My Writing Process: A summary of writing on writing

Each week I take the top voted question from readers and answer it (submit one here). There were three questions about my writing process (by Jasmine Carver, Aron Grinshtein and Seattle Coffee Scene, earning a total of 1660 votes) and I’m answering them together.

What are the creative processes you go through when writing?

I start with the first word of the first sentence and then write the second word. I continue with words until the sentence is done and then I move on to the next sentence. Ok, that’s not useful. Sorry! It’s just hard to take questions like this too seriously as I don’t think there is anything magical in any writer’s process. You have to do the work and as you do the work you figure out which process works best for you. The two words creative and process are oxymoronic in this sense, as anything strictly procedural would by definition not be very creative. Seeing famous writer’s habits is interesting and can give you tactics to try, but you won’t know what works for you without doing the work.

I’ve written often about how I work and my advice for other writers. Here’s a list:

What is your writing setup like?

Below is a photo of the desk in my office. I have a Mac Air and a 27″ Cinema display.  I like working on a big monitor, but I can work nearly anywhere (I got much better at writing on the road while working on The Year Without Pants). I usually carry a moleskin notebook wherever I go so I can write or sketch, and I also take notes on my iPhone 4s. I read primarily on an iPad mini 2 using the Kindle app. When at my desk I often have music playing or listen to the news while working. I have different playlists and change which one I’m listening to depending on my mood and what kind of concentration I need.


When you wrote your first book what motivated you to start?

The first book I wrote, about the design of the London underground,  was never published. You can read all of my blog posts about the project from 2005. My motivation was to deliver on an idea I had. Many people have ideas for movies or books and I was one of them, the only difference was I committed the time to try and bring the idea into the world. My larger motivation was to see if I could make a living doing something other than managing software projects. While this book was never finished the experience of writing it did give me the confidence to write Making Things Happen, which started my career as an author.

Once you started what different things did you have to think about and how did you confront them?

The biggest challenge is sustaining interest, for myself and for the imagined reader.When you start writing you have the excitement of the new on your side, but that fades and you slowly realize just how much work you will need to do to deliver on the idea. It’s important for me to have an outline as that helps divide and conquer the work. It’s easier to stay motivated if you can focus on small units of effort. A book is too large for most people to keep in their mind at one time, but a chapter, or a section is easier. When I’m stuck it often means I need to break down the size of the units of work or revise the outline. I have different things I try when I feel stuck, and perhaps that’s a future blog post.

I always read at least a dozen books in the form and style of the book I’m trying to write. For The Ghost of My Father I read many memoirs. For The Year Without Pants I read many first person journalistic books. There is no better way to understand what you want to do than studying what other good writers have already done.

I always focus on getting to a first draft. It doesn’t matter if I limp my way there or not. When I have a first draft I can read the entire thing and get a sense for how it all fits together (or more precisely, doesn’t fit together. If a first draft fits together perfectly it means I didn’t take enough risks in the draft). I like to think of books as fractals. The same loop of writing a draft for the entire book applies to each chapter, and for each section within each chapter. If progress is slow, I focus on a small unit of measure.

Reading well is central to writing well. When reading a draft I ask questions like:

  • What breaks the flow of the story?
  • Is this interesting for the reader?
  • How do I make this interesting? Or do I rip this out?
  • How can this be smoother?
  • Why would anyone still be reading?
  • Does this line up with the promise of the book? With the previous chapter? With the next?
  • If I rip out or move this section will it make everything else better?
  • How can I say this in a more interesting and simpler way?
  • Can I show this rather than tell it? Is there a story I can use?

Mostly I pay attention to things that break the flow and stand out in a negative way. Coleridge described the suspension of disbelief for fiction, and I believe in something similar for non-fiction: the continuation of curiosity. The title of the book itself generates a certain curiosity for the reader and my job as the writer is to carry that through an entire 8 to 12 hour experience. The job of each sentence is to make the reader want to read the next one. If I can repeat this for every sentence in the book I’ve done well.

Did you go through the same thought processes for each book? If not, how did they change?

The Myths of Innovation was the most journalistic of my early books. I spent far more time studying history and interviewing people than any of my other book projects (see the bibliography). I wanted to write a book that was a contribution to knowledge in a formal, collegiate sense, and that demanded more thorough research and study. But the process is the same: collect notes, interview people, develop an outline, write a draft. The unpublished novel I wrote followed the same basic process.

You can find all my posts about writing well here. Have a question about writing or something else you want me to answer? Ask here.

3 Responses to “My Writing Process: A summary of writing on writing”

  1. Phil Simon

    It’s fascinating to me how people look for that “one” correct writing process when it doesn’t exist. I’m a sponge. Steven B. Johnson writes 500 words per day and then apparently stops. Stephen King and Kevin J. Anderson is almost always writing—as in all day long.

  2. Sean Crawford

    Hello Scott and avid readers,
    I’d like to nail something down: It’s correct that novelists King and Anderson write as much as they can, but it’s not all day. In the Nov 6 Rolling Stone King said, as part of his aging, “I’ll maybe write fresh copy for two hours, and then I’ll go back and revise some of it and print what I like and then turn it off.” Anderson, as a guest volunteer at When Words Collide, told us he walks and composes in the a.m. (right brain) and in the p.m. he does his less creative business matters (left brain) which probably (I think) includes his editing and revising.

    H.L. Mencken cautioned people that it was a mistake to think that you should give up your day job from thinking that writing requires bankers hours. Anderson should, yes, but most of us, I think, should be keep working until we are better novelists.

    Rita Mae Brown said she is only good for about four hours per day before she starts making typos—so she stops and goes to lift weights.

  3. John

    When you start writing you have have the excitement of the new on your side, but that fades and you slowly realize just how much work you will need to do to deliver on the idea. – This is exactly how I feel. But I also feel like what I’ve already written isn’t good enough, and this slows down process even more.

    Thank you for an interesting and inspiring reading!

    John from Summarize My Essay


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