Embracing the (Whole) Writing Process

by Susan Bearman

Arms hugging books

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.

Like third graders writing a report, beginning writers tend to believe that writing a first draft means their work is done.

While completing the first draft of a manuscript, whether a short story or a full novel, is a huge accomplishment, writers are never “done”. There’s always a next step. But that’s OK.

In fact, that’s great, because writing is a process, not a product. If you’re lucky, you will produce some finished products along the way, but the process is ongoing. And each step offers an opportunity to hone different writing skills.

First Draft—No Holds Barred

We have Anne Lamott to thank for coining “sh$!!y first draft” (SFD) in her classic writing memoir, Bird by Bird. And we should thank her, because that’s what first drafts are. We squeeze our guts out onto the page (or screen) just so we have something—a bare beginning, a wonderful character, a glimmer of an idea—with which to work.

This is the free-form part of the process. Enjoy every minute of it. Lock your inner editor in a closet and let your imagination run wild. Spend some time asking “What if …?” Then put every crazy notion you can think of in this SFD and give yourself permission to make mistakes.

When you’re finished, remember a first draft is just that — a first draft. Your final manuscript will go through many revisions (that’s revisions, plural). So, revel in finishing that first draft … for about five minutes. Then put it away to marinate, and get busy on another project.

Revision—Honing and Shaping

I personally love the revision process, but many writers loathe it. If you’re one of them, the first thing you need to revise is your thinking. Revision is where you hone and shape your masterpiece, a land of opportunity where you get to:

  • exercise your craft to the fullest.
  • ask your characters who they really are and what they really want.
  • throw in plot twists that will keep your readers on the edge of their seats.
  • weave subplots together into a rich tapestry of story.
  • explore all the possibilities your rough draft offered to discover the story you were meant to tell.

A great writer and teacher, Esther Herschenhorn, offers the best, most thrilling definition of revision I’ve ever heard. She even pronounces it differently: re-visioning.

Revision is a chance to look at your story all over again from a different perspective. When you learn to see your story anew, with fresh eyes and vigor, each draft will take it to a higher level.

This is also the time to bring in your critique group. It’s often helpful to ask beta readers to concentrate on specific areas for feedback, such as:

Remember what revision is not:

  • it is not a line edit.
  • it is not a final edit.
  • it is not something you will accomplish in one read through.

The revision process can take a long time, often longer than the first draft. Give it the time it deserves. When you’re completely satisfied, then it’s time to polish and prepare your manuscript for submission.

Final Edits—Making It Picture Perfect

If you tend to be a little OCD, this is the stage where you can pick nits to your heart’s content. Comb, trim, slash, polish, buff, and beautify until your words glow in the dark. Be ruthless.

Even the best editors, however, have a hard time doing final edits on a manuscript they’ve lived with day in and day out through rough drafting and revisions. This is a good time to hire or beg an editor to help. You must have at least one fresh set of eyes proof your work.

Queries—Nothing to Fear

Writing a pitch or query letter seems to be the most hated job writers face, but I’ve never understood all the angst.

You’re a writer. This is just another form of writing, a chance to sell your work (first) and yourself (second) to people who want a good read. If you don’t believe your work is great, no one else will either. If you don’t know what it’s about or who the target audience is, neither will an agent or a publisher.

But, if you have written a great story (you’ll know), if you have polished it until it shines (if not, go back), if you have done your research and know your target audience, then writing a query letter will be a snap.

Keep it short, drop the adjectives, and stick to the plot. A query letter should make an agent want to read more of your writing. Keep in mind that queries are almost always written in the present tense and third person, even if the story is not. Use your best writing to:

  • Introduce your main characters. In one or two sentences, make an agent want to meet them.
  • Outline your plot. Don’t leave an agent guessing; summarize the beginning, middle and end.
  • Show why you are the only person who can tell this story. Include only relevant writing credits.
  • Say thank you and sign off.

Write to a real person and spell his or her name correctly. Follow submission guidelines to the letter (many are available online).

