A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing

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Although writing, a creative act, is an art, the many steps it is a part of transforms it into a process, and capturing words on paper is only one of them. Compare it, for a moment, to cooking a mid-summer dinner for ten people you invite to your home.

Basting the roast may initially seem the most important part of the event, but the dinner party can be considered a process consisting of several steps, including arriving at the original idea to hold it, the selection of its date and time, the grocery-listing of the items to be purchased in the supermarket, the cleaning of the house, the polishing of the silver, the requesting that the gardener cut the lawn that every morning, and the arrival of the first guests, all of which occur before the cooking itself even begins, the main and most important aspect. After they leave, the dishes, of course, will have to be washed, the leftovers must be stored in the refrigerator, and the dining room may have to be tidied up.

Writing, similarly, is an integral part of a larger process, especially if you intend to produce a longer piece, such as a novella or a how-to book. In fact, it can be considered a seven-part process, entailing the following steps:

1). Inspiration, Idea, and Need

2). Genre and Purpose

3). Research and Facts

4). Organization, Preparation, and Outline

5). Writing the First Draft

6). Revision and Subsequent Drafts

7). Editing

These, not surprisingly, provide the subdivisions of this article and all of its steps were employed in writing it.

Inspiration, Idea, and Need:

As "creator," the spark for any literary endeavor, whether it be a four-line poem or a significant volume concerning World War II, must come from the writer. But exactly what causes it may be as indeterminable as the meaning of life.

Ideas can, nevertheless, originate from two realms-the external one and the internal one.

In the former case, there is no end to the stimuli that generate them, including, but hardly restricted to, other written stories, articles, or poems, television shows, conversations, paintings, music, people, a park scene, the sight of your dog, the sky, the clouds, a color, a scent, or a sunset. In many cases, they may begin as fragments, leading to thoughts, memories, or feelings the mind pieces together and the person, for reasons not always within his conscious awareness, must capture, process, express, or complete.

This, to a degree, becomes the second realm of ideas-the internal one. A thought, feeling, sensation, or recollection may become inadvertently jarred and ignite the spark, which, connecting with others, takes mental form as an idea for a piece of writing. The late Dr. Wayne Dyer, a noted psychologist, called this "inspiration," which he divided into the two words of "in spirit." Something touches a person's soul and gives rise to the need to explore, express, and complete it in artistic form-in this case, of course, the literary one.

Finally, idea origins, particularly for nonfiction works, can emanate from need. If the author himself has failed to locate suitable material about a particular subject for his own research, this lack may alert him to the glaring gap in the supply and prompt his own decision to undertake the project to fill it.

Need, however, not only originates from searching, but, even in the case where there are a respectable number of works in the field, new information or a fresh approach to the subject can be applied.

What is most important for nonfiction authors, however, is that they have the credentials to be considered credible sources on the subject. In the cast of World War II, they may need to have a university degree in history, be historians themselves, be history professors, and/or have had involvement in the war.

There is one almost-guaranteed method of turning ideas and inspiration for writing off-namely, either forcing them to materialize or deliberately seeking them. Since creativity requires a state of being, these methods only oppose it.

Genre and Purpose:

After an idea has initiated momentum toward writing, you need to determine the genre, purpose, intended readership, and projected length of your project.

Genres, or categories of writing, encompass many, including nonfiction, memoir, autobiography, biography, creative nonfiction, magazine and newspaper articles, reports, dissertations, flash fiction, short fiction, long fiction (novels), poetry, and even hybrid and experimental types.

There are two fundamental purposes of writing. The first entails informing or entertaining, and the second involves a philosophy expressed as "make the known different and the different known." In the second dichotomy, the "known different" aspect entails approaching and discussing a subject or topic that has been extensively covered in a new way so that it does not read like a repeat of the others, while the "different known" approach strives to reveal or report something unique, such as the discovery of a new planet or a pocket of primitive people that has remained hidden, and therefore does not require any overly creative treatment, since its very nature will provide the interest.

Even generic genres, such as nonfiction, may need to have their purposes defined. Nonfiction itself can encompass history books, biographies, cookbooks, textbooks, and how-to works, such as how to lose five pounds per week and stay healthy.

Tantamount to these determinations is anticipated length and readership. While poems may only run a few lines and full-length books may exceed 250 pages, there is still latitude between the two. In the case of a short story or an article, the author needs to ask himself if he can tell the tale or cover the topic in a single page or will be need ten or more to do so.

Readership hinges upon purpose. If you intend to capture your memoirs for your own satisfaction, readership will most likely only include a few friends and family members, and you can print as many copies of our work as you need from your computer. If, on the other hand, you envision publication via electronic or traditional-print means (or even both with the advent of eBooks), then it will include the audience and demographics those methods reach. An article about finances, for instance, will be applicable to the business world, while one concerning nursery schools will appeal to young mothers. A textbook would target high schools and colleges.

Research and Facts:

Nonfiction works, regardless of length, hinge upon research and fact-gathering for their accuracy and even a single reader-spotted error will immediately erode the author's credibility.

"Keep in mind that there's a lot more to 'writing' than running your pencil across the paper or tapping away on your computer keyboard," according to Herbert E. and Jill M. Meyer in their book, "How to Write" (Storm King Press, 1986, pp. 26-27). "You must devote much of your effort to collecting the material you will need (for) your words and... your sentences. And this is more of a physical than a mental chore."

