We have all stared at the blank page when we sit down to write and it can feel daunting and hard to get started. We feel like we need a big slot of time, or we need to have all the conditions just right (if you are anything like me – quiet, a cup of tea, and tidy desk) or that there’s just one more data set to collect before we start writing.
And, what happens when we do not get started? We lose the momentum of our greatest ideas. We end up working closer to deadlines and under pressure, which may not create our best work. Or worse, if there’s no deadline we end up putting writing off and suddenly our great idea has lost its vitality or we are going to be paying tuition again.
During my 15 years of organizing, editing and developing grants with academics, I have learned that writing is a process. Learning how we approach writing and the roadblocks that come up for us has captivated me and I have been discovering how to make it easier.
What is the writing process?
No matter where you are in your research, you are in the writing process.
The writing process consists of seven steps: 1) generating, 2) filtering, 3) organizing, 4) expanding, 5) refining and 6) sharing your ideas, followed by 7) rest (Figure 1). As you move through the writing process there are strategies that can practically support you to stay engaged and maintain momentum.
Figure 1: A) The writing process. Adapted, based on my own experiences and observations, from “The Creative Cycle” by Chris Kay Fraser, “Resonate” by Nancy Duarte and “Guidebook for New Principal Investigators” by Rod McInnes and Brenda Andrews.
Ideas – The starting point of every writing project
How do you generate and capture your ideas? How do you manage them? Do you have a flood of ideas or do you feel like sometimes the well is dry? I encourage you to try treating your ideas like little treasures that you are collecting. I am not always sure where or when I will use them, but I have created a space where they are easily accessible, searchable and honored. Since I have started this practise of capturing all of my ideas, I have found that ideas come more readily, and I am generating more of them or maybe just noticing more of them. By generating and capturing your ideas you effectively eliminate the blank page as you always have somewhere to start.
Filter – Deciding which ideas to include
Now that you have all of your ideas gathered in one place, it’s time to think about which ideas you need for your specific writing project. What is your filter for choosing which ideas to include and how will you apply it? From my observations, you can create the best filter by answering the following three questions related to your paper or grant: 1) Who is your audience? 2) What is your message? and, 3) What does your audience need to know to understand your message?
Filtering your ideas to only those that are necessary for your audience to understand and believe your message can be a complex and iterative process. However, most scientific writing that leads to reader confusion suffers from too many ideas and not from a lack of ideas. By filtering your ideas at this stage, you are not only making it easier for yourself to write, you will also make it easier for the reader to understand your message.
Organize – Creating a structure for your reader
Now that you understand what ideas will best convey your message to your audience, it’s time to organize your ideas to provide a structure for the reader to understand your message. The structure of your writing project is like a coat rack for your reader to hang all of your ideas on. If there’s no coat rack, then everything just ends up on the floor. With a structure in place it allows your reader to see where you are taking them and how all of your ideas come together to create a compelling story. How you organize your ideas is also an opportunity to create interest for the reader through contrast. You can compare and contrast ideas, problems and solutions, or advantages and disadvantages.
Expand – Getting into the flow of writing
When writing is coming easily to someone you may hear them say they are in the “flow” or in the “zone”. The state of flow is a phenomenon that was extensively studied by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi who describes it as “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation.” Flow was extensively studied in sports, and it also applies to writing. To support yourself to get into the flow of writing, move through all of the steps of the writing process until you reach a point where you feel like you have the right ideas and in the right order and you are ready to expand on them into sentences and paragraphs. Be ready for the flow to emerge and ensure that you allow and create space for it.
Refine – Polishing but not perfecting your writing In this stage of the process you are ensuring that what you have written is complete. This typically involves two types of editing: macro-editing and micro-editing. Macro-editing involves an iterative process of filtering, organizing and expanding ideas whereas micro-editing involves word usage, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure. You will also fill in any of the blanks or do any of the additional research that you wanted to do. Refinement is an ongoing process and it will progress as you share and continue to edit your writing project i.e. the goal of refinement is completion, not perfection.
Share – Create confidence throughout the process by sharing your ideas and drafts
There are many ways to share during the writing process. Sharing can be discussions and brainstorming ideas early on, presenting data at different stages of the project (posters, lab meeting, conferences), sending completed manuscripts or grants to colleagues to be proofread and edited before submission or to actually submit your paper or grant. As you share and discuss your ideas throughout the process, the more confident you will be when you are writing them down and the easier it is to share your completed draft.
Rest – Providing some space around the writing process
Have you ever noticed how you can feel frustrated with a sentence or paragraph, you decide to walk away, and when you come back the writing comes more easily? This is an example of the importance of rest in the writing process. Rest is not necessarily sleeping; it is just not writing. The goal of this stage is to allow your mind to rest, to create room for new ideas, connections, and create space to allow the solutions to come up for you.
Design a writing process that works for you
Understanding the writing process is the first step towards designing a unique writing process that supports you and allows you to create your writing projects and share your unique contributions with the world. Imagine if every academic enjoyed the writing process – they would be more effective and creative and successful in their research and professional lives and they would approach writing with more confidence, ease and momentum.
If you are struggling with procrastination and overwhelm associated with writing and you want to create more confidence, ease and momentum when writing, I invite you to email me for a complimentary Discovery Call at support@melissaEanders.com. We will discuss what’s happening for you and determine whether the work I do may be a good fit for you.