Mastering the Writing Process: From Idea to Finished Product in 9 Steps

Discover the major steps of the writing process, why they matter, and how to personalize the process to produce your best work.

By Julie Tyler, Creator of StoryBold 

 

What is the writing process?

The writing process refers to a set of tasks for completing a single writing project, from idea to finished product. In your experience as a writer, you might complete a variety of projects, including:

  • Short works like essays, poems, or stories
  • Long works like novels, memoirs, or a self-help book

The writing process begins with that first moment of inspiration and goes all the way to the moment you make your work available to readers. Following a process means that you plan what to do first, second and so forth, so that each step logically follows the one before it and helps you complete the next step with greater ease. By mastering the writing process and tailoring it to every project, you can improve the quality of your work and love every minute of sitting down to write. 

Keep reading to discover 9 major steps of the writing process and how to apply them. 

What are the steps of the writing process? 

Each individual project might involve its own unique set of steps. For example, to write a personal essay, you might spend time reflecting on your own experiences, while you might begin a novel project by making a list of characters or jotting down the basic idea of the plot. 

In this section, I break down the entire process into nine individual steps, each offering value and fulfillment, so that you have the full picture of what's possible in your writing life. As you gain experience and agility, feel free to modify these writing process steps to suit your preferences.

NOTE: The tips and examples I included throughout most relate to the novel writing process, but you can apply the concepts and strategies to other types of writing. 

1. Inspiration 

I define this first step as the moment an idea for a writing project comes to you. This early in the writing process, the idea might start off very basic or unrefined. For example, you might have a general idea to write a romance novel based loosely on one of your past relationships. You know that the main character will be like you in some ways and the love interest will be like your former partner. Some memories surface of the time you spent together; you'll probably turn those into novel scenes.

In the inspiration stage, the idea isn't more specific than that. And that's perfectly fine. This step is still valuable, because:

  • It feels great! Getting inspired generates a lot of excitement and other positive emotions about what you can create. 
  • It helps you launch the project! Those good feelings are excellent fuel for the steps ahead. 

In terms of what you should be doing with the inspiration, start by writing the basic idea down, so that you have something visual to refer to. Then, spend some time experiencing the feeling of being inspired. Commit this feeling to memory, so that you can generate your own inspiration any time you want.  

2. Ideation 

In this step, you will build on the initial inspiration, by exploring more specific details of the project. Here, you might be getting to know your characters on a deeper level, deciding where the action takes place, and even thinking about how you want the story to end. As the initial idea becomes more concrete, you might also run it by a few trusted people, especially fellow writers or avid readers, to gather support and a variety of perspectives. Being able to describe what you want to write, in clear terms, is good practice for 

Remember, though, you're still in a very early stage of writing. Don't become too attached to any particular details. And don't rule anything out. Anything can change. In fact, that's the value of ideation:

  • You get to explore possibilities without judgment or self-censorship.
  • You can allow the project to evolve as you move through the writing process.
  • You can avoid making premature decisions about the project, decisions that are best reserved for later when you have more words on paper.

3. Formal discovery 

In this step, you are conducting more in-depth brainstorming to discover more possibilities and gain clarity on the next steps forward. Specific tasks might include:

  • Starting an outline for your project. What goes in it and in what order?
  • Getting to know your characters even more. What makes them tick?
  • Researching your topic. What more can you learn in order to write in an informed way?
  • Reading comparison titles. What's being published in your category?  

4. System setup

In this step, you are using everything you've put together from the inspiration, ideation, and formal discovery steps to build a system for completing your project. This system encompasses:

  • The tools you use, like writing software, productivity apps, or office supplies.
  • The writing schedule you keep, and your method of organizing project files. 
  • Your network of supporters.
  • The writing techniques you are learning to produce your best work. 

Specific tasks in this step might include: 

  • Joining a writing community.
  • Finding critique buddies or beta readers.
  • Hiring a writing coach or developmental editor.
  • Taking a writing course.

Take time to set up your project for success before venturing further in the writing process. That way, as your project grows, you can stay organized, build important writing skills, and gather actionable input from fellow writers. 

5. Experimentation

With a robust writing system in place, you can experiment with the different writing techniques you're learning to find out what works, what doesn't, what you like, and what you don't. Here are some novel writing experiments you could run:

  • Trying out more than one narrative point-of-view, such as first person or third person, to see which one best fits your project. 
  • Writing two or more versions of a particular scene, by changing a few elements, to see which one is more dynamic or has more bearing on the plot. 
  • Playing around with style and tone, to cultivate your unique voice.

The value of experimentation lies in the experience you gain and information you gather. When you diversify your writing experience, even within a given project, you have more skills to leverage and you can make more informed decisions about the project later on.   

6. Building volume 

This step is more often called drafting. When teaching about the writing process, I like to emphasize the volume aspect of drafting and the effort it takes to write the bulk of your project, scene after scene, chapter after chapter.

If you created an outline during the formal discovery step, listing each scene or plot point in the order they'll appear, then in the building volume step, you're expanding each scene or plot point in your list. This is effectively turning your outline into what will eventually be the reading experience--the plot unfolds and the characters go on a journey and evolve. 

Additional reasons why this step is important include: 

  • You follow through with the idea that inspired you in the first place.
  • You act on what you learned from experimentation and other prior steps. 
  • You implement any feedback you've received from others. 
  • You become skilled at handling large bodies of text.

