Inefficiency and The Writing Process

Image of sculpture head

I approached this essay a few ways. The first was by lying. I wrote a paragraph about going through rational and efficient stages– planning, outlining, writing, revising– and how my ideas morph miraculously and consistently into the written word. The second was by apologizing. Even as I wrote this, having rode roughshod over my own characterization of how I compose a paper, I realized that I might not have a writing process. Or, put differently, I realized that calling what I do a process– the way I use a Google doc to aimlessly wander through my mind– is probably too generous. The reality is that there are few tasks I approach in a less efficient or clear-cut way than the essay. I’ve rescinded that apology, and I’ve decided that it is a process (after all, it’s produced something, regardless of its quality). All of the inefficiencies– the verbal meandering, the pointless diversions– are part of the process that culminates in a final product. And my writing wouldn’t be the same without them.

I start my process for every paper by acknowledging, despite my resistance, that I’m not Michelangelo. That’s probably the greatest epiphany I’ve had about writing. While other Renaissance sculptors used cast models before marking where to cut on a slab of marble, Michelangelo worked freehand. He saw his figures in the marble and worked to carve them out. And so his statues emerged, as Vasari wrote, like they were “surfacing from a pool of water.” I think a lot of writers see themselves as Michelangelos, about to make a masterpiece on the first try. We sit before a blank page, chisel in hand, hesitating on every word, fearing imperfection. I don’t exactly reject the analogy, but I reject the comparison between a slab of marble and a piece of paper. A writer needs an imperfect model to mold into a final product. A writer’s marble slab isn’t a blank page, it’s a first draft. To me, this is liberating.

“I think a lot of writers see themselves as Michelangelos, about to make a masterpiece on the first try.”

So when I have an idea about what I want to write, I just write. This leads to my first of many inefficiencies: I have never been capable of outlining. I’ve tried before to sketch my ideas in advance, but I can seldom stay loyal to it. I think writing and outline are fundamentally different processes. When I begin to actually type an essay, putting ideas on a page tends to lure me in directions that I hadn’t conceptualized. When I receive a prompt, I first write a few sentences that form the core of what I want to say. Then I turn to the trickier question of how to say it. For me, this involves sitting at my computer and typing until I feel satisfied that my idea lies somewhere on the page. My second writing inefficiency is that I’m a dogged rereader. Every sentence or two, my eyes creep back to the top of a paragraph, or sometimes the top of the page, to see how it’s fitting together. Like writing and outlining, I think writing and reading are different processes, and in my experience it’s only through the latter that I realize how uninteresting something sounds. It also gives me a constant sense of place– where I am, where I’m going, and how my ideas have accumulated. At the end of a paragraph I go back and make a series of deletions or menial changes (like switching the phrase “negative edits” after remembering that the word “deletions” exists).

Stemming from this is my third inefficiency: double-tapping the enter key and starting a new section whenever I draw a blank. I leave the job of connecting them for later, and sometimes I never do. I’ve written first drafts double the size of my final, including lengthy diversions that I eventually deleted. But I think the process, despite its inefficiency, is necessary for good writing. I try to let all ideas, all approaches to a prompt, play a role in my paper. Some, I discover, are better in my head than on the page. One thing I don’t let myself do on a first draft is check the word count. If I rush to close my draft before its ideas are actually fleshed out, my essay reads like I was played off the stage before my speech was over.

“A writer’s marble slab isn’t a blank page, it’s a first draft. To me, this is liberating.”

When my first draft is done, I have a roadmap of what I want to say, a block of marble that I can chisel. First I look at the little things I can correct– all the egregious things I did with the English language. Then I do something admittedly strange: I write an outline of how I had organized my thoughts in the draft, and how I should have. For me, it takes the completion of a work to understand how each sentence or paragraph functions as a part of the whole. Reduction and reorganization is the part of the writing process where I can really start to chisel my piece of marble, with a rough understanding of the essay having already revealed itself.

When it comes to cutting, I take Orwell’s advice to cut any word, sentence, or paragraph that doesn’t strengthen a piece of writing. More holistically, though, the editing process is really the art of seeing alternatives. I find myself going through my writing deliberately omitting words and sentences, and asking myself, Is it clearer and more concise without this? I swap paragraphs, rearrange what I have top to bottom, and pursue all the alternatives I can see– until any additional changes would, in my opinion, be detrimental.

And that, in sum, is my process. It’s a collection of inefficiencies that I’m still unable to escape, but which I’ve come to embrace. For me, organizing, writing, editing, and rereading don’t happen in phases; they all work concurrently. It’s a messy process that takes a lot of time, but the time, to me, is not wasted. Once I’m able to spend enough of it navigating around the idea, meandering in my mind, and building my block of marble, I can carve something out of it, chisel it down to an imperfect but acceptable product, until I’m finally, eventually, ready to type my name proudly and bring the process to a close.

Starting at the Center

Process DrawingsEvery year, new writing consultants in the WRC training course are asked to draw their writing process. It’s an interesting exercise in understanding the many ways writers approach writing. When I was in the course, this exercise also prompted me to actively reflect on my own process.

In comparing our drawings of the writing process, we came to several conclusions. Generally,  useful phases of the process include pre-writing, revision, and editing. The process does not always flow neatly in that order, however. Sometimes, we might be in the revision phase of a writing assignment and temporarily revert back to the drafting phase, because we realize that what we thought we were saying was not actually what we said. Sometimes, there are multiple documents saved on our laptops, such as “Assignment,” “Assignment Final,” and “Assignment FINAL Final.” Writing is not linear, and the multi-directional arrows in our diagrams of the writing process reflect its messiness.

