Tips for writing
I am often asked about my writing process and how I manage to be so prolific in my publications. Here are my tips:
- Manage your emotions and the pressure you put on yourself. Do you, for example, find yourself thinking, “I can’t write” or “Who do I think I am?” or “Who is going to be interested in what I have to say?”. When I write, I’m helped by not worrying about “what will the readers think?”; I focus, in the first instance, on what it is I want to say. I have the ability to let my writing flow and I have learned to manage my emotions and not let my ego interrupt the process. I am able to contain high self-expectation or unreasonable demands for ‘perfection’ and hold any shame at bay. Instead, I start with some self-management. It’s about getting myself in the right frame of mind and being in a grounded place. Writing an academic piece, for instance, I will try to ensure it is my professional self who writes, not my insecure, vulnerable parts.
- Start by having a clear sense of the aim/s of your writing and who you’re writing for (as that will determine the content and tone). However, you need to keep this in perspective and ensure what you’re aiming for is realistic and you’re aware of the limits of what is doable. Its important to see any writing for what it is: a fleeting moment that might say something of potential value and interest, or at least that expresses something of what you might want to say. In other words, don’t get blocked by your ambition to produce something perfect, definitive, comprehensive… Try to capture something, not everything.
- Recognise that writing involves ‘graft’, not just ‘craft’. It is a process that involves iterative stages of writing. Any writing, takes time, some discipline, and a lot of patience. Academic writing, for instance, involves many formal stages and much editing and fine-tuning, including dealing with ‘proofs’ at the end. It can feel laborious. The point is to recognise whatever you first write could change substantially – you don’t have to sit down in the first instance and write perfect, fully formed sentences. My approach is to start with a rough sketch (brainstorm of points, ideas) which may, in time, become a full and detailed coloured painting. I know that will have help along the way (buddy readers and professional editors to smooth my writing). I also know that I couldn’t write without them supporting me in the background.
- Find and establish a habit and process that works for you (and this includes giving yourself the appropriate time and space to engage it). Some people (like me) prefer to work with the sketch and structure first where the initial effort goes into planning and plotting. Others prefer to free flow with writing and let it go wherever it goes. Some take a disciplined approach of sitting down every day for a set time to write something; others only write when they have the space and inspiration. With my writing process, I let it get triggered. I write best when I have an urge to write; perhaps I’ve just read something that inspires me, or a problematic issue comes up at work and I feel it needs airing. Then, I think about my structure and storyline.
- Attend to your structure and storyline. This is about offering your reader a narrative they can grasp and hold on to as they read your writing. Structure refers to the order of idea where there is a smooth progression where different paragraphs and sections unfold in an orderly way or which tells a story. It involves plotting and planning about what can be said given external requirements (e.g. training institutions) or word count constraints (e.g. of journals). This planning of what goes on in each section transforms the potentially overwhelming challenge of writing, say a book or article, into doable, bite-sized pieces.
- Be prepared to edit and edit iteratively. At some point, the writing will be enhanced if you work out how to engage the reader. Good writing doesn’t just happen; words need to be sharpened, honed and polished. This process is not just thinking about grammar. It’s about being stylish in your choice of words and putting your ideas across in articulate and interesting ways. It’s about being more concise (rather than long-winded) and precise (clear rather than confusing, vague). It’s about welcoming the writing process and having a writerly sensibility where words are enjoyed and celebrated. Some writers – really good ones – attend to the tone, tempo and rhythm of the words (for instance, injecting alliteration) almost like being a poet. Others will lean into being artists, engaging strong imagery in their words and metaphorical flourishes.
- Somewhere along the process the art of writing comes in and it involves letting yourself go and flow in the creative process. Letting your words loose, letting yourself say what you want to say. These are the moments where writing is let free and they happen it can feel amazing, intoxicating. Nick Cave describes this process beautifully as he talks about moments of inspiration as a songwriter:
Once inside the imagination all manner of inexplicable things occur. Time gets loopy, the past presses itself against the present, and the future pours out its secrets. Suddenly words behave in ways they shouldn’t, but wonderfully do, our pulse quickens, yummy butterflies explode in our tummies and songwriting becomes a collision between the pragmatic and the completely gaga — transcendental, outrageously religious, bananas — and then God appears, there He is, with all His cross-dressing angels and demons and other things, I don’t even know what, spirits muttering unspeakable things, and chubby, pink muses tumbling about, and child-small shapes with outstretched arms, calling, instructing, and the beautiful line begins to take shape, gently emerging — there it is! — falling lovely from the end of your pen. (Cave, 2021)
Cave, N. (2021). June Blog: Red Hand Files, Issue #156. https://www.theredhandfiles.com/ive-always-had-an-affinity-for-songwriters-who-put-a-lot-of-craft-into-their-songs-like-theyre-building-a-wooden-table-everything-is-where-it-should-be-do-you-think-it-is-more-important-to-find/
For further information about writing and the process see my article:
Finlay, L. (2020). How to write a journal article: Top tips for the novice writer. European Journal for Qualitative Research in Psychotherapy, 10(1), 28-40. Retrieved from https://ejqrp.org/index.php/ejqrp/article/view/108/65