Writing is hard work. If it’s not hard work, you’re not doing it right. But for some people it’s genuinely terrifying, so as someone who writes every day for a living, I thought I’d put down some pointers to help you along.
First things first
What are you trying to say? It sounds like a silly question but you need to be clear about what you want to say before you even start writing. The easiest way to do that is to write it down in one sentence – a headline, if you will. That will keep you on track and you can refer back to it to ensure that you have done what you set out to do.
What do you want?
When we write, we want something – even if it is better marks. We want some sort of reaction from the reader. Even a “do not enter” sign sparks a reaction in readers in that they will avoid entering. So, what do you want, and how can you achieve that? If you don’t know, if you are writing just because you have to, then you’re wasting everyone’s time. If we want people to do something, we must make it as easy as possible for them to do it.
Writing is the least of your worries
The actual act of writing is quite easy. Anyone can put words on a page. It’s all the other stuff that is hard. We can divide the writing process into four parts, and of those, the actual writing should be the easiest, quickest part.
What comes before writing?
Research. Depending on what you’re writing, this could take days, weeks, months, or just a few hours. If you’re writing a dissertation, you will spend ages poring over books, googling, cross-checking, making notes, and writing your bibliography. But if you’re just writing to your grandmother, you wouldn’t. Once you’ve done all your research, you sift through it and put it in order, and then you start writing.
And then walk away
Your job is not done when you dot the last full stop on the page. That is only the beginning. Before you start editing your work, put some distance between yourself and what you’ve written; otherwise, none of it will make sense, or your brain will tell you something does make sense when it really doesn’t. I call this stage the “let-it-soak” phase.
Editing is what’s really tough
It’s far easier to edit someone else’s work than your own because you want every word you’ve written to be precious. This is the second most time-consuming part of writing. Few of us have the luxury of being like Oscar Wilde, who was famous for saying he had spent the day hard at work on his writing, working all morning on taking out a comma and then taking all afternoon to put it back. We have to move faster than that, and if you’re going to write for a living, you’ll need to develop a pattern.
Not everyone knows what a copy editor, or as the British call them sub-editor, does. So let’s be clear. Copy editing involves a series of tasks which aims to improve the writing. Patterns vary from one copy editor to the next, so I can only share how I do it, and you might do things differently. But during this phase you’re checking your facts, the grammar, and sentence structures. You’re cutting out excess words, and simplifying and straightening your work. We will go into more details about it later in the series.
Edited by M. J. Premaratne