Iceberg Ahead! Understanding the Writing Process, Part 1

There are many people out there who think because they can speak and read that they can write. They think of writing as just putting pen to paper or fingers to keys.

That’s just not true.

Writing is a complex process requiring many skills. This post is part of a series running on two blogs. My husband Bill will tackle the first half of the equations, the skills one needs to write professionally, on his blog, THE OCD DIARIES. Bill has been a journalist since I met him nearly 20 years ago. He started at our college’s paper, moved on to community newspapers, and now writes about security for CSO Online. He’s also a confessed sufferer of OCD, depression, and addiction, which he writes about on THE OCD DIARIES. Writing isn’t just his job, it’s his lifeline to mental health and stability.

I’ll tackle the second half of the equation here: the process of writing.

Writing Is an Iceberg

What most people think of as writing is the clichéd tip of the iceberg. Readers see the words that you’ve put down floating on top of the water, glistening in the sun. Like tourists on a cruise, they ooo and ahh over your sparkling words.

But like that iceberg, there’s more to your words than what readers see. The rest of the writing process is just below the surface. Let’s start at the base of the iceberg and work our way up.

1. Bam! You get an idea.

You’re a writer, and your job is to communicate something to your readers. Maybe you get an assignment, maybe you have a story you just have to tell. Either way, you have to have an idea. It swirls around your brain, demanding to be let out.

You might quickly scribble the idea down on the inside of a cold medicine box in the front seat of your car (Bill). You might type it up quickly in an office app on your smartphone (me). You might even do what Natalie Goldberg suggests in Writing Down the Bones: let it sit in the “fertile soil” of your brain, “composting” until your idea is ready to “bloom.”

2. Brainstorm your idea.

So you have this idea. What are you going to do about it? That’s the next step: brainstorming, prewriting, gathering, call it what you will, it’s all about putting everything you know about your idea onto paper.

What do you have to say about your idea? Who will you say it to? What else do you need to know to say what you want? You’re starting to plan what you want to say and who you want to say it to. Check out Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab for more questions to help you define your audience and the scope of your idea.

3. Research and develop your idea.

At this point you should have a fair idea of what you want to write about, what you know about it, and who your audience is. Now it’s time to build on your knowledge. What else do you need to know to grow that iceberg toward the surface?

For example, for this post I knew the steps I use for writing, but I wanted to know how other writers approached the process. I looked to other writers who write or talk about writing. I took lots of notes about the writing process as understood by others. Most of what I learned is still in my notes, building on the base of the iceberg I’m creating. Some of it will end up above the water, where you can see it shimmer in the sunlight, such as this thought from columnist John Clayton: “It’s better to over-research and write from abundance. Then you can leave out the less-interesting stuff.”

Even if everything you research doesn’t end up in the final product, what you learn will affect what you have to say.

But what if you’re writing fiction and don’t need to chase down facts for the story? Don’t worry, you’re researching all the time. Everything you experience will go into your writing. You’ll develop characters by watching other people. You’ll develop your story by reading other people’s stories. This is what people mean when they say, “Write what you know.” Oh, and you’ll do lots of writing exercises and drafts to get your “research” down on paper.

Next week, I’ll continue describing the writing process as I know it. Until then, head over to THE OCD DIARIES to find out what kind of skills you need for the first three steps in this process.

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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