I am at a sort of a writing retreat this week, and i thought it might be interesting to document my process.
Writing starts with a usable idea and an audience. These are in the same step, because I seem them as inextricably linked. A usable idea is one that I can competently cover giving the time and resources that I have. For example, I teach writing, so that’s pretty straightfoward for me to write about. I do research about communication technology. So, ditto. I can say something worthwhile with appropriate research because I already have the context. I’m not a big auto racing fan, so if I try to write something about the best performance tires for Darlington, I’d better have a lot of time to understand the context of the field so I can interpret the facts.
Then there is the audience – who will actually read this work, and what are they like. This post gave some ideas about the types of readers. I think a lot of academics think about argument more than audience. But audience is critical. If you are using evidence or logic that will be rejected out of hand, for example, you are wasting your time.
Next is research. This means finding what others have said about the topic, and digesting it into the major views on the topic. For me, this is usually looking at the work of other academics in books and journals, but not always. For a blog post or a Tweet, it may be the arguments of the day or interviews that I rely on. In any case, I like to have most of my ammunition in place before I write.
The next step is the hardest – matching the first two elements into a structure. What should my central point be? How much evidence do I directly provide, and how do I summarize and support in a way that’s the most effect for my intended audience. Remember that it’s not just about you and what you want say. It’s about the people who give my writing life by consuming it and what they want and need. This is a complex process. For me it involves a lot of using optimal distraction to help me think.
Then there is writing. Honestly, by this point when I know what it is that I want to say, I blow through this pretty quickly. It’s lousy on the first draft – especially the first half of the first draft. I’m ok with that, though. I think of the drafting as basically the second half of the thinking.
Finally, I fix it. I go back to number 1 – my idea and my audience – and edit with the question: Am I getting my message across? It may take a couple of rounds here, and if I can, I get someone else to read it for me, to give me an outsider perspective.