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Friday Features: The Messy Business Of The Writing Process

by Ian Ayris

What Is The Process?                 

If I could have an idea for a story, or a book, and just sit down and get it done in one hit – the words tumbling onto the page in the right order, a perfect representation of the images and the voices and the story I see playing out inside my head – I would be writing a book a week. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen like that. Not many creative endeavours do. An artist might have an idea of what they want to paint, then they might sketch out a rough draft before adding the paint. Then they touch and retouch the image – a dab here and a dab there – until the picture is finally complete.

I say ‘finally complete’ with tongue in cheek a little, because with any creative endeavour there rarely is a feeling of finality. That vision we see in our head, be we artists or writers, is not often fulfilled. The medium – be it paint or charcoal crayon or words – will only ever approximate that image, those sounds, that feeling we want to enable a reader or viewer to participate in.

But we’ve got to start somewhere.

The First Draft                            

The writerly equivalent of the artist’s sketch is The First Draft. The most important thing to remember about a First Draft is that it is a First draft. And the only job of a First Draft is to finish it. Without a complete First Draft – a narrative that has a Beginning, Middle and End – you have nothing but fragments.

Our approach to writing often mirrors our approach to life – for writing is ever a mirror of our deeper selves. If we go through life looking at the weather forecasts, worrying about pension plans and how the economy will be next year, we might well be drawn to planning our story or novel. A First Draft, in that case, may well be written to a proscribed chapter plan or story map.

And that is OK.

Just be aware that your characters are telling the story. You are merely the mouthpiece. And most characters do not like to be caged for too long. I mean, what right have you got to do that, anyway?

The other option, going with no plan at all, letting the words pour out how and where they will – colloquially known as ‘winging it’ – might be for those of us who revel living day by day, dancing on the edge of freedom’s roar, rolling with whatever life hurls at us. But without some sort of structure, the words may well dry up.

In truth, as in much of life, a balanced approach works best. Having an idea of an ending might be all you need – having something to write towards. Or if you’re really brave, try inhabiting your characters so completely you become them, and merely have to listen to their words – the literary equivalent of method acting. This is a plan of sorts because you have a solid intention of how to proceed, rather than just writing blind. For it to work, however, you need to trust your characters implicitly.

The characters know their story better than you. After all, they live it every day.

When you write your first draft – whether it is to a plan or a semblance of a plan, or no plan at all – write knowing every single word you are putting down is a part of a larger process. Write with fury. Write with passion. Write with the knowledge no word you write is carved in stone, it is merely a single step in the inevitable journey to the end of the First Draft.

Allow yourself to write rubbish. Allow yourself the freedom put it all down – all your ideas, your wild fancies, the stuff you’re not even sure works. There will be a place to address these later in the process. The First Draft is not that place. Write without looking back till you reach the end. Try not to edit as you go, for that way be the Dragons of Procrastination, their only reason for being  – to prevent you from finishing anything at all.

Give Yourself A Break    

When you have finished your First Draft, aware much of it is rambling and awful and perhaps irredeemably bad, remind yourself all First Drafts are like this. They are supposed to be like this – rambling and awful, full of plot holes, bad dialogue and inconsistencies.

That is their job.

But know somewhere in that pile of paper is the vision you had inside your head, yearning to be discovered. But you can’t see it yet. You have just crawled out of the darkness of your inner world and your eyes are not yet accustomed to the light. To find the story buried within, you need – metaphorically and in reality – to give yourself a break.

If you have written a short story, try giving it a week before you look at what you have written. If you have written something longer, like a novella or a novel, wait as long as you are able. Anything from a month to three months.

Something magical happens during this period of waiting. Your eyes turn from eyes of urgency and wonder, to cold piercing instruments of hardened steel.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

Because those new eyes are vital if we are going to shape that mess of a First Draft – and please believe me when I repeat the messiness of a First Draft is an essential part of the writing process – into something beautiful.

So, how do we even start?


It is important to remember that, whereas the First Draft is the time to splurge all your ideas onto the page with freedom and mercy, every draft from here on in needs your newly acquired cold eyes of sharpened steel to be psychotically pedantic. To take a scalpel to every single word, line,paragraph and character, judging whether each is earning its place.

If you have written a five-hundred-word story, every word needs to justify being there. There are only five hundred of them, after all. But writing a 70,000-word novel does not give you permission to lighten up your interrogation of every single word. If a word or a line, a paragraph, chapter or even character does not justify its place, it has to go. Take your scalpel and cut it out, casting it to the floor knowing its job was to help you recognise what should be there.

Editing really is the creative part of the writing process. It is the part of the writing process where you analyse every part of that messy first draft, you take words out, you put new ones in and you move words and paragraphs and chapters around, all with the aim of scraping away the mud and the slime to reveal the shining story beneath. And you chip away, editing draft after editing draft, till you can stand it no more.

And when you have that jewel of your imagination in your hands, that approximated version of the pictures and words and sounds and feelings that lived inside your head just a short time before, you have reached the final part of the writing process.

The question now is whether to submit your story, or value the writing experience for the lessons it has taught you, and tuck it away in a drawer for no one’s eyes but your own.

The Submission Process                     

To submit or not to submit, that is the question. Whether it is nobler, etc. etc. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Do whatever you feel. But if you choose to submit your writing to the judging eyes of complete strangers, know your writing is no longer your own.

Others will say whatever they want about it, and there is nothing you can do. Just as in life people are allowed not to like you, so they are allowed not to like your writing.

Be very clear: it is your writing they are judging, not you.

It is nothing personal.

Always remember that.

If you choose to submit your writing to a publisher, make sure you read and apply the publisher’s Submission Guidelines very carefully. When it is time to press Send, hold your breath and wonder at your words flying through the ether. Words that didn’t exist until you wrote them.

Be very proud.

Your words will land where they will. A publisher may like them and want to publish them, or they may not. And that is OK. It is all part of The Writing Process. Don’t, please, sit by your letterbox, or refresh your inbox 40 times a second. Publishers are busy people. Whatever you do, try to resist the urge to hurry them up. They really do not like that. And if you receive a rejection and feel the need to send them a stinging rebuke, pointing out your own genius and what an opportunity they have missed . . . just . . . don’t. You will write other things. The publishing community is small. They communicate with each other constantly. Don’t be one of those names that gets bandied about between them, or highlighted on social media as an example of how not to deal with a publisher.

In Conclusion . . .

The Writing Process is hard. There are no shortcuts. There is no guaranteed outcome. It is a test of who you are. If you fall down at any part of the process, know that is OK. Every word you write is a lesson.

So, pick yourself up, have faith in the process, and get on with writing something else.

Writing is what you do.

You are a writer.

After all.

And lighten up a bit, eh. It’s only words.


You can connect with Ian on his website:, on Facebook: Ian-Ayris-Author  and on Twitter: @ianayris

Read the latest issue of Write On! magazine online.

If I could have an idea for a story, or a book, and just sit down and get it done in one hit - the words tumbling onto the page in the right order, a perfect representation of the images and the voices and the story I see playing out inside my head - I would be writing a book a week. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen like that.