How I Write, January 2023 Edition

Writing isn't straightforward.

When reading The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I came across a quote that resonated with me:

For a long time I thought my struggles made me unusual, but they don’t. Most writers struggle. I didn’t realize this because I had been seeing their writing product, not their writing process, which led to finished work that was clear, smooth, and easy to understand.

Stephen B. Heard

In my own work, I’ve seen this same trouble reflected in students who think that well-written journal articles simply spring wholly formed from a blank page in their word processor. When we do not show the process, students often cannot begin to create their own — if for no other reason than they don’t realize that there should be a process to writing.

So, in the spirit of transparency, here’s a glimpse behind-the-scenes at one of my current writing projects.

Writing A Book

For the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been working on a proposal for a fluids-focused adult nonfiction book. This has easily been my most complicated writing project since my PhD dissertation, and, while some of my process from that project has carried over, I’ve had to evolve my techniques for organizing and handling lots of data. And I’ve had to come to terms with much more drastic editing and revising.

As part of my proposal, I’ve written (and rewritten and rewritten) a series of sample chapters that will eventually be sent to publishers. Here’s what the process for each of those has looked like:

  1. Gather my materials. Before I start writing, I pull together all my notes on academic papers relevant to the chapter as well as the highlighted transcripts from my interviews with researchers. I’ll reread and review these before proceeding to the next step.
  2. Outline my chapter. How detailed I make my outlines tends to vary by project. For my dissertation, I broke down every paragraph into bullet points that fed into each sentence. For this project, my outlines have been looser in organization. I’ll give myself a list of ideas and examples to include (with references to my notes for pulling specific details when writing). Then I play around with how I order those concepts to see what makes the most sense for the chapter’s story.
  3. Draft the chapter. This step is often completed in multiple sessions as I work through my outlines section-by-section. As I write, I keep my outline and notes available in a split-screen set-up so that I can easily reference those materials as I go. When I break off a session, I like to leave an obvious place to restart. Sometimes this is clear from my outline, and sometimes I leave myself a note about what should come next.
  4. Re-read and revise. This step usually involves multiple read-throughs and editing on my part. On some passes I focus on the overall flow of the narrative. On others, I may dig in sentence-by-sentence to smooth out sections that might confuse my readers. On at least one pass, I’ll read the chapter aloud to catch any rough spots that may trip readers up. When I feel confident that I’ve made the chapter the best it can be on my own, I prepare for the next steps.

Now, these next two steps may take place simultaneously (or in the opposite order), depending on schedule and availability.

  1. Send the chapter to beta readers. For this project, I have beta readers who are fluids experts as well as ones who have no fluids background. The experts can check and critique my scientific details, and the non-experts can judge whether my explanations are easy to follow. To help my beta readers along and to ensure that I get actionable feedback, I send them a questionnaire with guiding questions. This way I can sort out science errors, points where the narrative is dragging, grammar problems, etc.
  2. Work with my illustrator on the figures for the chapter. Once I finish the chapter, I send it to my illustrator so that she can read it. Then we meet on Zoom to discuss what illustrations to make. We both come with a list of ideas and work our way through them together. Once we’ve agreed on a preliminary list, she’ll make and share sketches for each illustration. We meet again to discuss and tweak those ideas. When we’re both satisfied, she produces final, inked versions of each illustration.

At this point, I’ve received feedback on the chapters from both beta readers and my illustrator, so it’s time for more revision.

  1. Organize my feedback. Once all of my beta readers have sent in their reports, I go through them and re-organize the feedback by each chapter section. This means that I take Reader 1’s comments on Section A and put them in a new note alongside Readers 2 and 3’s comments on Section A. I do the same for each other section, too. This helps me ensure that I don’t overlook any feedback.
  2. Revise each section. Here I once again use a split-screen technique. As I revise a section, I keep the beta reader feedback for that section on one side of my screen and my chapter section on the other side. As I address a specific critique while writing, I strikethrough that comment on my feedback note. This, again, helps me make sure I don’t miss addressing any specific feedback.
  3. Integrate illustrations and format. Once I have finalized illustrations, I incorporate them into the revised text, as I format the whole chapter in a way that’s consistent with publishing industry expectations. I often give the chapter another read-through here to make sure that the formatting process didn’t accidentally result in any deletions or repetitions. I make sure that exponents got translated correctly, and I check URLs to see that they got turned into hyperlinks. I also run through the footnotes and citations to make sure they appear correctly.

At this point, I have a finished and polished chapter, right? Well… not really. I have a pretty solid first version for my queries. This is the stage where I start sharing the sample chapters with literary agents, and, as I get feedback from them, things change again. In fact, the whole vision for the book shifted at this point. That necessitated breaking my existing chapters into a totally new format. As part of this revision, I wrote several all-new sections, some of which took me all the way back to the research stage. I also took existing sections and re-wrote them as follows:

  1. Shift to shorter mini-chapters. During this shift, I was asked to significantly cut the word count of my existing chapter sections. The goal was a snappier, breezier read that still covered serious science. I did multiple passes with my existing text, cutting what I felt that I could but I wasn’t getting to the goal word count. So I took a more drastic step.
  2. Completely rewrite. Since I was struggling to revise my overly-full prose, I set myself a new challenge: completely rewrite each section. To do this, I once again set up a split-screen. I had the previous version of the chapter on one side and a blank page on the other. This set-up forced me to rewrite every sentence and paragraph from scratch, focusing on making each one clear and snappy. Because I had my previous version, I could easily follow the existing flow, but I could cut unnecessary topics as I went. I only allowed myself to directly copy-and-paste from the original version on occasion. When I finished, my new chapters were often 25%+ shorter than before.
  3. Revise again. Now that I’d managed my drastic reduction in word count, I went back through each section, much as I did in Step 4. I read to make sure they flowed. I read to make sure I still covered each necessary scientific concept. I read aloud to find awkward wording and places that needed smoothing or clarification. Then I reformatted (as in Step 9), added illustrations back in, and sent it for more feedback from the agent working with me.

At this point, the feedback and revision process repeats, though at a smaller level. As I get feedback and suggestions, I revise each chapter, polishing a little more each time. This is, more or less, where the sample chapters currently stand. They’re still getting changed regularly, but to a much smaller extent than before. I fully expect that as more people get their hands on the text, it will continue to morph — perhaps even as dramatically as in Steps 10 and 11.

Bottom Line

As you can see from my journey so far, the writing process is a long, iterative one. Well-written prose does not simply spring from one’s thoughts to the final page. Every writer’s process — if not every project’s process — differs, but I dare say you’ll see this iterative nature in any good final product.

I hope it’s been helpful to see a little of what goes on in my own writing process. If there are steps you’d like me to elaborate on in future posts, let me know!

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(Image credit: congerdesign)

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