Focusing on my writing process is paying off

It's been close to a month since I decided to get serious about my writing and set a goal for myself of publishing four ebooks in the next 12 months. So how is it going?

Although it's hard to tell on a day-to-day basis, when I look back at the past month it's clear I'm making huge strides.

I've spent a lot of time and effort so far focusing on my writing process. I'm convinced that my old writing process was holding me back.

It's hard to even call it a process, as I didn't really have a systematic approach. I'd usually start by brainstorming a bunch of thoughts into some document, along with a ton of questions. Then I'd start doing research and reading. That step lasted until I got bored or hit some difficult concepts, and then I'd decide it was time to write. But everyone knows you're supposed to outline before you write, so I'd pick away at a few bullet points in an outline document, half-heartedly, knowing full well that I never intended to use the outline. I'd get bored with that quickly, and decide that it was time to start writing. I'd plunge headlong into the writing, jumping around and writing the easy parts first.

And at some point I'd get stuck. I'd hit a wall and not know why, or what I needed to do to fix it. At this point, Resistance would kick in with a vengeance. I'd do anything to avoid working on my project, or to convince myself that I was working on my project while I was really avoiding it (I'm marketing! Really!). Eventually, something else would come along and I'd drop it with a sense of vague frustration and guilt.

This past month has been different, and in a lot of ways, it's been uncomfortable. I'm working on a book about writing Sublime Text plugins, and my goal is to publish it by the end of November. That would be about two months from the date when I decided to tackle the four-books-in-a-year commitment, but I already had a one-month head start with this one. So it'll take about 90 days total if I meet my deadline.

I spent about four weeks on solid research, which consisted of reading the few available blog posts on the topic, studying the Sublime Text API documentation, then diving in and writing a plugin from scratch. I averaged about three 25-minute pomodoros per day working on the plugin, and it took approximately one month to complete. While I worked I took extensive notes, and I also put some thought into making my version control commit messages meaningful.

After burning a third of my allotted time on research, it was time to move into outlining. This is where I hit my first major difficulty. I had a vague idea that I was going to tell the story of how I wrote this plugin, but I had a lot of conceptual material to cover as well. How was I going to work that in?

I overcame this hurdle by realizing that I'm not the first person in the world to write a technical book or outline a talk on a technical topic. I collected some example outlines and discovered a common organizational structure that fit my developing book perfectly.

That got me unstuck for a while, and I sketched out a rough outline of my entire book. It was several printed pages long, and I was feeling good about things. Time to start writing!

Another change I'm making, in addition to treating the outlining process seriously, is writing a crappy first draft of the entire book before I try to edit any of it. When I started writing, I was expecting that I'd get into a flow, since I was working from an outline. But that didn't happen at all. Instead, it was horrifically painful. I only managed to eek out a couple of hundred words a day for the first few days. But I stuck with it, and one day things started clicking. My writing speed jumped up to more than 900 words an hour–a huge improvement from the 230 word rate I'd measured just a few weeks ago.

It's not really a fair comparison, since I had offloaded most of the thinking and planning to other phases of the writing process. Those are the difficult tasks, it turns out. Putting words on the screen isn't the hardest part, although it feels like that's the sticking point if you're trying to do multiple stages at once.

I was exhilarated–it felt great to write that fast and see my word count jump by more than 1,000 words per day. And it stuck. I was able to produce at that level consistently for more than a week. My manuscript grew to more than 7,500 words in a short time.

And then, wham, another wall. I finished drafting the first couple of chapters, and then I got stuck again. I sat down to write one morning, and nothing happened. I stared at my outline, then back at my blank Scrivener document.

Come on, Josh, just start typing what's in the outline! What's wrong?

This is where I really got some benefit out of my new writing process. In the past I would have just fought with myself for an hour and finally given up for the day, only to come back to the same struggle day after day.

But this time I quickly realized that something was wrong, and I knew where to look: my outline. I've tasted what it's like to write quickly, and I know that I'm capable of doing it if I set myself up for success. When the words aren't flowing, there's something wrong with my outline.

So I took a closer look, and as it turns out, I'd pretty much phoned it in on more than two thirds of the outline. I had bullet points down, sure, but I didn't know what I was going to say about them. They were more like a list of topics that I wanted to work into the finished book.

Back to outlining I went. I realized it would be a waste of my time to try to write until I'd outlined the remaining two-thirds of the book.

That was about a week ago, and I'm still working on the outline. I've spent more than 20 pomodoros on it so far, and I still probably have a few more days to go before I'm ready to start writing again.

I'm surprised at the level of detail that I'm putting into this outline, and it'll be interesting to see how it translates into paragraphs and word counts. It's probably grown to at least eight to 12 printed pages at this point, and I think I'm including at least one line per paragraph.

It's a bit painful. I feel like I'm wasting time and avoiding “real” work by outlining instead of writing. But I'm suppressing my lizard brain and pressing forward because I know that this is the right way to work.

If I do my job here, I can probably bang out the first draft in two or three weeks. That'll be fun.

Visnja - May 2, 2014

Josh,
you’re not alone in this process. I’ve discovered the power of outlining myself a few months ago. I used to scoff at outlines, but that was when I was able to write no more than a blog post length. I approach outlines now exactly the way you described: I need to have a complete list of all ideas I want to put into the book before I start writing it. I managed to complete a manuscript worth of half a book like that (13,000 words) on a single subject. Now I’m working on a book and the outline itself has shot past 9700 words already (the outline does contains draft articles) and I’ve been working on the outline for days now. Once I finish the outline, writing the book feel like writing a series of blog posts where one idea = one blog post.

Thank you for sharing your process.

    josh - May 2, 2014

    Hey Visnja, thanks! Working this way does make a huge difference. It’s still a grind to sit down and write 30,000 or 50,000 words’ worth of “blog posts,” but knowing how you’re going to get from point A to point B means it’s just a matter of disciplining yourself to do the work. You already know where you’re going, so writer’s block is minimized.

      Visnja - May 2, 2014

      Exactly. And I’ve found that my ‘lack of discipline’ comes from not knowing what to do next. Outlining removes this fear and I just pick a subject every day I want to write about. One day at a time. I also commited to a “Write a book every day” routine to help me with my progress.

Comments are closed