Dr. Sharon Zuber, who was director of the Writing Resources Center at the time, told us “writing is thinking.” I have come to realize that she is right. In articulating an argument by compiling evidence, analyses, and ideas, writing is a way of making sense of what we have learned. This interpretation can apply to any type of writing: academic writing, creative writing, and even journaling.

When approaching a writing assignment, sometimes the struggle lies in getting started. Maybe it’s hard to determine a thesis, or know what to include in the introduction, leaving us with an intimidating blinking cursor on an empty white page. As a consultant, I have been able to observe many different people in the process of writing, and I realize that I am not alone in struggling with starting a paper. Logically, I have come to understand that the writing process is not linear. However, approaching the writing process in a nonlinear manner is more difficult to put into practice.

In learning how to get started, I have found that it is useful sometimes to start from the center. Yes, starting from the center can mean coming to the Writing Resources Center with assignments for a second pair of eyes at any phase during the writing process. But it also means cranking out the body paragraph you already know how to write. Starting from the middle is okay—as long as you later fix your introduction, thesis, and conclusion to match. Consider the concept of a “working thesis.” If you have an idea of what you want to argue, getting caught up in the sentence-level details too early can get in the way. I have noticed that obsessing over details like word choice distracts me from the bigger picture. It can be helpful to jot down anything that can act as a thesis or argument to structure your paper, and focus on refining your argument later on. Sometimes, it is easier to find that specific word when your argument becomes more cohesive as you continue writing your paper.

Some of the hesitance in starting from the center may stem from a fear of confusing the reader by disrupting the flow of the paper. Though it is important to consider the audience, writing as a process is not neat and orderly. By giving yourself enough time to edit your draft and make sure it is cohesive, you allow yourself space to get your thoughts out and worry about the overall cohesiveness and flow of the paper later. Sometimes, what may have been the first body paragraph in the outline becomes the third body paragraph in the final paper.

To-do lists that break the project into small, manageable steps can give you a clear path to follow. But when you are feeling stuck, allow yourself to succumb to the mess that is thinking and that is writing. It might be just what you need!

I Have Writing Anxiety: Here’s How the WRC Helped Me

Nothing I learned as a tutor-in-training prepared me for just how ecstatic consulting with a tutor would make me feel. When I was a first-time consultee, I knew to anticipate valuable, perhaps even radical progress; I did not expect the elation that might accompany it. In retrospect, of course, my exhilaration makes perfect sense: in just over thirty minutes with my consultant, Bianca, we accomplished what would have taken countless hours and crippling amounts of stress and self-doubt on my own. Typically, my anxieties about committing to ideas and sharing my work prevent me from starting to write or asking for help. Making an appointment and working with a consultant allowed me to circumvent these obstacles, freeing my ideas and empowering me to challenge the way I approach the writing process. 

Simply making the appointment helped jump-start my writing process. The appointment date set a deadline ahead of the real one, leading me to prepare material far sooner than I would have otherwise. To avoid the possibility of blanking in the middle of the session, I free-wrote to get as much relevant information out of my head and onto paper as possible. My prep generated far more material than I knew I had. Here, my fear of embarrassing myself when sharing my ideas drastically outweighed my reluctance to begin writing. Ironically, my anxiety helped bypass itself. At the same time, I felt more comfortable writing freely because there was no grade accompanying this deadline. So, while I still maintained anxiety about both my writing and the appointment, even the concept of participating in a consultation began to lessen my anxiety’s effect. 

My seasoned tutor further alleviated my fears, first by skillfully establishing a friendly, open, and safe environment. I arrived at the appointment a bundle of tension and nerves; all of that stress began to melt away as soon as Bianca began to work her magic. She created a comfortable environment with such dexterity that I did not realize she was doing so until well after it had fully materialized. She built rapport through a smooth combination of small talk and conversation. Even this early in the consultation, Bianca assumed the part of the active listener, responding in a way that assured me that if she would listen with care to my thoughts about the weather, she would listen to my concerns about content relevance. Her relaxed demeanor persuaded me I had nothing to worry about. Bianca made it clear that she intended to help as a competent, knowledgeable friend rather than judge as a teacher; in doing so, she assuaged much of my anxiety about showing her my work.

Bianca dealt with my anxiety about committing to ideas by facilitating a conversation adapted to my personality. From the start of our work, she tailored her strategies to my needs by asking what would help me best. We began with writing an outline: I would talk through ideas and she would write them down. This exercise required me to confront my tendency to overthink before I spoke. She noticed this tendency quickly and adopted new strategies to push me through it. Rather than sit in silence while I reached for a thought, Bianca made the brainstorming a conversation. If I could not find the idea I was looking for, she would offer a possibility as a jumping-off point. If I seemed reluctant to express an idea, she would help me phrase it and offer validation. This steady stream of encouragement and facilitation slowly but surely bypassed my anxiety, and I began to trust my instincts more. Thinking out loud made the burden of committing to an idea a shared one, curtailing my anxiety. This conversation concluded with the creation of my thesis statement: alone, I would have agonized over the sentence for hours; with Bianca, it took five minutes. 

Never before have I so easily surmounted my self-doubt in writing, and that is a testament to just how valuable the WRC and its staff can be. I know how difficult it can be to ask for help, but, as the saying goes: two heads are better than one. Sometimes, a friendly face and some time to talk through your work can make all the difference. As a fully-trained tutor now, I continue to book more WRC consultations myself. With all the joy and success they have brought me, I would be a fool not to do so.