Sunday, October 06, 2013

The many stages of self-loathing--I mean, writing

I'm closing in on the final version of a short commissioned essay. Because it's so short and I've been working on it without interruption for a month or so, I've had the opportunity to think about the discrete stages of my writing process.

The big picture isn't a surprise: I've always maintained that I hate writing and love rewriting, and that remains true. But starting and finishing a project in such a short period of time has revealed to me that there are actually many intermediate stages in my process, rather than just writing/rewriting.

The major stages look something like this:

Stage One: I hate every minute I'm at my computer and have to resort to all kinds of tricks to make myself stay there.

In this stage, I'm mostly just trying to conquer the fear of the blank screen and convince myself I have enough matter to write about. I throw everything I can think of into my document: block quotes I intend to analyze, bits and bobs of thoughts and topics; half a paragraph on this, half a paragraph on that.

Stage Two: At this point, I no longer hate every minute I spend writing, and occasionally have passing moments of pleasure or insight--but it still requires an act of will to get through a few hours/pages a day.

This is the stage where I start to rough out my ideas and expand on the bits and bobs from Stage One--but, at least initially, it's without much effort to connect those ideas or fit them into a larger argument.

Stage Three: I can't stop working on the project. I resent having to eat or go to bed, and feel dazed and unable to hold normal conversations when I stop working.

This is the stage where I really try to force everything into order and coherence, to build an overarching argument, to make everything line up, and to sound good. This stage is still a struggle--but if there's a part of writing that makes me happy, it's this part.

Stage Four: Wait, I'm not done yet?

After Stage Three, there's inevitably still tinkering and fussing, the sense that things aren't quite right, that a turn of phrase sounds wrong, that the argument isn't set up as effectively as it could be, etc. This stage can be pleasurable--it's immensely satisfying when a problem gets solved, or there's a paragraph (or even several pages!) that I'm totally happy with, but it's frustrating when it drags on too long.

(And of course, every stage does drag on too long. Always.)


How about you? What's your writing process like?


Sapience said...

that is SOOOOO similar to my writing process. I hate the initial drafting process, and I throw things at the page in order to see if I can get anything to stick just to keep myself working. And then I start enjoying myself when I start rewriting it.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Mine? It's EXACTLY like yours. The trick is that I'm bogged down in stage one. I won't say for how long. A long time.

I like to say that I hate writing, but I love having written. Sadly, the only way to have written is to write. As soon as I figure out another way, I'll let you know.

Renaissance Girl said...

Squeezing water out of a rock, sentence by sentence, the whole damn time until the project's done.

Withywindle said...

My moment of maximum productivity is probably receding into the distant past. Even then, some combination of ADD (see, blogsurfing) and laziness marred my best efforts.

For academic writing, my favorite moments have been responding to revise & resubmit comments--feeling that I have done something well enough to deserve friendly critique, and then responding to it in an equally friendly fashion, taking on board the critique and making it better. My favorite single page in my favorite article is precisely that sort of revision; and likewise my favorite page in my second-favorite article.

Anonymous said...

Procrastinate, procrastinate; panic, panic, panic; produce, produce.

Megan said...

Much like yours. Only I'd say pretty much every phase has some points where I "have to resort to all kinds of tricks" to write. Alas.

Flavia said...


I'm curious: do you mean that you write--and perfect--each sentence, one sentence at a time, and when you get to the end you're (more or less) done? And if so, do you have a clear vision of your argument and the shape of your piece in advance--and it's a matter of finding the words to get you there?

I ask, because I used to be a sentence-by-sentence writer/polisher, but eventually it turned out to be a bad fit for the way I think: I never have the slightest idea what I'm going to do until after I've done it (which means I sound like a total moron when I'm in the early stages of a project: "uh, so, I'm looking at this weird thing, and trying to figure out what's going on with it--I think there's something going on with it!"). But even though it's counterproductive for me, on some level agonizing over sentences and paragraphs is still what I want to do.

(Which is maybe why I blog, and Facebook, and tweet.)

fourtinefork said...

This is very similar to how I work (or don't), too. Stage 3-- where I am now-- is definitely the most fun. I was up until 4 am on Saturday night, and I turned down a party, because I was enjoying the writing-revising.

I am also trying to get over sentence-by-sentence perfection, but it's hard. I spend a lot of time writing very short things, where it actually works, but it absolutely undermines progress on the book.

I'm glad to know I'm not alone, and, judging from the other comments, in very good company.

(And, hi! Longtime reader, but this might be my first comment.)

Renaissance Girl said...

Yup, one sentence at a time. My goal when I'm really in writing mode is a paragraph a day. Sometimes that takes 3 hours, and sometimes it takes 18. When it's done, it's pretty close to done. I don't really have a plan upfront--I discover in process, but I guess I'd say that the arc of the thing arises out of what's already happened, so I don't have to go back too much to change what's come before. And when I do find myself going in a different direction than I had thought I was arguing toward, I often have to start over. I'm a terrible reviser, because I can't think of another way to say what it took me so long to get down in the first place. It's a great weakness of mine as a writer, and it's one reason I'm so very slow.

Doctor Cleveland said...

God, the Gordon Lish workshop approach to writing academic prose. You're a better soldier than I am, RG.

ntbw said...

I read and read and read and then, when I feel like my head is going to burst with ideas, I write like crazy--seriously quickly, in longhand, on legal pads, in horribly messy scrawl that nobody except me can read. I just write without worrying about style, elegance, or even much about coherence. It's just a question of getting words on paper, and my ideas tend to emerge and change in that process.

Then, the first revision is going from longhand to word processed document. After that, I print, revise, re-enter changes, and repeat, repeat, repeat. I revise / rewrite / change / add / substract / reorganize/ start over entirely for a REALLY LONG time. I've never counted the number of drafts I go through for each book chapter, but I doubt 50-75 would be much of an exaggeration. But I find both parts of the process oddly pleasurable. I love getting something, anything, down on paper, and then I love wrestling with it to make it as close to perfect as I can.

Renaissance Girl said...

Or, as I rather suspect, just less nimble of mind than you are, Dr. C.

Flavia said...


That's amazing. I know everyone's writing process is painful in its own unique way and that probably none are any easier or "better" than any others. But I do envy everyone who can write in ways I can't!


Oh, I love writing in longhand, too. One of the reasons I like Stage 3 is that all that work happens purely in longhand (interlineated and in the margins of my computer print-outs, with any longer new bits written on legal pads), and I use the computer only to input what I've done. There's something really focused and soothing about that rhythm. And I similarly go through many many drafts at this stage; I have no idea how many, but 20 doesn't sound too low.


Welcome! I've seen you around the internet and am glad to have you here (though I admit I always misread your name as foutinefork, vaguely assuming that "foutine" must be something like poutine).

undine said...

Stage one and stage two after nearly getting to stage three. It's frustrating that you can start to get through the slogging part and into the "flow," only to be knocked back again by a week or two in which writing just isn't possible.

I know it's supposed to be possible all the time if you get up early to write, etc., but I'm now trying to climb out of the deep well of not dealing with the writing for at least a week.

Good post!