BIG WARNING: If you pitch to more than one agent, be sure to change the name on your salutation. This is a major faux pas when copying and pasting a query, and a great way to get an agent to hit the delete key.

If you have done your job, the query should practically write itself.

The “Elevator” Pitch—Short and Sweet

Every book needs a knockout “elevator” pitch—a brief, marketing-oriented synopsis of your story. You can write it at any stage of the process and revise as necessary. Pretend you have a top agent in the lift with you and that you have only the time it takes to get to the eleventh floor to grab her attention. The pitch should be a truncated, inverted version of your query that answers:

  • What is the genre?
  • Who is your reader?
  • Who is your main character?
  • What is the conflict?
  • Why do we care?

Practice this pitch. Out loud. You never know when you might need it. If you’re overwhelmed by the idea of creating an elevator pitch for your own manuscript, try writing one for your favorite book first.

Remember, all you need is two or three lines, but each word has to count before those doors open on the eleventh floor.

Give Yourself Time

Don’t rush the process. Between each stage, let your manuscript percolate for a bit. This doesn’t mean you should stop writing. Never stop writing. It just means that it’s pretty hard to shift gears on the same project. Many writers find it useful to work on different stages of several projects.

For example, say you’ve just finished that SFD of your new novel. Put it away and go back to a piece you’ve already drafted and begin revising. Then write a query for a piece you’ve already polished. Or take out that short story you loved that was rejected last year and resubmit it. Then start outlining something new. The key is to have lots of work in the pipeline.

There are more steps to the process, of course: submission, rejection, revision, acceptance, publication, marketing … it never ends. Embrace step with enthusiasm and you will become the writer you want to be.

{ 45 comments }

Jane Rutherford January 26, 2012 at 11:05 pm

I’m one of those writers who hate editing. It’s always a very painful process and it requires a lot of effort from my beta readers and editors, because they have to kick me to switch gears from ‘but this is my baby, how can you say those mean things?’ to ‘omg I wrote THAT? must.fix.now!’ But it’s worth it, in the end. Thanks for the post! It’s really great!
Read Jane Rutherford´s last article ..Characterization 101 – Why is it important to send your character on a journey

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 12:29 am

Thanks, Jane. I do think taking a break between phases of writing can ease the pain a bit and give you a little perspective. If your first draft is your baby, maybe you can think of the editing phase as raising an adolescent. Those teenage years often require a bit of tough love. As you say, it’s worth it in the end. Good writing (and editing) to you.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Ann Evans January 26, 2012 at 11:34 pm

This is one posting I’m going to print out and keep near my desk. Sure, I know all of this, but this synopsis will hold my hand as I go through the process. Thanks to whoever wrote it – like all good work, it seems to have a few parents.
Read Ann Evans´s last article ..Whence English?

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 12:31 am

Ann, we all need someone to hold our hands through the scary parts. And you’re right, there were lots of great influencers who helped me “parent” this post. It’s all part of the process, right ;)
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Ashley Prince January 26, 2012 at 11:54 pm

This is a great post, Susan. The most difficult part for me is turning off my editor. It’s one reason why I have failed so miserably the past two years for NaNoWriMo.

This is a very helpful post. I need to print it out and keep it near me for a future pick me up.
Read Ashley Prince´s last article ..What Yoga Can Teach Writers

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 12:32 am

Thanks, Ashley. NaNo has been a great tool for helping me turn off my inner editor. No time to sit and obsess. Let me know if you try again next year. We can cheer each other on.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

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Mary January 27, 2012 at 1:09 am

Great post! Something I struggle with is keeping track of all the projects in the pipeline. I have some written on paper, some saved in Word documents, some on an iPad app and some on on-line tools. Any advice for keeping this all organized in one place? Sometimes I feel like I have so many projects I get overwhelmed and wind up working on none of them!

