Going with the Flow

The Writing Process

That “Writing is a process” might seem a statement of the obvious. Yet sometimes we forget it, creating difficulties and unfair expectations for ourselves.

All of us have known times when we have needed to get our ideas down on paper in a very short time. We do this when we write a letter or an e-mail.  And we did it when we wrote exams in high-school and university or in civil service applications. What we create at such times is a “first-and-final draft.” It probably is not our best writing, but under the circumstances it is the best we can do.

Basically, the writing process goes through a number of stages. For simplicity, we describe them here as five stages:

  • Brainstorming
  • Preparing
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • ‘Publishing’

This process applies to narrative writing—the kind of life stories we will be considering—as well as to the expository or persuasive writing you may often have done in school or at work. 


  • For some people, getting ideas for what to write is a great concern. Writers are asked all the time where they get their ideas. The truth is that most writers have an abundance of ideas, especially when talking about their own lives. Anyone with much experience will not have difficulty recalling formative events, activities and interactions that served as shaping influences.
  • In this course, the Writing Activities can serve as a ‘springboard,’ with different themes and hundreds of questions.
  • When we are thinking about our life experiences, we can look back through old photos; yearbooks; letters, diaries and journals (if you have kept them); newspapers, church or community organization records; reports that we or others have written. Any of these can get us started.
  • It’s helpful to listen to ourselves, when we are chatting with others. Often we tell stories about our past, stories we may have forgotten until prompted by the flow of conversation.
  • We can join together with family or friends and reminisce about past activities, accomplishments, and amusements.  We derive energy and pleasure from such memories. You may find it useful to carry a small pocket notebook and jot down some of these recollections; our memories, like dreams, often fade quickly.
  • We can use Freewriting to stimulate our creative mind. On the surface, freewriting is a mechanical exercise in which one simply writes nonstop for ten or more minutes, letting the mind serve up whatever it will on a particular topic or a variety of topics. The goal of this stream-of-consciousness approach is to recall, without reserve or editorial judgment, a large volume of experiences, thoughts and feelings. 


  • The Preparing stage includes not only any formal research we may do, but getting down in writing all the various memories and thoughts that come to us.
  • We can approach this analytically, using our critical mind to think about our past as systematically as we can: perhaps chronologically—organizing memories from earliest to most recent; or topically—noting different kinds of experiences that have shaped us; or perhaps in terms of significance—arranging events in our lives from the least to the largest impact.
  • In this frame of mind, we think about our Purpose: Do we aim to inform, explain, entertain, persuade our readers? And we think about our Audience: Will we write just for ourselves, for our family and friends, or also for people who do not know us? How much will out readers know about what we are discussing? How much background or backstory do we need to provide?
  • We also can approach this process of recall evocatively, almost like a meditation—quieting ourselves and letting our creative mind speak the wisdom of our subconscious. This can a very fruitful approach, especially early in the morning, when one still is close to the dream state.
  • In this Preparing stage, writers often create a “pre-draft” or “zero-draft.” The exact nature of this draft varies from writer to writer, but for most it is a collection of core ideas or key scenes. It may start as a catch-all file, a gathering together in one place our many notes. Then, in time, we organize it for easy reference when we are writing our first full draft. 


  • The famous French short-story writer Guy de Maupassant said that the hardest part of writing is “getting black on white.” Certainly, it can be a challenge to “get it out and get it down.” This Drafting stage is when people complain of “Writer’s Block.” Often we would rather talk about writing than do it and we may find clever ways to procrastinate.
  • Our “Pre-Draft” or “Zero Draft” can be very helpful in this stage, because it already gives us a start. We are not left staring at a blank page or a white computer screen. We have all those notes and some of them now will serve us well.
  • Dorothea Brandes, in her classic guide Becoming a Writer (1934), describeda  helpful strategy she called “keeping your own counsel.” The writer avoids talking with anyone about the story or article. “…(Y)our unconscious self….will not care whether the words you use are written down or talked to the world at large” (51).  The intent of keeping one’s own counsel is to allow our writing energy to build up like steam in a pressure cooker and then render a savoury flow of memories. 
  • During the Drafting stage, it helps not to worry unduly about correctness. Concerns with spelling, punctuation and fine-tuned grammar can wait. At this stage, we need to let our creative mind take the lead and keep our critical brain in reserve for the Revising stage.
  • Perhaps our best strategy for “getting black on white” is to treat our initial draft like the familiar “first-and-final draft.” We just plunge in, writing down our words, however they come. 


