Eight Stages of Writing #1: Preparation

Preparation: The Challenge

The challenge in this phase is to give preparation enough time, but no more than that.  Many beginning writers get stuck in this phase, unable to move on; others (me!) avoid it altogether and plunge right into working, which is just as debilitating.

Preparation: The Steps

Step 1: Create Time.

When are you going to work?  First thing in the morning? Last thing at night, after the day's work and the kids are in bed?  Your choice — but once you've decided, take out your diary and mark out the time blocks. They don't have to be big but they must be regular.  A 17th-century French Chancellor, D'Aguesseau, on noticing that his wife was habitually 10 minutes late coming down to dinner decided to make use of those 10 minutes (3650 minutes a year i.e. more than 60 hours).  The resulting three-volume work became  bestseller in 1681.

Step 2: Create Space

Where are you going to work?  It can be a study, a library, a coffee shop — it doesn't matter so long as you feel comfortable there and it provides the conditions you need to concentrate and produce.

Step 3: F-R-E-E-Writing

No surprises here if you're a regular reader, you'll know I recommend daily  F-R-E-E-Writing as an integral part of the writing life.  During one of your sessions, F-R-E-E-Write around the following question: “What do I need in order to write this work and write it well?”  Be open to all answers.

Step 4: Begin to Make Some Big Decisions

What genre or literary form will this work take?  Who is your reader?  What about voice?  If it is a story you are telling, who is your narrator?  Your protagonist?  Who else will inhabit the story?  What will definitely happen?What happens at the end. (I believe nobody should start writing a story until they have done enough preparation, planning and percolation to know the ending).   If it is nonfiction, what are the key points of your argument?  What illustrative material will you use?  How will you amass it?  What is the tone of the work? What is its conclusion (as important as endings for the storyteller)?

Step 5: Allow and Capture

Capture all ideas, odd images, snippets of conversation, passages in books etc. that “snag” at you during this preparation time.  Anything that has an energy that attracts your attention, even if you don't know why. Don't label anything unworthy of attention,  — no matter how fleeting, insubstantial or puzzling.  Allow it all — no matter how unconnected to what you want to write.  Make notes — no matter how silly or trivial.

You don't have to get anything into order or put sense or shape on your ideas.  That comes in the next – planning – phase.  For now, all you have to do is take it easy and have fun opening up to all.

Step 6: Get Organised.

Organisation is another word that writers hate, but anyone who produces writing of significance has an organisational structure and a discipline that works for them — no matter how chaotic things might appear to others.  Organisation creates a structure within which inspiration thrives.

So, at the same time as you are netting in snippets, get your writing house in order.  Ensure you have a method sufficient to capturing and storing all the materials you're going to need.  Easy enough for a short blog post but if you haven't thought it through, you canget quite overwhelmed when it comes to the support material for a book — notes, photocopies, clippings, F-R-E-E-Writing, diary entries, other books…

Whatever system you use, ensure you include a “you never know” file.  Every writer should have one.

Step 7: Find models & mentors

I am always stunned by writing students who say they don't read.  Whatever kind of writing you aspire to do,  however long you've been writing,  however good you think you are, always search out and carefully read other writers are good at what you aim to do.



Whenever you run into problems progressing a piece of writing, it's pretty certain that you have neglected some aspect of preparation.  Return to this phase, identify the steps — and take them.

Next Up, Stage 2: Percolation


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