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 1:27 am

Mary, I think you’re not the only one who struggles with this. I think you’ve given me a great idea for a post. Check back and we’ll see if we can help.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Sarah Baughman January 27, 2012 at 5:51 am

Excellent! I’ve been struggling with this too and thought it would be a great idea for a post, but as I don’t have a good system, I don’t think I’m qualified to write it. Susan, I hope you do! :) Thanks for an informative post– it’s helpful to remember that publishing is definitely part of the writing process. I tend to think most about re-vision (love that word split) and editing, but what good is it all if it just gets stuffed in a drawer, right?
Read Sarah Baughman´s last article ..Small Space? No Big Deal

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 6:59 am

So, right, Sarah. Maybe we should put our research efforts together and do a joint post about a good submission-tracking system. Something to think about.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Sarah Baughman January 28, 2012 at 5:16 am

Good idea, Susan. I’ll do some pondering and see what I can think of. Let’s keep in touch.
Read Sarah Baughman´s last article ..Small Space? No Big Deal

Ann Marie January 27, 2012 at 9:42 am

Can I suggest Evernote (http://www.evernote.com/) as a way of keeping track of your projects? I don’t know if there’s a limit on size, so I tend to use it for ideas, short stories, poems or short extracts of the novel I’m working on. It stores everything online in a ‘cloud’ which you can access from multiple platforms, so you can work on any piece, anywhere. (It won’t cope with paper though!)

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 9:54 am

Hi, Ann Marie. I’ll have to check out Evernote for this purpose. I know it’s a great tool in other arenas. I personally love Scrivener for big projects. It’s organizes everything, but is not cloud based.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Sarah Baughman January 28, 2012 at 5:20 am

I would like to investigate Evernote more– I’m aware of it but haven’t yet put it to use. Scrivener looks terrific for writers. I wish there were something like Submishmash that you could personalize…like it would allow you to enter all of your submissions (as opposed to just the ones that use Submishmash– I hope that makes sense).
Read Sarah Baughman´s last article ..Small Space? No Big Deal

Charles Schoenfeld February 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Evernote is what I use to keep track of ideas waiting to become stories — whatever stage of that process they’re in. It doesn’t have a total storage limit. It has a monthly data upload limit, but that’s currently 60 MB/month. If you’re putting in text (as opposed to large images, audio & video files), it will be virtually impossible to get anywhere near that limit.

As for tracking submissions _after_ they’ve been sent to market, check out WritersDB.com. It’s free, web-based, feature-rich, and easy to use.

Janelle January 27, 2012 at 1:43 am

I’m not much into drafts at all. I edit as I go, and my betas see it as it comes down the line. I doubt I’d get paranoid or over-protective during a full-out second (or third or fourth) draft – I do a pretty good job of slash and burn during the writing already. But I know I’d be bored to tears. But, different strokes for different folks. :)

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 7:01 am

Janelle, I used to write much more like you, but I found myself running into the “perfect first page syndrome”, when you keep going back and revising and revising and perfecting the early pages or chapters and then don’t ever finish. More power to you if you can draft all the way through and revise as you go. I can do it for short pieces, but not longer ones.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Rose Byrd January 27, 2012 at 2:44 am

Susan, the details you provide here for first edit and final edit are exactly on target! However, the section of this essay I found the most helpful and encouraging was the one on the query letter. You very rightly pointed out that if the work itself was polished to perfection and really, really worthy; the query letter was basically already written in the author’s head. The process is the answer here. Also, you might think of adding to publication credits any professional honors, seminars, online guidance blogs in which the author has been invited to participate due to perceived expertise demonstrated on the author’s website, in comments on other blogs, etc. A new author can be considered an expert on a subject without having published solely under their own name.
Read Rose Byrd´s last article ..LEANING ON SHADOWS

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 7:03 am

Rose, you’re absolutely right. I was short-sighted in saying to include only relevant writing credits. I really meant any relevant credits or background, which may or may not include writing. By all means, relevant expertise should be included in a query, but if you’re writing about real estate, your certificate in dog grooming won’t hold much sway. Keep it germane to the work. Thanks for helping clarify.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Cathryn Leigh January 27, 2012 at 2:53 am