7. Revision

Revision is a crucial step in the writing process, because it unlocks the value of your first draft and transforms it into your very best work. When performed correctly and thoroughly, revision is a complete overhaul of a first draft. It involves:

  • "Re-seeing" your project and bringing a fresh perspective to characters' actions, motives, and experiences.
  • Deleting what doesn't work and replacing it with what does.
  • Improving the plot.
  • Amplifying your voice.

By nature, revision is iterative, which means that you progress through different and distinct versions of your project, with each subsequent one improving upon the one before. For example, the first draft might be competent, in that you've taken characters on a full journey and settled on a narrative point-of-view. The second draft might strengthen the climax and resolution and even correct some plot holes, while a third draft might deepen characters' motives and make individual scenes more gripping.

And so forth. 

By the end, you've got a piece of writing that's pretty close to being ready. And you've raised your awareness of what good writing in your genre looks like.

Unfortunately, beginner writers tend to skimp on the deep and intensive work of revision and instead go from writing the first draft to "editing."  

Editing vs. Revising: These terms are often used interchangeably, but it's useful to understand the differences. Editing can range from simple proofreading to catch grammar and spelling errors to more substantive changes to the plot, characters, or voice. Revising strictly refers to major changes you make to a work after examining it for improvement opportunities. 

Revision tips: 

  • Enlist your writing coach, developmental editor, or critique group to help you seize opportunities to revise effectively. 
  • Transmute your creative energy into troubleshooting energy, all in service of writing your best work. 
  • Remember, anything can change! Never become so attached to early drafts that you miss out on the beauty and magic that revision can bring about. 
  • Prepare for revision to take longer, in some cases, than it took you to write your first draft. 
  • Avoid premature attempts at publication---either pitching to literary agents or self-publishing---before the project is actually ready for an audience. 

8. Fine-tuning

Once your major revisions are behind you, your next step is to fine-tune the project. Fine-tuning refers to final changes such as: 

  • Fixing minor plot inconsistencies. 
  • Improving a short section of dialogue. 
  • Finessing sentences.
  • Correcting spelling and grammar errors.

Although the majority of the work is behind you, fine-tuning is an important step because get you to squeeze a bit more value out of the project, correct glaring efforts, and give yourself peace-of-mind before launching. 

9. Project launch 

In this step, you'll be making your piece of writing available to readers. There are several ways to launch successfully, depending on your vision for publication.

  • Traditional publishing: If you want to go the traditional route and partner with a publishing house, you start the project launch process by seeking a literary agent or pitching directly to publishers that don't require agent representation. Your publisher will then coach you through the next steps leading up to the release date. 
  • Indie publishing: If you don't want to partner with a publishing house and have an entrepreneurial mindset, indie publishing, also called self-publishing, may be the best route for you. 

In both the traditional and indie routes, you'll need to take an active role in promoting your work and building relationships with readers. You can do this by building an author platform, including a website, social media, email newsletter, or other public presence. 

Besides getting your work into the hands of readers, the value of the project launch step is that you extend the reach of your work beyond your own desk, and potentially beyond your own lifespan.  

Why is the writing process worth going through?

As we've explored in this article, each individual stage of the writing process offers you many rewards, from being able to articulate your ideas more clearly to unlocking the full potential of a given project. Sometimes these steps can overlap and bleed into one another, but in my writing and teaching practices, I stress the value of each one. As you tailor the writing process to your needs, do consider spending time in step individually. That way, you can: 

  • Generate tools to have at your fingertips, such as project notes, character profiles, outlines, and research notes.
  • Build more skills to use over the course of your writing life. 
  • Enjoy the experience of each stage, without feeling anxious about the next one. 
  • Map out your writing journey, and then relax about it. 
  • Make the right decisions at the right point in the process. 

 


Writing process frequently asked questions (FAQ):

How long should I spend on each step of the writing process?

The length of time you spend on any one step varies from one step to another and from one writing project to another. Let's consider some examples:

  • The first two steps, Inspiration and Ideation, are typically the shortest, in that they precede the real work of planning the project and getting words on paper.
  • As we explored above, revising can last the longest, because you have a full draft you're responsible for.
  • I also advise that you give yourself more time than you think you need for project launch. Traditional publishing is a very slow game. It can often take months to find an agent, and then when your agent lands you a book deal, you'll likely see months of back-and-forth with the publisher before your book hits shelves.
  • Indie publishing, while often speedier, should not be slapdash. You'll need a solid go-to-market plan in order to reach your target audience and sell your book to them.

The most important thing is to be consistent in your efforts, flexible in your approach, open to new ideas, and committed to your goals.  

Do I have to go exactly in order?

The writing process doesn't have to be strictly linear, and for most of us, it's not. The steps I outlined above offer a general direction for you to follow. At any point in the process, you can always go back to an earlier step, such as pausing revision to go back and deepen a character. You might also find yourself in more than one step at the same time, such as promoting your book while you're still writing it. FOR BEST RESULTS: Modify the writing process to suit your needs and the specifics of every writing project, while still moving in the general direction I recommend. 

What's the most difficult part of the writing process? 

The writing process is full of challenges, no matter how much experience you have. What you find difficult will depend on how you like to work, your skills and experience, and the habits you've adopted. Some writers find revision and fine-tuning difficult, because these steps involve more "fixing" than getting that initial draft down. Conversely, other writers might find it more difficult to draft something from scratch, preferring instead to improve the pages they've already written. It's important to embrace the challenges and rewards of each step in the writing process. That way you can stay the course, finish your projects, and reach your full potential. 

 

Ready to write and finish your book? Let's connect!

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