Writing Process: Rough Drafts, Resistance and the Guru of Go

Paul Westhead was the only basketball coach to win an NBA championship and WNBA championship. He also took Loyola Marymount to the Elite 8 in college basketball during the early ‘90’s. An avid lover of Shakespeare, he often quoted the playwright during practices.

Westhead dubbed his brand of basketball “The System” and it was very simple. Shoot the ball in five seconds or less and jack up the number of possessions to the point where you tire the other team out. Westhead dared the other team to keep up because he had confidence that all his players bought into “The System.”

Successful writers develop a “System” that they believe in.

There are very few criteria for your system, but the one thing it absolutely has to do is show you a clear path from rough draft to finished product. There are as many system’s out there as there are working writers. If you’ve ever finished a term paper, published an article or written a business letter then you’ve got one. It’s just a matter of defining each step and learning the quickest way to get through each one.

The faster you can master your own system without skipping steps, the faster you will produce quality work.

The two steps in the writing process that really matter are the rough draft and the finished story. The goal of your system is to take you from one end to the other in a fast and efficient manner.

The difference between the two ends of this process is that a rough draft is written with the writer solely in mind and the finished story is edited for the audience.

Rough drafts are the starting point in this process, but for some just getting to the starting line is a major victory.

If you’re a person that never quite gets to writing or you never does it on a consistent basis then you’ve encountered Resistance. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then read Stephen Pressfield’s book War on Art. One of his main points is that artists deal with Resistance every time he resolves to start a project.

Resistance is all the things that prevent you from starting and finishing any project. It’s invisible and internal, it’s unrelenting and universal, it preys on our fears and it’s most powerful near the finish.

Defining Resistance is personal. Sometimes it’s drugs or sex. Maybe it’s a lack of confidence or fear of criticism. It could be as simple as procrastination. Whatever it may be, it would be wise to know the symptoms of Resistance. If you feel bad about not doing what you’re supposed to be doing then that is Resistance. If you find yourself using other people’s success as an excuse not to get started yourself then that is Resistance too. Just know that the more important it is to you, the more Resistance will fight you.

If this sounds like you then take a sheet of paper and list every obstacle that’s in the way of you and writing. Then go about solving each one until there are no more excuses. The only real way to combat Resistance is to get started and keep going. Remember, you can’t begin a Rough Draft if you never resolve to get started in the first place.

Once you have your heart set on writing something, commit to doing a rough draft. I say this because some people really don’t enjoy this part. They like to edit each sentence as they go along then never read over their work again after they finish thinking that combining steps will make them go faster.

If that works for you then more power to you, but that usually slows me down and focusing on that kind of minutiae right away really isn’t the goal.

Rough drafts are about getting the idea out of your head and onto the page without too much thought of structure, voice, syntax or anything else that concerns the audience. Those things may be in there already, but getting those things perfect are for another day. The only thing you should be concerned about during this step in the process is getting the idea out and nothing else.

It helps to think of a rough draft as a mindset rather then a writing exercise. Writing in this way requires you to shut off the part of your brain that’s concerned with deadlines, judgements, expectations and anything else that’s not involved in the present moment.

Rough drafts require your immediate and undivided attention for the duration of your session, which is difficult when we can take real life with us on a mobile phone. It’s important find a place where you can focus properly and think clearly enough to write without interruption. Whether that’s at a cafe or at your desk at home, it’s entirely up to you.

Think of your immediate attention as an attic full of boxes. Each box contains a thought that needs to be cleared out of the attic and unpacked. Your goal is to unpack every one of those boxes in it’s entirety and clear the deck. You do this by writing until you’ve said everything that needs to be said without judgement or revision.

Never censor yourself. That means ignoring the perfectionist in you that is going to criticize and tell you to stop and edit. Once you fall into the trap of line editing as you go, the writing becomes disjointed and you waste precious time thinking about a few sentences that are probably going to be edited out anyway.

Remember, the goal is to see what you have first not get it perfect right away.

You’ll find several minutes of writing reveals a large amount of Garbage Thoughts that come up. Often these are ideas and phrases so hackneyed that you really can’t keep them in there without groaning. It is a regurgitation of the things we see in television shows, books, movies and any other types of media you may consume.

Don’t get discouraged by Garbage Thoughts and don’t censor yourself if you see them come up. These ideas need to be cleared out first and the only way to do that is to write them down. Your mind doesn’t descriminate between what’s good and bad, it just thinks.

We run into writers block when we try to push past thoughts taking up our immediate attention to  grab the ones that do, which takes a lot of mental energy. It’s like moving one of those boxes in the attic over to get to another one, but if there are three boxes in the way how long will that take?

