A Different Kind of Writing Process

According to Edward P. Bailey, the writing process you learned probably looks like this:


Think hard, write an outline.


Follow your outline, write quickly without worrying about revisions.


Make sure you followed your outline, fix any errors.

This process, he notes, in his book Plain English at Work: A Guide to Writing and Speaking (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 117, includes “some half-truths.”

For example, if you’re writing “something under a page or so, don’t worry about an outline at all. It probably isn’t necessary. For something longer—even just slightly longer—an outline may be helpful.” In this case, Bailey recommends jotting down main headings without worrying “about those Roman numerals.” Or If you’re a little unsure of your content, try jotting down several ideas in the order you think you should cover them. Then start writing.”

What process does he use for “a typical writing project–something two or three pages long? Or even book length?” Bailey says that it looks something like this:

  1. I fool myself into believing I’m actually ready to write, so I start in.
  2. I get stuck.
  3. I then jot down a quick list of the main points I want to cover. If I can think of any subpoints, I put them in, too.
  4. I arrange those points in the best order.
  5. I start writing again.
  6. If I find that I’m not following my original outline, I don’t worry: my ideas while I’m actually writing are probably much better than my ideas beforehand.
  7. I rarely get stuck again, but if I do, I re-outline (briefly).
  8. I write quickly, with no thought for typos or other errors.
  9. But I stop immediately if the content or organization isn’t working. After all, what comes before is crucial to what comes after, so I must get the content and organization right. Otherwise, I’m wasting my time because I know I’ll have to rewrite significantly.
  10. When I finish writing, I read and revise immediately.
  11. I then set the writing aside for awhile—even a few minutes helps disconnect my mind from the particular words on the paper.
  12. Then I reread and revise, looking not just for errors but for the important matters this book covers (style, organization, and layout). Throughout, I ask these questions: “Will my reader understand?” and “Have I made my points the best way possible?”
  13. Then I show the writing to someone else for feedback. I try to “lean toward” their suggestions rather than away from them. But I realize that I am the one most responsible for the content and the most engaged with it, so I take “my” advice before theirs.

Bailey adds, “Normally I write about 5 pages or so at a sitting. Later I’ll read and revise those pages before starting a new section. That way I’m familiar with what I’ve just written before starting the writing again; also, I’ll have fairly polished pages as I move along.”

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