Demystification of the writing process

A long time ago I taught writing at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The college rested on the western shore of Lake Michigan, a little north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border, between Chicago and Milwaukee. It had a writer-in-residence at the time named Janet Desaulniers. She told us during a teachers' workshop that writing instructors can demystify the process of writing. Until that point, I had not really thought of writing as a mysterious process, just a difficult one. Now an expert suggested that it was not only difficult, but also inaccessible if one did not have a guide to its mysteries.

I'm not sure any of that is true. Writing only appears mysterious because people who teach it sometimes make it harder than it actually is. Compare writing to the building trades. I admire people who know how to build things. The whole process of building a house, or an addition, or doing a complete remodel used to seem almost like magic to me. I certainly didn't know how to do it. Then I witnessed the process in my own house, and could see that these were skills one could learn. That didn't mean I would learn them, but the building process didn't seem so mysterious anymore. I had watched someone do it, close up.

Writing is similar in some ways. Like building, it is a craft. It requires skill, or know-how that does not come in a day. The mystifying part about writing is the part you can't see. You have to think about what you want to write, and the contents of your mind are invisible. That invisibility is not so different from the building process. A good craftsman works from a coherent set of plans – plans that originate in one's imagination before they become drawings. After you plan a building project, you hold a vision of the finished project in your mind as you undertake construction. In all of these respects, writing and construction parallel one another.

Some say writing is thinking. No wonder, then, that the invisible work of literary creation appears mysterious! After all, writing is the craft of transforming ephemeral thoughts into something more permanent – something that lasts longer than the swift movements of an active mind. You can imagine a new room for your house, or a number of rooms, but until you build them they don't exist for anyone but yourself. The same goes for writing. Your thoughts exist only for you until you write them down.

Speech doesn't solve the problem of ephemerality. Talking to other people is in fact a powerful form of communication and persuasion. Nevertheless, verbal utterances are far more transitory than anything you have written. Think of a tune you might hear from the throat of a bird. It is beautiful, but has no effect on anyone except listeners who happen to be present. The craft of writing gives people the power to make their thoughts durable, and accessible to anyone.

One more observation is necessary before we consider the process of writing in a business and engineering environment. Writing instructors, coaches, editors, publishers – everyone involved in this process except perhaps the mystified writers – remind us that no one method of writing works for everyone. We all have our own ways of working. Nevertheless, we still distinguish between well written and poorly written pieces, and we can perceive these differences when we read something. Can't we trace these differences in quality to the writer's methods? Good craftsmanship depends on the proper application of your know-how to create a written product. If that's the case, why would people who advise writers say you don't have to go by the rules, since everyone works differently?

Here a comparison with cooking is helpful. When you first learn to cook, you do follow recipes. You have to follow the rules pretty carefully if you want to create something you can serve to other people. Try to be too creative – that is, depart from the recipe – when you are a beginner, and you will not achieve good results. With experience, though, you develop your own methods – ways of doing things that work for you. You begin to learn when you can vary a recipe, try a different technique, plan a little more loosely, and eventually create your own recipes.

Writing works that way, too. To take a simple example: after you have some experience, you need not outline your piece every time you sit down to write. If you have thought about the subject sufficiently, you can write something reasonably well structured without outlining your thoughts first. Sometimes your piece follows a structure that someone else has developed, or that you developed some time ago. Nevertheless, if you skip writing an outline, you may come upon difficulties with your writing project. Experience makes you aware of those difficulties. It may also make you more tolerant of them, and help you to work around them.

How do these insights apply to business writing?

  • First, writing activities employ thoughts as their primary input. How to produce effective documents need not be a mystery. As with other crafts, magical qualities dissipate as you learn or become familiar with the skills required.
  • Second, business writing is not the same as other kinds of writing, such as fiction or storytelling. The skills required to build a boat differ from the skills required to construct an addition to your house.
  • Third and last for the moment, practice is the key to learning and acquiring a skill. Musicians know that. Athletes know it. Craftsmen in all the building and artisanal trades know it. The same priority for doing over other kinds of learning applies to writing effectively.

Here's a concluding thought. To advance your career, you need to know how to write well. If you cannot write well, you will reach a point where you cannot advance further. If you develop your ability to write well, you can overcome a lot of obstacles. Everyone appreciates the centrality of writing; few appreciate the elements of craftsmanship that make writing effective in the first place. If you grasp these elements of craftsmanship, you hold the secrets for making your thoughts durable and persuasive.