for a time. Preferably overnight.
At least overnight.
Give the material a chance to filter down to your subconscious. By doing this, you will allow other thoughts to arise. Also, after muddling and writing a first draft, you may need to get some distance from your own thoughts. This is important so that when you return to the work you can sift through the ideas and discover which are truly yours and which are not. Some ideas will also come into sharp focus or you will recognize those which need further development.
One big problem when writing is thinking that the way you think is the way everybody else thinks, especially at the moment you are writing or thinking it. And because it is perfectly clear to you, you think it will be perfectly clear to everyone else. This is rarely true! Ask any newlywed couple.
The best way to overcome this self-delusion is to put the work down for a time, preferably overnight or a couple of days. When you come back to it, reread it as if someone else had written it. Try to read it as if you had completely forgotten everything you thinking about at the time you wrote it.
Important: don't take what you find when you come back to your writing personally. Remember writing is a process of re-writing. A very positive outcome of this stage is that it will give you a chance to laugh at yourself. "What? Did I really write this?" or "How could I have thought that?" Enjoy those moments.
The next step is to re-write the draft. Don't be afraid to revisit your muddling page(s). Most often, however, you'll find that the work takes on a life of its own and the muddling pages may no longer be useful.
Also, don't be afraid to throw things out. If it—the phrase, the paragraph, the idea, the page, or whole document—doesn't work, don't force it. Try it again from another angle. Re-organize or restructure it.
Then put it down for awhile and come back to it.
After the second or third draft each with some time lapse between them, it is probably a good time to call in someone else to read your work. This is a kind of walk-through or a peer-review. The key thing is not to do this step too soon that you haven't clarified your own thoughts and not too late that you begin thinking you are close to finishing.
The person who you choose may either be someone you trust or someone who is relatively impartial; it depends upon your ability to take criticism. Encourage them to make comments, ask questions, and make suggestions. Their impressions are usually valuable. If they give advice, you don't have to act upon it but, at least, consider it.
After this point, you are probably ready to begin the final draft stage. Don't bet on it, though. By now you have clarified your thoughts sufficiently well in writing, you have gotten feedback from someone else, and you are probably beginning to get tired of thinking about this topic.
It is at this point that real inspiration begins to set in.
A trap at this stage is to be tied to what you have done before this point. Even at this stage, be willing to make changes to anything and everything, otherwise you may miss some true insight to your work.
Take heart, the end is almost near. The next draft you do will probably be the final draft.
All that remains for the final draft is spelling, punctuation, and grammar checking. "What!" You say, "leave that stuff until the very end?" Yes—the point of writing is to focus on conveying your ideas. These details are important but they are finishing touches. They should not distract you as you develop your ideas.
You may be tempted to forego these details. Don't. Do not underestimate the importance of proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Give them the attention they deserve at the most appropriate time in this process: near the end of it.
As you read more and write more, correct spelling and grammar may become more spontaneous for you. But they may not; if they don't it's no big deal. Just continue to leave those details till the very end. Or give them to someone else who loves to do that kind of stuff.
As you write more, you may not need a full muddling session for everything you write. You may only need to formally muddle once in a while or if you get stuck. You may find that you don't have to re-write as often because you will have learned how to focus your thoughts and reflect upon them.
If you keep in mind that writing is a process of iterative refinement, then you can develop your own variation of this process. Your modified version may be something perhaps along the lines of "think a little, write a little, reflect a little, re-write a little, think a little," and so on.
Strunk and White. Elements of Style. A classic work with ten simple rules of thumb.