Trust the Writing Process

Once you’ve trusted your imagination enough to sit down and begin writing, next, you have to learn to trust the writing process. So many of the writers I’ve worked with forget—or have never known—that fine writing doesn’t happen all at once; it takes place step by step by step.
The first step in creating an essay, short story, poem or chapter in a novel is generating the material you will need to shape your idea into its final form. And to generate this material fully, you need to trust that the words landing on the page are taking your writing where it needs to go.
This is the first draft—of many—when all a writer is responsible for is writing—and writing and writing. You may not use all the material you generate in your final piece, but you’ll most likely use a fair share of it. You’ll make the decision of what to use much later in the writing process. For now, you need to trust yourself simply to capture the words on the page.

A friend of mine has recently returned to acting on stage, after a long stint of teaching. Ever since rehearsal began, she’s been quite tense, worried about every aspect of her ultimate performances. As opening evening approached, she was becoming even more anxious. Then something amazing happened: She realized that what she feared most was not being able to remember all her lines at once.

Of course, that would be impossible, she told herself. And that’s not at all what I’m being asked to do.
In the same way that my friend has to remember her lines only as the play unfolds, and not before the curtain rises, writers are not responsible for all the elements of what they are writing as soon as they begin. It’s true that over time, they’ll want to look at structure or logic, at how fully fleshed out their ideas or scenes are, at word choice and syntax. But all in time.

In the first draft, they are responsible for generating material. That’s it. Nothing more. In the following draft, they might check for plot or logic. And after that, they can take a look at whether their ideas, their dialogue or their scenes are sufficiently elaborated. It is only once a writer has revised for these three elements, that she should consider syntax, diction and word choice, successively.

Delineating these various stages of the writing process often helps my clients unblock. While before, they rejected what they were writing because it was inelegant or choppy, because the characters felt too thin, the action too dull, now they can suspend much of their judgment as they progress from stage to stage. And doing this, they learn to trust not only themselves as writers, but the writing process itself.

In college, I often got stuck on the first sentence of whatever term paper I was trying to write. Finding it inadequate, clumsy, too plain, or too straightforward, I rewrote and rewrote, until that first sentence became an impenetrable wall of words and complex syntax. If only I had trusted the process, known that I could leave that opening sentence behind and return to it once I had completed a draft of the paper, how much easier—and better–all those term papers would have been.


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