It’s usually faster and easier to write down those Garbage Thoughts and get them off your mind rather than agonize over a lack of creativity.

You want a one-to-one connection between your brain and fingertip and those first few minutes of writing clears that link of all the crap and allows real creativity to come through. Eventually the writing quiets down as thoughts have room to organize themselves in your head.  You know this is happening when the the words start to come out unimpeded and the quality begins to improve.

Once you start writing regularly, it gets easier and the lead time between the Garbage Thoughts and quality work gets shorter. How long you keep writing is entirely up to you, but the goal is to completely exhaust each idea until it feels ready for the next step.

Deciding when your rough draft is finished depends entirely on what you are working on. Unless there is a specific deadline and inch count, some ideas can be written down in 500 words or 500,000. Don’t be a afraid to write over during a rough draft. Chances are you’ll edit out a significant chunk of those words.

For those ideas that take more then one sitting to complete, it’s a good idea to edit your work at each stopping point. Perhaps at the the chapter break if you are writing a novel or roughly every 5,000 words or so. For those of you that prefer to edit after a draft is completely finished, just remember that you must go over everything you wrote at least once. Often that takes just as much time if not more time then it did to write it all in the first place.

Here are a few extra key points about rough drafting:
• Rough drafting is not about finishing or about getting everything perfect. It’s about getting it down on the page and out in the open for you to ruminate upon and edit extensively later.
• It’s ok to do surface edits along the way if it’s a longer piece. Make sure the paragraphs make sense and fix any readability issues just don’t make any major changes that will take you out of writing for too long. .
• Longer sessions often yield more meaningful writing. Remember it takes time to clear all the clutter from your brain and get to the good stuff. Try and account for that when you schedule your writing time.

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An overview of the Writing Process: Planning

Writing is a process and getting yourself to the end of a piece involves a lot more than just actually thinking about what you want to say. Developing a system to get you from rough draft to finished product in a timely fashion is common sense.
The key is knowing what you want done and when you want it done. Call them deadlines or anything else you want, but they are necessary. The trick is to create hard deadlines for yourself. Avoid soft deadlines that are unfocused and unclear about what being “done” means.

Negotiating deadlines with yourself  is the same with the people you are writing for. Learning to hit deadlines that are realistic and move you forward is a skill that all working writers have. This is the way I do it, but it isn’t a rigid system.

You are free to take anything I’ve outlined here and incorporate it into your own process.

Planning

The first thing I do with any writing project is outline my expectations for this particular story and stick it right at the top of my page.

Some things I keep track of  in this upper portion of the page:

Goals- A simple statement of what I want to accomplish with this story. This is the part where you say what you are writing and when you want to complete it. I change this part at each due date until the project is completed.

Due date- I put the due date for a story prominently on the page. This isn’t necessarily a “done” date but the date your scheduled to revisit this project and revise the top section. Something is finished when I reach a due date and feel that I’ve completed everything that needs to be done.

Word Count- I usually keep a cumulative word count and the number I want to hit for each day at the top of a story.

Prospective audience- Thinking about this helps set the tone every time you sit down. It puts you into a mindset to write a magazine article or  piece of fiction because you are writing for somebody. The faster you can focus on what you are writing, the more useful your time will be. Sometimes a story is only meant for your eyes only and that’s ok. Projects like that are necessary, just keep in mind why you want to write this particular piece and let that guide you.

Finishing any project is a matter of  having a clear view of the end you want to achieve and mapping out a specific schedule for completion. Once you’ve worked out all of your expectations for a story, gear every single minute you work on a project toward hitting one of the goals you’ve stated above.
For example, I may have 15 minutes to work on a piece of fiction. In order to maximize my time I have a clear goal in mind to write at least 500 words in that span. After the time is up I see how many words I got through and added it to my overall word count.

The other part that people tend to avoid is measuring progress and adjusting expectations. At the end of each week I’ll look at the top section of every unfinished project and check my current progress against expectations I set the week before.

Review your work as often as you think is necessary. Some people go months or even an entire year before thinking about their goals again. Either way,  the important thing is to think  about your goals and find a way to make them focused and relevant.

Here are a few questions I consider each week along with some follow up questions:
Did I honestly fulfill my expectations for the week (Celebrate if you did) ?
– If no  then ask, why didn’t I meet expectations?
-Then, how can I adjust my goals to make them more realistic?

If yes then ask think about setting more ambitious goals or stay at this pace until next week’s review.

Next topic is rough drafts.