The writing process

By Ed Yong | March 30, 2011 3:00 pm

On Twitter, John Pavlus recently asked me which bit of the writing process I like most – researching and collating information, or actually getting it down on paper.

So to answer that question more fully (and because it’s been a bit of a slow week), here’s a graph depicting my process of writing a feature. Enjoyment’s on the vertical axis, time runs along the horizontal. This applies to longer features rather than blog posts – those are more straightforward and less emotionally variable.

(And yes,  I know “regurgitated” is spelled wrongly in the image. I can’t be bothered to change it)


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism, Personal

Comments (34)

  1. I’m not alone! I *just* went through this very process for a piece. Haven’t gotten to the changes part yet, but I know it’s coming.

  2. Elia Ben-Ari

    Ha! This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about writing, from On Writing Well by William Zinsser: “Like most writers, I don’t like to write; I like to have written.”

  3. Brill. But now we need a image of the plan. Do you actually have some sort of template/outline/bubble diagram/something? (And if so, where do we download it?)

  4. This was fun to read….I love it when I can’t tack down an idea and it keeps growing…into a monster that needs to be hacked away at and rearranged. I’m glad to know that experienced writers go through this. Thanks for finding the idea to graph it.

  5. I have been told there are two kinds of writers, those who love to research/hate to write and those who hate to research/love to write. By your graph, it seems like you and I are of the same type. Thanks!

  6. @Maryn – There’s no template. Essentially, I write down all the various elements and draw lines to connect the related bits. I then find a line that connects everything. My planning sheets look like Pollock paintings.

    @Lene – I actually love them in equal measure but the writing is harder and thus less enjoyable. Also the finished product is never quite as good as the version that exists in my head after all the planning is done.

  7. Regurgitate is spelled wrong, not wrongly.

  8. RMaia

    ironically or not, this is remarkably similar to my enjoyment swings when I’m doing research – from the idea, the data collection and making sense of it, having a decently coherent explanation for all that, then finally submitting it and having to deal with revisions!

  9. Just to get a bit meta, did the process for developing this graph follow the same pattern?

  10. Liath

    Some of the worst writers I have come across were really fine scientists and researchers. For me, one of the wonderful aspects of science blogs is reading science writing that isn’t a complete mess. But then I’m frustrated just now because I’m dealing with ESL authors. (English Second Language). Not the authors fault but I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on some of the translators.

  11. Cathy

    This is actually pretty similar to how novelists write novels, except we don’t get the luxury of pitching first…. it’s write the whole damn thing, THEN pitch and query and hope someone likes it.

  12. Daniel J. Andrews

    I enjoy coming up with the idea. After that, the enjoyment graph is a continuous downhill curve. Once I’m done writing something–if I actually finish which I don’t unless my paycheck depends on it–I send it off and don’t want to be reminded of that miserable ride to the bottom of the graph.

  13. LOL I can so relate to this! Thanks for sharing :)

  14. Aurora

    Heh, this was a great start to a day when I have to write a text I’m not feeling inspired about… Thanks!

  15. Kay Abendroth

    Awesome. Really made my day.

  16. This made me laugh! I can certainly relate to the ups and downs of it.

  17. Kelli

    I’m reading this instead of writing my magazine cover story.

  18. Hi. Really interesting stuff! Proof that there’s a lot of perspiration to refine the inspiration. Will tweet to our followers.

    Best regards

    Adam Charles

  19. RMaia’s right: replace “pitch” with “grant” and “article” with “paper” and you’ve got a pretty good picture of life in the research lab.

  20. Something similar happens when I’m preparing a presentation… “Sure, I’ll be HAPPY to talk about that” months before, and then mad scramble.

  21. This is great, Ed! This is also the most I’ve seen your British accent come through in your writing. I can definitely relate to the highs and lows of writing, especially the “changes” dip near the end.

  22. Writing a feature story right now, I’m exactly in the “seriously, I made a plan – why won’t the words arrange themselves” part (sigh)

  23. I’m guessing that this whole graph came about because the author was supposed to be writing something ELSE. Right?

  24. Funny description, LOL, but also too real.
    As I went through reading the graph, I was physically feeling the ups and downs, like being an elevator.

    “Seriously, I made a plan – why won’t the words rearrange themselves?” Riiiiight. Bad words. They’re always heading in the opposite direction and they’re too independent. It’s very difficult to discipline them (sighing too). Oh well…

    Very nice post :) Thank you

  25. This is toooo accurate, though I tend to spend a bit longer in the “forgot how to write” phase. Hope you don’t mind but I shared this on my blog. Great stuff!

  26. Brilliant, spot-on, and funny as all get-out! People always ask me where I get my ideas. Good grief, there are ideas falling out of the trees, lying about on the ground. The world is a happening place! But…oh….the process of doing something with those ideas–and then actually selling the product…oh, oh, oh. Reality bytes (pun intended). Researching, interviewing, talking, listening, expanding idea, oh glory! Wait! Now…there’s this big blank landscape of white (paper or screen) and….now it bites to have to produce the bits and bytes to make the sparkle dust, those ideas and the fun following them–quests!–into reality.

    The actual writing is not just technical, but a weird, and often dark, psychological landscape of passion, frigidity (AKA writer’s slump), fear, power, procrastination, avoidance, caffeine slurping, celebration, considering a new career as say, a pillow manufacturing quality inspector, moaning, whining, and in spite of it all, finishing the damned project which now you’re sorry you ever thought of.

    Then it’s time for the next one. And without it, a writer is nothing, and can not breathe.

    Ideas dance in the air. But the making of something, that’s concrete and a sweaty jackhammer.

  27. Yuh, this is alarmingly accurate…only issue is I think I spend an awful lot more time faffing around on the internet…

  28. I got such a kick out of this, I added a link to it on my blog. Thanks for the humor and insight.

  29. This is SO true. For any kind of writing. And despite all the books and articles, there’s always the point where “Ive forgotten how to write” and the words come out all wrong: wrong words, wrong order, WRONG. Patricia Phillips’ comment is so true too: “the making of something, that’s concrete and a sweaty jackhammer.”

    Though at the moment, “pissing about on the internet” is a recurrent stage (with an overlarge manuscript lying in an untidy heap and needing to be put in chronological order. Guess I’d better turn off Firefox and slouch back into Word to deal with it.)

  30. As the estimable William Syron once said, “Let’s face it. Writing is hell.” As I embark on my “encore career” as a freelancer, I’m discovering what he meant. Your graph was a welcome bit of whimsy (and truth) that I’ve linked to on my website. Plus, I always enjoy a good pasta metaphor. Or was that a simile?

  31. Hi Ed
    Fab graph; thanks.
    Could I please use it in talks – properly crediting you, of course?

    Trish Groves, deputy editor, BMJ and editor in chief BMJ Open

  32. Michelle Fay Cortez

    OMG you are brilliant. It’s the stuff the comes next that is the worst, though. Maybe you can graph that the next time you hit a lull…

  33. For my latest feature article I did a “field interview”, part of which entailed crawling around on my hands and knees in the mud with a biologist for three hours looking for a rare salamander species — which we didn’t find! Still a fun experience though.


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