I’ll offer my cheerleading services for NaNo. :}
I use the thought of – you’re writing this with pen and paper, just get it down, there is no editing – to remind myself how that SFD is created.
I almost miss writing with pen and paper, but the transcription to computer, not so much. :}

I wish I could work on multiple projects, but I have limited time; however as I get more projects through the SFD stage I’ll be able to rotate through the phases. I’ve promised my self I won’t tlook at last years NaNo until after this years. I’m still revisioning the year before. :}

I love the term Revisioning; it’s so true! I had an SFD that’s gone from a cross-world love story to an epic fantasy trilogy (okay at least I’m calling it epic) *giggles*

:} Cathryn
Read Cathryn Leigh´s last article ..Squealing Until the Cows Come Home

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 7:06 am

I love revisioning, too, Cathryn. I know writers who have had great success re-visioning their work from first to third person, or from past to present tense. Those kinds of changes can supply a whole range of new possibilities. I wish I liked pen and paper, but I’m so grateful to the computer. I don’t think I could ever have become a writer without it.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Rebecca Burgener January 27, 2012 at 4:30 am

I struggle with letting the SFD be the SFD. I tend to edit as I go even when I try not to. I’m working to correct that because I know it’s slowing me down. Love the advice to allow percolation between steps!
Read Rebecca Burgener´s last article ..My Name Is Stegasaurus – #Blessings365

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 7:07 am

That has been my biggest struggle, too, Rebecca. NaNoWriMo gave me the opportunity and impetus to “indulge” in a SFD. It was very freeing. Good luck percolating.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Sandi Hershenson January 27, 2012 at 5:07 am

This is a fantastic post! I hope you don’t mind if I share it. . .
I love the writing process. I have my own process, and you have prompted me to actually think about and document my own protocol. My favorite part of writing is the revision. .. I love seeing my story come more to life than it started.
Read Sandi Hershenson´s last article ..Where it all began.. .

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 7:09 am

Sandi, we’re thrilled to have you share. The more the merrier. I’m right there with you on revision. Learning when to stop revising … well, that’s a whole other post.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Deborah Batterman January 27, 2012 at 5:11 am

I think ‘Bird by Bird’ is chock full of tidbits re: what it really takes to bring an idea to fruition as a story, etc. It’s an honest book, from the point of view of someone who really knows, so, yes, the reminder that a first draft is just that can’t be stressed enough. I’m not familiar with Esther Herschenhorn, though you have me very curious about her now. Many years ago, I read a terrific essay by Valerie Miner, which struck me for similar reasons in that she frames revision as ‘to look again.’ Here’s a quote: “I enjoy revision. I hate revision. More important, I believe in rewriting my fiction as a mode of discovery and clarification.”

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 7:11 am

“Bird by Bird” is a must have for every writer’s bookshelf. Check out Esther’s most recent picture book, “S is for Story”. It’s and alphabet with seemingly simple rhymes about the process, but also includes some really interesting insights from and about writers and writing in the more sophisticated sidebars. Also a good addition to a writer’s library. Thanks Deborah.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Emma January 27, 2012 at 6:22 am

love this post! i am struggling with revisions as they turn out to be total overhauls … while i do know that revisions are a must I still find myself avoiding them because every time i go back to revise the outcomes are so much worse than the original draft and therefore the revision becomes an overhaul <:o/
… the pointers in this post will definitely help! I will print it out and keep as reference. Thank you for taking the time to write the post! It is appreciated!!!

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 7:12 am

Emma, I’m so glad if this post helps you with your process. Avoid the pitfall of being too hard on yourself. Sometimes you have to go through several revisions and find a way to weave them together into a perfect whole. Best of luck.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Virginia January 27, 2012 at 7:29 am

Great advice. Thanks for sharing.

Susan @ 2KoP January 27, 2012 at 8:36 am

Thanks for reading.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Gunjishq January 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Wonderful advice from someone who is still at a ‘testing waters’ stage.

