Recently I had the pleasure of watching a really smart, motivated guy I’ll call Sam put together a presentation from scratch in a matter of days. I was there from the beginning to end, coaching him on, suggesting new directions and edits, watching as he shaped and crafted the content from a rough outline to a finished, polished presentation.
It occurred to me that this process was much like–no, exactly like–the fiction writer’s process. I am usually so enmeshed in the writing process myself that I forget what it’s like to look at it from the outside in. But the similarity of the writing process for business and fiction is uncanny. See if you recognize these six stages of the writing process:
STAGE 1: The Creative Spark. For Sam, it started with an email that consisted of the basic idea and eight bullet points. He was pumped! Confident he could complete the presentation in two weeks, he requested that we move thedelivery date up. Thankfully, we talked him out of that. Because once the initial excitement of the spark wears off, stage 2 sets in.
STAGE 2: Writing the First Draft. One week later, three of us gathered together impromptu to see Sam’s first draft. It’s important to note that we kept this group small and selective. First drafts are sacred and too much feedback–or too much of the wrong feedback–can stop a writing project in its tracks. This is the time to make sure Sam is heading down the right path rather than give him a map with turn-by-turn directions.
As Sam talked through his first draft, it was clear that the message was taking shape, but there were too many slides, too many disjointed themes, too much content. Sam was stressed, but I knew from experience that he was on his way and I told him so. (He thanked me for not moving up the date.) The spark is the fun part; capturing it in the first draft? That’s the hard part. But without the first draft, you can’t get to next step.
STAGE 3: Revise, revise, revise. Sam and I meet to review his revised first draft and discuss other issues, including his opening–he’d received feedback that it wasn’t working quite right and he felt stuck. I led him through a quick brainstorm–what was he trying to say? How did the visuals help convey that message? Within minutes, he was excited again–he’d dropped the needle in the haystack of his Powerpoint and found it again!
I knew that the idea he hit upon wasn’t the strongest, but now was not the time to say so. He needed that idea to help him find his way out of the haystack. It’s like bowling with bumper rails–the guards that come up over the gutter so your ball can’t go anywhere but down the lane and knock down a few pins. Sometimes you need an idea to act as your bumper rail so you can move the ball forward. Eventually, you’ll get a feel for the game, get a strike and find your stride so the bumper rails can come off. Usually that happens in the next stage.
STAGE 4: Second draft and feedback. Sam runs through the presentation in front of five people, myself included. Now that the direction is clear and the message is tighter, it’s time to pull in others and widen the circle of feedback. We need more turn-by-turn directions now to tighten up the loose ends. Sam is nervous and excited but ready–he’s worked all weekend on this project.
He wavers on some slides, the ones that aren’t quite there yet. The message is clear, but there are still too many slides. Several people pick up on the opening idea that acted as Sam’s bumper rail, but now that the idea has been flushed out better, it’s clear that his real introduction is actually slide 8.
For fiction writers, this stage is the reading, either delivered in a classroom, writing group or at an event. There’s nothing like reading your work out loud to an audience to show you what’s working–and what’s not.
STAGE 5: Revision and third draft. After the others leave the room, Sam defends his intro. This is common with new writers, but all writers can struggle with letting go of descriptions, characters, words, passages that they love, but which are no longer working to move the story forward.
Think of it like this: the idea or phrase that you love but need to cut served a great purpose at one time–maybe it helped you move forward when you were stuck, or it helped you find your way into the writing or it amused you or made you feel brilliant and witty. But now it’s job is done and it can be relieved of duty. I’ve heard some people refer to this as “killing your babies.” Yikes! I prefer to thinking of it in my bowling analogy–it’s time to take the bumper rails down so you can get to the last step.
STAGE 6: Final Draft Ta da! Working with a graphic designer, I was able to flush out a visual look and feel that Sam introduced on his first slide with a cool movie clip. Sam is almost as excited as he was in stage 1, but now he’s nervous because the event is tomorrow. He delivers a dry run to a room full of people and while he talks fast and the demo has some technical difficulties, Sam is well on his way to delivering a kick-ass presentation.
In any kind of writing, Stages 1 and 6 are a constant, but writing projects can pinball around in stages 2-5 for weeks, months or years. The key is staying focused, knowing when to put up your bumper rails and when to take them down, and make sure you have an audience to give you constructive–not critical– feedback along the way. These are the kinds of things that a writing or creativity coach can help with. And remember: never, ever move your deadline up no matter how excited you are when the creative spark hits!
How about you? What’s your writing process like?