When I was at university, I used to write essays from the beginning. I would ponder the title for hours, labor over the first paragraph almost as long, then gradually pick up speed as I realized what I had to say. People who contact me about my published articles often assume that I must still write that way, but teaching composition and more experience has taught me that these work habits are inefficient.
To start with, I can’t remember the last time that I approached a subject with a definite position in mind. As I’m researching, people often ask what my perspective is, and I can almost never tell them, because I honestly don’t know. I may have a predisposition towards a certain viewpoint, but as I research, that predisposition transforms, sometimes morphing out of all existence, and at the very least becoming more qualified and richer as I test it against facts. I’m sure that some people suspect me of equivocating when I tell them I don’t know what my perspective is, but all I can honestly say is that a topic interests me, either personally or because of its importance.
As I research, some ideas may start to emerge. But they are tentative, and usually change as I work, assuming they are there at all. It’s only when a deadline looms or sources start to get repetitive and I’m unlikely to pick up any additional nuances that my opinion start to take definite shape.
Just before I actually write, I start sorting my notes. At times, I print them out so that I can get a different perspective on them. I go through them, noting important points and quotes that I would like to use. Especially for a longer article, I may jot down a rough order that I think will present my opinion in the strongest way possible.
Then I begin to write. Perhaps one time in five, an opening sentence or two comes to me. But, even when I’m so lucky, I don’t spend much time on the first paragraph or section early in the process. I know that I will probably change it drastically before I’m done, and I prefer not to rewrite when I can wait for clarity instead.
The same is even truer for the title. Since I’m paranoid about losing material, I usually save whenever I pause in typing, but the file name is usually only the most general description of the topic.
Instead, I usually start with the second paragraph or section, which generally includes some background facts that don’t require much of an opinion and are therefore easy to write. However, if I’m really unclear about what I’m thinking, I scan my rough outline to find a part that I can develop easily. That’s one of the advantages of knowing the overall structure – I don’t have to start at the beginning and discover the structure through trial and error as I work.
As I start to work on my chosen starting point, I’m sometimes hoping that finishing it will help me discover another section I can write on. Without exception, it usually does, and I settle down to writing.
As I write, I stop sometimes to check a fact or the spelling of the name, thankful for how easy such checks are on the Internet. Almost always, I think of additional points that I have to add, or realize that a quote would be more effective some place else. But I almost never rearrange points in the first draft, and doing so is a sign that I’ve lost my way and need to stop and restructure. For the first draft, what matters is getting something into the file that is reasonably good.
After a five minute break, I start on the second draft. That’s where the serious restructuring and rewording happens, although, increasingly, as I gain experience, I find less and less is required. It’s here, too, that the first paragraph or section and the title take shape, since by this point my perspective is fully formed.
I leave my least favorite parts of writing – spelling and punctuation checking – for last. And, yes, that sometimes means that I skimp on them if time is short, I’m ashamed to say. But it helps that I know some of the things I need to look for, such as leaving two spaces instead of one, or the words or phrases I tend to overuse, which vary, but generally include too many unnecessary connectives.
By far the greatest part of this cycle is the research and initial organizing. It usually takes up nearly two-thirds of my time. The actual physical act of writing, when I finally begin it, is almost an epilogue to the process, taking less than fifteen percent of my time, with editing taking up the rest.
These allotments may seem counter-intuitive, but they allow me to work efficiently and produce salable copy, so I don’t think I’m likely to tinker with them much. I only wish I had discovered this work flow sooner, instead of spending so much time constantly writing and rewriting the same passage in the hopes that clarity and continuity would eventually strike and I could move on.