Why Writers are Obsessed with Process

Whenever two or more writers find themselves in a room together, there are a handful of topics that inevitably bubble to the surface: money, publishing, current projects, favourite authors, latest reads, and most importantly, process.

If you are new to creative writing and developing your craft, an interest in other writers’ habits is understandable. We’ve all been a beginner at some point in our lives and we all know that the best way to develop our own skills is to learn off someone who can do the thing that we want to do. Oh…and you know…practice… practice helps too.

If you want to learn the piano, you go to a piano teacher. If you want to learn another language, you take classes or buy an audiobook.  If you want to earn more money, you quit trying to be a writer. ** checks notes** Oh sorry, this is supposed to be an uplifting blog.

Anyway, this is how we learn, we spend time with people who are further along the path then we are.

Questions regarding process always arise whenever an author is interviewed. You could say that ‘Tell us about your writing routine’ is the literary equivalent of talking about the weather, but this frivolous question serves as more than a mere icebreaker because within this small request lies a myriad of even smaller questions:

  • Do you write in the morning or at night?
  • Do you write longhand or use a computer?
  • Are you a pantser or a plotter?
  • Where do you prefer to write?
  • Do you play background music or prefer silence?
  • Do you aim for a specific word count, page count or a set number of hours each day/week/month?
  • Do you write every day or when the mood strikes you?
  • Do you work on multiple projects or one project at a time?
  • Do you research before, during or after the first draft?

You get the picture; writers have a lot of questions when it comes to process.

However, it’s not just emerging writers who are interested in this topic, professional, well-seasoned typists are too.

Two years ago, Charlotte Wood, a successful and established author herself, released her book The Writer’s Room. The book is a collection of interviews between Wood and some of Australia’s best-known authors. Though the content of the conversations varies, Wood always encourages her interviewee to talk about their writing routine. Though some authors respond to such probing questions vaguely (perhaps because their process is loose or frequently changing), others describe their rigid or elaborate routines in fine detail.

Initially, Wood’s interviews were only available online, but because of their popularity, she decided to combine a selection of these conversations and release them as a print edition. Obviously, it takes a lot more time and money to release a print edition compared to a digital version, but that’s how popular these interviews became. Writers are hungry for this conversation, but we don’t want to read an interview on our laptops and just forget about it. We want a physical copy that we can highlight, dogear, carry with us on the bus, and return to again and again whenever we need guidance or inspiration. Writers love talking about process, and we love reading about it too.

Despite the almost cliché nature of the topic, writers continue to ask each other questions about process. Fortunately, most authors are happy to answer them. Sometimes these answers are dull and predictable, but sometimes they are surprising, insightful, and even entertaining. By exposing ourselves to other writer’s approaches, we may gain insight into our own creative routine or learn new techniques that can be adopted into our own practice.

Our continuing obsession with creative practice is driven by our need to understand how writing works. We’re all looking for a way to articulate what can sometimes feel like a very mysterious and fickle practice. All creatives struggle over how exactly they go from producing something out of nothing. This discussion of process helps give shape to what can otherwise be perceived as an almost mystical unfolding.

That being said, the question of process also contains a subtle and self-conscious subtext: “Is your process better than mine? If I adopt your habits, will I become a better writer?” Deep down, we all hold the same subconscious belief: there is a secret to writing, we just need to find it.

However, discovering this secret is impossible because every author has a different answer.

Each book in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series was written without an outline and in a single draft. Child’s reasoning for this decision? “I wanted to get it right the first time.” Stephen King doesn’t use outlines either, but he typically produces three drafts of each novel. Aussie crime author Kathryn Fox produces detailed outlines for her novels, sometimes up to 200 pages. Diana Gabaldon doesn’t write with an outline and she doesn’t write in a straight line. Instead, she produces random “interesting” scenes until a thread or shape begins to emerge.

In terms of hours clocked, Stephen King, Maile Meloy, and Steven Pressfield stick to two-four hours a day (typically in the morning). Others like Chuck Wendig, Dani Shapiro, and Margarett Attwood keep standard working hours, starting at nine in the morning and finishing at five in the afternoon.

Despite advances in technology, we are still weighing the pros/cons of longhand vs typing. Jackie Collins writes all her books by hand, as does Quentin Tarantino; two names I never thought I’d see in the same sentence! Joe Hill writes his first draft by hand, but then edits the work while typing the second draft, and JK Rowling has experimented with both longhand and typing. Even research styles vary. Elizabeth Gilbert spends years researching before she beginning her first draft while Matthew Reilly is notorious for his lack of research.

You get it.

Every writer’s process is different.

And yet, we keep asking. We keep searching for some kind of hack in the hope that there is a hack. We want to hear a clever sound bite that promises an easier way to get inside our own story. One simple tool or word of advice that will guarantee our success.

No one wants to hear, “Just write.”

No one wants to hear, “If you do the work, the work gets done.”

No one wants to hear, “Finish writing the novel, edit it, email it out and maybe you’ll get published.”

When asked about her own process, Elizabeth Strout recounted a discussion with her neighbour who had finished painting his entire apartment. When she’d finished gushing over his domestic accomplishment, complimenting him on this tremendous achievement of will, motivation and personal drive, he replied: “There’s no magic to it.”

The same can be said of writing. There’s no magic to it, you just have to do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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