That’s how you’ll learn and grow as a writer.
One of the most important keys to any creative process is being willing to make adjustments.
My writing process today is not what it was one month ago when I started writing and publishing articles on Medium. The learning curve is steep… and I’m still learning and adjusting.
Thing is, our expectations are rarely in line with reality. Until you tackle the project, write the novel, run the mile, publish the article — you can’t possibly anticipate the obstacles that will trip you up.
The changes you make to your creative process (whatever it may be) are in response to the current challenges you’re facing.
Improving your process is all about making small tweaks to be better, stronger, faster, etc.
Identify What’s Not Working
I thought my writing process would look something like this: idea → draft → publish
Oh, sweet naive child.
Rather, it looked more like this:
- Brainstorm / prewrite
- Draft 1
- Draft 2 (revision)
- Edit (Grammarly or Hemingway)
- Format in Medium (headline / subtitle / image / etc.)
…and even that’s a simplistic view. Sometimes I’m in the middle of revising a draft, and I realize I need to go back to the drawing board. (What happens a lot, actually, is that I write a draft about too many things. Either I need to clarify my main idea, or write two separate articles.)
In the beginning, I’d pick one of my ideas and start with a “brain dump.” I’d take handwritten notes to get all my thoughts on paper. These notes would give me a sense of structure for the article, and then I’d attempt to just bang out a first draft.
But this wasn’t working for me. My articles weren’t coming together, and my writing felt disorganized. My ideas were all out of order, and I spent entirely too much time revising — cutting and pasting sections of the draft until I felt it made sense (if at all).
I struggled to:
- Write strong opening and closing paragraphs
- Share my personal experience
- Structure and organize my thoughts
So, basically all the parts that make an article compelling. I found it challenging to “anchor” my piece with a “hooky” intro and a value-packed takeaway.
Clearly, my prewriting routine was letting me down when it came to structuring my article and the “flow” of ideas. While the brain dump was helpful to get all my thoughts out of my head, I wasn’t honing in on what ideas were most important.
Occasionally, you’ve got to pick your head up and evaluate your process. What’s working, and what isn’t?
There’s a difference between procrastination and practical assessment. I could have bulldozed through in an attempt to write more, faster. But that’s working harder and not smarter. I knew there had to be a way to write and revise more effectively.
Be Willing to Try New Things
My dad suggested I try outlining. He thought an outline would give me the opportunity to play around with the organizational structure before I wrote the first draft.
At first, I dismissed the idea — isn’t that what I’d been doing with my prewriting routine? A true outline felt too academic, too stiff. I thought my version (brain dump, jump into drafting) gave me more creative freedom.
Then again, I’d admitted that what I was doing wasn’t working for me. At least, not the way I’d hoped. So what did I have to lose? I decided to outline just one article to give it a shot. I’ll let you guess how it turned out.
Now, I outline every article. My outlines help me flesh out all of my thoughts and ideas and rearrange accordingly. Sometimes I can’t see how concepts fit together until I’ve got it all laid out. When I’ve nailed the organizational structure in an outline, I know it’s time to power through a first draft.
Outlining has not replaced my prewriting routine.
There’s something about the physicality of taking handwritten notes that helps me solidify ideas. However, I’ve significantly shortened the amount of time I spend prewriting. I set a timer for 5–10 minutes for an initial brain dump, and then I’ll open up a Google Doc to work on the outline.
You have to be willing to adapt and try new techniques. That’s how you’ll learn and grow as a writer.
In my case, it made sense because I thought there might be another way to tackle my challenges (i.e. better structuring my articles before attempting a first draft).
I think it’s just as valuable to try new things even when you’ve got a process that works. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and I agree, to some extent. However, if you never implement new techniques, or push yourself in specific areas, you’ll stagnate as a creative.
What if you could do something to improve your existing process? You won’t know unless you experiment.
Here’s the deal — if you try something new and it doesn’t work out, you have my permission to go right back to the way you were doing it before. At least now you know.
A process can always be improved.
Here’s why outlining works for me: it became a tool to organize my thoughts, something I’d struggled with for weeks. I was also struggling to draft compelling opening and closing paragraphs, a result of an unclear main idea. Outlining helped me address that issue, too.
Unlike before, I won’t even attempt to start drafting until I’ve clarified my main idea and brainstormed a potential “hook.”
My outlines look like this:
- Intro (opening line / thesis / my story)
Sure, I still make changes to my opening and closing paragraphs in revisions, but not as heavily as before.
And while I’m using outlining as the primary example for how my process has changed, it’s not the only tweak I’ve made in the last month.
I’ve started using a spreadsheet to keep track of new ideas. Originally, I’d scribble them into a notebook, or into iPhone “notes,” or in a Google Doc — and couldn’t seem to find them later.
I also rank my ideas according to their level of difficulty: a “level 1” article is surface-level, while a “level 2” article requires more time and research (case studies, tracking down quotes, etc.).
When I glance over my growing list of ideas, I have a better understanding of the investment it will take to write a particular piece.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Circle back to Step 1 — so long as you pause every now and then to evaluate your process, you’ll continue to identify new areas of improvement. Growth is a result of constant course correction.
After one month on Medium, I feel like I’m in a better place — I’ve developed a daily writing routine, and I’m producing more work because my outlines are a tool for writing solid first drafts.
But I may not always do things this way. In fact, I know my process will continue to evolve with time. I have already thought of ways to tweak my writing process in the coming months.
Though I’m proud of my daily writing routine, I’m still struggling to bang out articles like the writers who publish a piece every single day (and that’s to be expected!). I knew it would be an uphill battle to “let go” of my work, especially when my perfectionism is convinced it isn’t ready.
There will be a time to push myself and up my game when it comes to publishing more frequently.
So how do I plan to do that? Well, I know what’s working (at least for now): prewriting and outlining articles for solid first drafts. And what’s NOT working: attempting to publish a piece on the same day (or even the next).
Here’s what I’m planning to implement:
- Brainstorming and outlining content in advance
- Having articles in the “queue” to submit to publications
I’ll designate one day of the week to brainstorm and outline 3–4 articles in advance. In the following days, I can jump straight into drafting during my most productive morning writing hours.
I didn’t write this article to convince you to outline. What works for me may not work for you — but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try! Change is OK. Change is good. Sometimes you’ve got to try new techniques to improve your writing process.
There’s no way to know how to improve until you do the thing. Sure, I could have attempted to create the “perfect” process even before I started.
But I never would have guessed which topics I enjoy writing about most, or that outlining would be the key to clarifying my thoughts and writing solid first drafts.
Reflection is healthy and necessary. It’s exciting to look back on my first month and see how far I’ve come. Exciting, too, to think about how much more I’ll change and grow as I continue this journey! I hope you’ll embrace change, too.