Improve Your Writing with a Process Based on Research

Jun 12, 2018 | Better Writing

In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells young Luke that “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.” That’s great stuff, but it’s Star Wars and not your world.

If you’re a writer, you may or may not have the Force, but you should have a process. A strong writing process will help you produce more of your best work.

The Power of The Process

Think of a process as workflow, or as a series of steps to achieve a goal. Writers who have a good writing process create more and better work than they did before they had the process. There are two reasons.

A good writing process means you don’t have to create a new way to work every time. The fancy language for that is that processes reduce cognitive load. The practical result is that when you have a process, you can concentrate on the content that you’re writing because you don’t have to worry about the process or about the steps you’re going to take.

When you have a strong process, you’re more likely to take all the steps necessary to produce great work. If you skip a step, either you’ll understand that it’s going to hurt your product, or you’ll make a conscious decision because of circumstances.

A Researched-Based Process That Works

In 1926, psychologist and cofounder of the London School of Economics, Graham Wallas, published The Art of Thought. In that book, he outlined the basic process for creativity. I learned about Wallas and his work when I helped a major oil company create a training program on creativity and innovation.

Over the years, I’ve used the process Wallas outlined to help my clients write better. The only thing I’ve done is add another step to the front end.

Keep Those Ideas Coming

The first stage of Walla’s cycle is “Preparation.” You select an idea and work with it a bit. I’ve changed Wallas’ cycle slightly by making Preparation into two steps: capturing ideas and selecting ideas.

Human beings are idea generators. Every one of us has ideas all the time. Just having ideas is important, you can’t produce good writing without ideas. But getting ideas is not enough.

You must capture the ideas that you have and put them in a form where you can review them. When you do that, you don’t have that horrid pressure to “come up with a good idea.” Instead of trying to get a good idea, you’ll select one from the ideas you’ve already had.

Select an Idea to Work With

Go to your collection of good ideas that you’ve already had and pick one to work with. Usually, the idea won’t be fully formed. You’ll have to tweak it and shape it, and perhaps, combine it with another idea or two. You may have to do a little bit more research.

Select and shape your idea. Play with it. Sketch how it might look in your writing. Then, let it go.

Let Your Idea Germinate

Wallas called the next stage, “Incubation.” Go work on something else and let your unconscious mind work on the idea for your article or blog post. Many of the most productive writers in the world do this. Adam Grant calls it “creative procrastination” in his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Sometimes, you’ll get the whole concept of how things will work together all at once.


Wallas named his next step “Illumination.” It’s likely to be the time that you see how the pieces you’ve thought about can come together in the best way. When you get that kind of illumination, it’s time to start writing. Sometimes, though, the time to start writing is dictated by deadline. That’s not ideal, but it’s part of the way your world works.

Let the Great Writing Begin

At this point, you’ve selected a good idea to work with, you’ve done some research to get a glimmer of how the final piece will look, your unconscious has come up with some ways to make your original idea better, and it’s time to write.

Wallas called the next stage, “Verification.” Get that first draft down on a page. It will be the worst draft. Don’t worry, though, you’re not done yet.

Now you get to the part where great writing happens. All this stuff leads up to the process of revising and rewriting. When you’re done, schedule or publish.

Making It Work

For me, and for most of the people I’ve worked with, the most important thing is giving the process enough time. Start early enough that you have time to do some research, let your concept germinate, and time for rewriting and revision. You probably won’t get that right the first time.

One way to start giving yourself more time is to plan an editorial calendar weeks in advance. When you do that, you do the basic selection well ahead of time. Then you follow up with more focused preparation and slip into the process.

Bottom Line

An effective writing process will help you produce more and better work. A good process will use the way your mind works naturally to help you create your best possible writing.

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