  • We create our second and any subsequent drafts in the Revising stage.
  • If possible, we give ourselves some time between drafts so we can return to what we are writing with detachment and a fresh perspective. Sometimes our second draft has just minor, cosmetic changes, but ideally it is a re-visioning that brings new depth or breadth to the content.
  • At this point, it can be helpful to invite others to read and respond. In the school classroom, this additional response is called ‘Peer Feedback.’ Our aim now is to discern where our draft is not clear, where it needs more background or development, where the expression or transitions may be awkward, and any place where the reader loses interest. It also is helpful to ask what the reader especially likes, which aspects of our piece should not be changed? 
  • Finally comes copy-editing and proofreading, at least if the draft is intended for people besides ourselves. It’s at this stage we concern ourselves with the standard writing conventions: grammar, spelling, and punctuation. One helpful practice is to read our entire piece aloud, noting in particular any place we falter or stumble. Likely we will discover missing words and awkward phrasings or sentences. 
  • In our handling of language mechanics and usage, we aim to be as self-directed as we can. Almost any used bookstore sells old grammar texts at rock-bottom prices. They can be useful tools. Even better, we can find on-line an abundance of copy-editing guidance (Search for Online Writing Labs, or OWLs, and you will locate a wealth of guidance that colleges and universities provide without charge to students and the public).
  • Of course, we seek assistance in many other areas of our life and there is no shame in doing so with our writing. You may know a confident writer who can help you with both the content and copy editing. Alternately, you could hire a skilled university student or even a professional copy-editor to guide you at this stage.


  • The publishing stage in our writing process can be as simple as a final presentation—a letter or document that we share with someone else.
  • Sooner or later, however, we may wish to share our work in a more finished form. A hand-crafted production with a limited number of copies makes a memorable keepsake for friends, family and descendants. 

     We also are fortunate now to have many other publishing options available. 

  • If you deem your completed manuscript to be of sufficient quality and interest, you might contacting a literary agent or professional publisher to discern their interest in commercial publication;
  • Services such as Shutterfly or Blurb allow us to do much of the graphic design work on our home computers and then print them with professional quality.
  • Local digital print companies often print personal books for their customers (small runs, less than 300; larger runs, more than 300).

That is a quick tour of ‘the Writing Process.’ The process way of thinking underlies most of the Writing Activities suggested in this course. Several related points should be considered.

First, while this model presents the process in linear terms—one step following another—our writing is not always straightforward. Often it is messy and iterative. We might be in the middle of our Drafting, for example, and find that we need to go back to the Preparing stage or even to Brainstorming.  The main point to note is that our writing usually is not a one-shot, “first-and-final” effort. It is natural for us to come back time and again to a piece we are writing, adding memories or changing details, doing our best to tell our story well and to articulate our thoughts clearly. 

Secondly, the writing process may vary with each writer and sometimes with the same writer on different pieces. For a long time, the prevailing approach to writing instruction was Think-Write. In his innovative text Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow characterized the Think-Write approach as follows: “First you figure out your meaning, then you put it into language” (14). Following this two-step approach, writers were advised to “make a plan; use an outline; begin writing only afterward.”

Though some proponents of Think-Write promote it with great conviction and apparent authority, it can be bad advice. There may be a rare few people who can use their critical skills to distill exactly what they wish to say and then switch effortlessly to the creative mode and write it down. For many of us, however, that approach does not work well. We may be better advised to use a different approach, one I call “Speak-Write” (also known as “Talk-Write”).

Most of us do not know exactly what we are going to say when we begin a sentence. Yet hundreds of times a day in our conversations, we find our way to the end of our improvised sentences. Our writing, too, can be like that. We can plunge in, not knowing exactly what we intend to say and then find our way forward. “…(T)hink of writing as an organic, developmental process,” Peter Elbow suggests, “in which you start writing at the very beginning—before you know your meaning at all—and encourage your words gradually to change and evolve….Meaning is not what you start with but what you end up with” (15). 

The “Think / Write” approach is not entirely wrong; it does reflect the practice of experienced, highly skilled writers. It is a faster, more efficient approach and, in time, one may move toward it. But it is not where we start, and if we treat it as the only approach, we possibly will not start. As a teacher, I am a long-time advocate of talking our way into writing, bringing to it all the pleasure and fun that we associate with a lively conversation. Of course, like most conversation, this Speak-Write approach to writing tends to be messier and less direct. Yet it can serve us well, especially during the Drafting stage.

Finally, it may help to distinguish between two kinds of writer. Sometimes they are called the “plotters” and the “pantsers” (seat-of-the-pantsers). Perhaps kinder terms are those used by Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch: “master planners” and “emergent writers.” Whatever words we use for the distinction, they reflect significantly different approaches.  

When composing a story, master planners aim to know the plot in advance and plan with care the details of their characters and settings. They are apt to spend considerable time in the Preparation stage of the writing process. Emergent writers, by contrast, tend to jump into their telling of a story, figuring out their plots, characters and settings as they go along. They likely will invest more time and energy in the Drafting stage. 

Though a majority of writers tend to be in the Emergent group, one approach is not superior to the other; it simply reflects the writer’s temperament. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses, and with practice one might blend the most beneficial aspects of the two, sometimes seeking the clear vision of advance planning, other times relishing the energy and spontaneity of winging it.

At the outset of a writing project, we might wish to think of the process like a river— straight, strong and wide, flowing from one place to another without obstruction. Instead, it more often appears like a meandering stream, deep here, shallow there, with quiet pools and swirling back eddies, wending its way toward a final destination. As Shakespeare said (in Julius Caesar), if we are to succeed, we must “take the current as it serves.”