The research phase of writing, which can entail pouring through records, documents, books, articles, and internet entries, conducting interviews, and even immersing yourself in personal experiences, can often demand more time and effort than the actual writing phase.

But the author's responsibility is not to be underestimated.

"Keep in mind that when you write for someone-no matter what you write, no matter what you write it for-you become your reader's eyes, ears, legs, and even intellect," continue the Meyers (ibid, pp. 28-29). "In a very real sense, you are acting as an extension of your readers. So do the kind of job you would want someone else to do for you."

While the need for accurate research may not be questioned if you write nonfiction, its necessity for fiction should also not be discounted, especially if you create fictional characters who live or work in factual settings. If you state that Zoe and Patrick had their first date in Giovanni's Trattoria on Calloway Street in a real town in Maine, there will likely be at least one reader from that very location who knows that neither the restaurant nor the street exist.

Similarly, if you write that Mr. Fitzgibbons was tired when his 727 touched down in Paris after an eight-hour flight from New York, aviation and airline readers will know that this aircraft type does not have the range capability to cross the Atlantic.

Organization, Preparation, and Outline:

Organization, preparation, and the creation of an outline can be considered the last steps taken before the actual writing process begins. Consider the outline the directions jotted down before you get in the car and embark on the journey. It can serve four purposes.

1). It defines the direction and destination of the piece.

2). It lists the steps (or points to be made) to get there.

3). It becomes the road map the author follows, minimizing or entirely eliminating unnecessary deviations unless actual writing dictates their need.

4). It serves as the skeletal framework on which the "flesh" of words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages is ultimately hung during the writing step.

Coupled with the outline is the author's ability to synopsize the theme, story, or purpose of his intended work. The theme of this article, for example, can be stated as "Writing in any genre and in any length is a process that entails seven steps from idea to polished piece."

If writing can be compared to the architectural process, then its planning and outline can be considered its design stage and its writing its actual construction.

Writing the First Draft:

If writing were compared to architecture, then its first four steps could be considered the planning, surveying, material purchasing, and blueprint drafting ones, while writing parallels the actual building, beginning with the initial brick that serves as the structure's cornerstone. It is here that the idea takes literary form and expression and reflects the "blueprint" image the author had in his mind from inception.

Regardless of its quality, it is from this initial draft that all subsequent ones, modified by revision, will be built, leading to the final or finished one.

"In essence, you write a first draft by expanding, beefing up, and fleshing out your outline... ," according to the Meyers (ibid, p. 51). "This is more (of) a construction job than it is a design job. So it's more a matter of effort than inspiration."

The previous steps required thinking and planning. This one requires actual working (writing).

Those first words and the first draft to which they lead are not necessarily easy, however.

"Writing a first draft is like trying to build a house in a strong wind," William Faulkner once commented. Echoing this sentiment, Stephen King wrote, "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right-as right as you can, anyway-it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it." Another anonymous author comically quipped that the steps required to writing a first draft are 1). "Sit down" and 2). "Write," with the first being optional.

While this may lack instruction and insight, there is little else an author can do, if he wishes to faithfully follow his outline, than take an initial stab at the paper with his pen and leave the imprints of words on it. Get it down and capture it. Proper polish can come later.

Although dissatisfaction can theoretically prompt the writing of a new first draft and the discard of the original, it is unlikely.

"... As a general rule, by the time you've written a first draft, you've expended too much time and intellectual energy simply to throw out what you've done and start all over again from scratch... ," advise the Meyers (ibid, p. 37). "In other words, shortcomings and mistakes in the execution of a first draft can be overcome and repaired; that's precisely what second, third, fourth, and even tenth drafts are for."

Revision and Subsequent Drafts:

Revision is the means by which additions, deletions, and/or amendments improve the text and result in the subsequent drafts that reflect them.

"Polishing your product requires a combination of judgment and applied techniques," according to the Meyers (ibid, p. 84). "Your objective is to smooth out the rough edges, fill in the cracks, bolster weak sections, and generally balance the whole product so that your reader will find it easy to absorb your information and, ultimately, your point."

Revision entails both larger and smaller focuses.

In the former case, the author needs to determine how clearly and accurately his piece matches and fulfills its initial purpose. How precisely does it follow the outline which served as its structure? Is it clear, logical, and able to convey its points, meeting its objective? Does it begin with a compelling hook? Are any major changes in plot, setting, scene, character, event, and timing necessary?

In the latter case, the author needs to pay attention to grammar, syntax, and writing style, determining if there is any repetition, if smooth transitions between words and sentences occur, if strong, tight verbs have been used, and if parts can be considered repetitious or too wordy.

The revision process can be enhanced by setting the work aside for a few days or even weeks before you reread it, reading it aloud, and/or having someone else read it aloud for you. As a step in the overall process, it requires both art and mechanics.

When purpose, intent, style, structure, content, character, plot, point, scene, setting, and dialogue combine to produce an effective literary work, the final draft can be considered to have been reached.


Although editing may sound like another word for revising, it is, in fact, a mechanical process applied to the final draft when no other changes are needed or anticipated and identifies errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation. The phrase "'Howard you.' asked, Veronica?" for example, would require four edits, resulting in the correct "'How are you?' asked Veronica," one in spelling and three in punctuation.

Article Sources

Meyer, Herbert E, and Jill M. "How to Write." Washington, DC: Storm King Press, 1986.