Do these steps look familiar to you?
Step 1. Write first sentence
Step 2. Read first sentence
Step 3. Add adverb to first sentence
Step 4. Reread first sentence
Step 5. Tackle second sentence
Step 6. Reread first and second sentences
Step 7. Add adjective
Step 8. Change verb tense
Step 9. Reread first and second sentences
Step 10. Begin third sentence and, if unsure how to proceed, repeat steps 1-9
If you are anything like thousands of other inefficient writers, this pattern is familiar to you. Perpetual editing is the hallmark of inefficient writers, undermining any effort toward proficiency. To shift from being an inefficient writer to a capable one, or at least to become a writer who can produce quality material consistently and efficiently, you must break away from this pattern. How?
Three hurdles must be overcome to reach the path toward efficiency. First, inefficient writers are often unaware of the conventions in their chosen field. Every discipline is denoted by expectations, habits, and norms. The disciplinary boundaries shape the field and thus influence the makeup of the composition and it behooves a writer to learn of the conventions. They need not handcuff themselves and can push disciplinary boundaries but familiarity with the conventions they are trying to push is imperative.
Second, inefficient writers do not practice nearly enough. They often limit their writing to completing whichever task or assignment is at hand, rarely departing from their own preferred form. Instead of replicating what they already know, inefficient writers must establish targets – e.g. reduce / increase the use of adverbs, play with punctuation, or provoke a precise emotional reaction – and practice disparate styles: journalism writing differs from blog writing differs from comedy. Learning about other styles, experimenting with other styles, will enhance your capacity with your own.
Third, as per the pattern above, inefficient writers routinely fail to distinguish between the components of the writing process. In my experience, this is, by far, the greatest challenge and I dedicate the remainder of my post to clarifying this point.
Writing our way into posterity: communication, persuasion, and art
Writing, both as verb and noun, is layered. By this I mean that a variety of actions and ingredients go into any composition, or at least any composition worth reading. Proficient writers always begin with a question: what is the motivation behind this specific piece? Some write for art: poets are renowned for this as are script writers. Others use their compositions to communicate information: think journalism or a film review. And a third group is motivated by persuasion. Their aim is to provoke action: buy this good, vote for that candidate, attend so-and-so university. There are other purposes, of course – entertainment, satire, social critique, personal reflection, and more – but most others can be subsumed within the primary three: art, communication, and persuasion. Of course, as you will have already noticed, the categories are not mutually exclusive, best arranged as venn diagrams than walled gardens.
Using content, structure, and style to become an efficient writer
My own strategy is to convert the three aims into concrete components. This approach allows me to streamline the writing process by directing my energy toward each element in turn. When I write, I think of content (communication), structure (persuasion), and style (art). Again, all components are complementary – one makes little sense without the other – nevertheless, it is a curious and likely unsuccessful architect who does not approach their task with a different eye for the materials (content), for the building plan (structure), and for the aesthetics (style).
In practical terms, my approach translates into a segmented plan of action when I have something to write. I begin by vomiting a variety of keywords onto a sheet of paper. My aim here, let’s call this content phase I (C1), is to generate as many words as I can. At this stage, anything is fair game, at least anything that relates to the piece I aim to produce. Next, I use the words to build a mind map or flow chart that captures the composition: structure phase I (ST1). Experimentation is the name of the game as my aim is to identify the structure that best strengthens my piece: I target legibility and flow. If new ideas occur to me, and they usually do, I chuck them onto the sheet and integrate it into my chart accordingly. If a word appears superfluous, I delete it without a second thought. Mind-mapping software or free form text editors (I use scapple though there are plenty more) is helpful for ST1 as it allows words to be moved around freely and endlessly.
Next, I make my first stylistic intervention (S1) by deciding on the tone. Descriptive, argumentative, inquisitive, informative, meditative, and exploratory are examples of distinct tones that serve distinct purposes. I may not have a choice as to tone – it may be set by the editor – or I may – I am writing an unsolicited article for a journal. In both cases, and in all the others, I consider the tone (S1) before proceeding.
After completing initial content, structuring, and stylistic decisions, I move to the second part of the content phase (C2) and produce material for each section of my composition. At no point do I divert from the structure. Instead, I use the structure as a map for the content to be produced. Free flowing and stream of consciousness writing are useful approaches as these techniques allow you to articulate your ideas into written form whilst avoiding any self-censorship. Research is also vital to the success of C2 providing you with the material that shapes your composition. The same is true for personal reflection, especially for compositions that demand critical insight.
Once I have achieved a satisfactory level of content – usually most or all of what I think I need – I undertake the second structuring phase (ST2). Here my aim is to verify that my composition has followed ST1 and, where needed, adjusted. It is appropriate, even advisable to revisit the structure after completing C2 since you are likely to develop new ideas about the topic while you are writing about it.
When satisfied with both content and structure, it is time to tackle style (S2). An array of activities are expected of you in this phase. Editing and proofing are standard, of course. This is also the time for the sprinkling of metaphors, anecdotes, illustrations, sub-headings, and anything else that will enhance the elegance of your writing. Your aim is to transform intelligible writing into stylish writing.
Opening the pathways to new insights
By segmenting your writing, you can move through each component – content, structure, and style – more efficiently, dedicating the requisite energy to a single task rather than melding and thus confusing all three. The greatest advantage to this approach, however, is that it facilitates your ability to make intelligent choices throughout the writing process. By targeting each component separately, you come to appreciate how they vibe (and when they clash), developing the proficiency needed to leverage the components toward the production of elegant compositions.
Follow these steps and you will quickly extricate yourself from the sludge of amateur writing.