Susan @ 2KoP January 28, 2012 at 3:52 am

Gunjishq — that’s wonderful place to be. Full of possibilities.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Wendy A.M. Prosser January 27, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I love editing, am a perfectionist and have definite OCD tendencies. As you might have guessed, writing an SFD is a real problem for me — but I keep trying! Thanks for the inspiring advice.

Susan @ 2KoP January 28, 2012 at 3:53 am

I’m right there with you, Wendy. I see a post in the making for all of us editor types.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Tiffany Garner January 28, 2012 at 6:48 am

You have some great points here! I personally have a hard time with writing the query because I just want to include everything I love about the book and characters (which is a lot :D). But it is easier as you polish your work and get a real sense of what your novel is about.

I love the revision process. It’s where my characters surprise me even more than they did in the first draft. I learn so much more about them and am able to add in little scenes so the audience gets to know them. I’m able to give them quirks and habits that weren’t present in that first draft, and that makes them more realistic. I’m also able to up the stakes, because now I know what’s going to happen and just what the consequences will be. It makes for a much more compelling read, and it’s a fun adventure.

Good luck to everyone with your writing/revising/editing! ♥
Read Tiffany Garner´s last article ..Falling in love all over again ♥

Susan @ 2KoP January 29, 2012 at 11:13 am

Tiffany, you’re absolutely right about upping the stakes during revision. It’s the perfect time to throw a few potholes and washed out bridges between your character and what he wants.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Sharon Settle January 28, 2012 at 7:03 am

A member of my writer’s group turned me on to this post. I found it very insightful and on target with the real world of writing and publishing with one exception.
In my opinion, in today’s world, should we really put our story first in our queries and ourselves second?
I think if we present a story worth publishing it will speak for itself but the selling of ourselves as someone an agent or publisher would find worthy of spending their time and money on is much harder.
I find selling myself as the only person who can tell this story to be a far greater challenge. This can become full time job.
I recently read of an unpublished author who hooked an agent because they liked what they saw on her blog and wanted to invest in her as a writer more than the novel she was trying to sell.
Self- publishing is so easy these days. I recently self- published a short story (an ebook), One Act: Papa’s Trees. Readers are loving it but I couldn’t hook an agent when I first tried the traditional route. So what couldn’t I sell the my story, or myself?
I have work to do.

Susan @ 2KoP January 29, 2012 at 11:15 am

That’s an interesting question, Sharon. I do think it’s more important than ever to show why you are the only one who can write this story. Which is more important is kind of a chicken and egg question. Both sections have to be well written in your query.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Suzannah January 28, 2012 at 9:24 am

I love the revising and editing stages, but the first draft stage is the most difficult for me to embrace. I had to remind myself not to go back and revise at that point. Instead, I try to think of it as just telling myself the story. Thanks so much for this, Susan.

Susan @ 2KoP January 29, 2012 at 11:16 am

Oh, I like that — the idea of telling myself a story as a way to get through a SFD. Good thinking, Suzannah.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Rhiannon February 4, 2012 at 7:53 am

This is such a useful post, thank you. I took on the not inconsiderable challange of NONWRIMO last year ( and yes, I did complete it!) and that taught me all about sh***y first drafts, the difference in my work when I time constraints meant I could not nit pick and edit was astonishing. Now I am revising the piece I wrote and your post it like a potted guide to the rest of the prcocess, much appreciated.

Susan @ 2KoP February 4, 2012 at 9:26 am

Rhiannon — congratulations on finishing NaNo. That’s a big accomplishment. I’m glad this post found you at the right time and I hope it continues to help during your revisions. Good luck.
Read Susan @ 2KoP´s last article ..Third Annual Two Kinds of People Essay Contest

Elia Winters November 28, 2012 at 6:04 am

This is a great article! I love the comment about having more work in the pipeline. That’s so true for me; I am most comfortable revising when I know there’s another SFD waiting for me.

I’m Tweeting this article. Thanks again for sharing!
Read Elia Winters´s last article ..Winning NaNoWriMo: The Final Week

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