Writing is Not a Solo Pursuit, it’s a Process

Writing is Not a Solo Pursuit
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Writing is the iterative process, optimized by involving others, of adding detail to the pillars of a single idea. 

Romantic visions of writers depict them holed up in a cabin in the woods or sitting at a sun-soaked window in the top room of an old hotel where they seem to be the only guest. But the truth is that’s only part it. Writing is a process. 

Zooming out to view the whole picture, you see that the writer spent months, if not years, researching, reading, and absorbing information and ideas for the ultimate act of writing. They discussed those ideas with others. They outlined, drafted, and revised. They got feedback from others and incorporated that into their final draft. They evolved an idea into a work of art.

This process for writing is what many aspiring writers I’ve come across claim they’re lacking. In part 2 of our ‘conversation’ with Brian Koppelman, let’s dig deeper into what it means so that you can develop a process that works for you. Click here for part 1, which examines the psychological and emotional side of writing. 

The writing process, although not always linear, looks like this:

  1. Consumption
  2. Discussion
  3. Research
  4. Journaling
  5. Outlines
  6. Sections
  7. Drafting
  8. Editing
  9. Feedback
  10. Publish

Let’s dive in.

Consumption

“The way you {figure out how to write for the screen} is by watching movies and then reading the screenplays, or watching television shows and reading the teleplays and with the internet, it’s really easy to get access to those things.”

When you’re passionate about something, you’re naturally curious and consume as much as you can on the topic. This consumption is the perfect fodder for writing about that topic. You’re absorbing the best ideas from others, re-mixing them with your own, and forming connections. 

But you need a good system to capture your ideas or risk losing it to the whims of your next thought. You need a system for taking notes. 

In his popular online writing course, Write of Passage, David Perell calls this ‘writing from abundance’. He describes having a system for saving and organizing ideas as ‘feeling like magic’ in the way it cured his writer’s block. 

This was a total game-changer for me. I only started taking notes on my reading about a year ago, but as soon as I did, idea-flow went from spurts to a constant trickle, to a raging torrent. Now the challenge is finding the time to write. Like a painter with a room full of blank canvases and shelves of paint, I know my supplies will never run out. I just need to decide what I want to do next.

Discussion

One of the best ways I’ve found for deciding what to write is by discussing ideas with others. Finding the right people is key here. You know which friends or online acquaintances are better at listening and helping you expand your thinking. Go there.

The power of a good question can fuel the richest of conversations, and since you’ve already primed yourself on your topic of interest by reading, taking notes, and absorbing, you just need to be present in the conversation. Listen. What other perspectives are there? What is another way of looking at this? 

Brain Koppelman does this too: 

“So, I start David and me, my partner, he’s my lifelong best friend. We do all this stuff together. And we usually start with a world that fascinates us.” 

I can get lost in conversations like these for hours. Just remember to give yourself time to reflect. Resist the temptation of turning to the next topic or idea until you’ve allowed yourself to process the discussion you had. 

Research

“From there, we’ll start to do research, which means reading a bunch of stuff, doing first-person interviews with people. We spend a lot of time doing that so that we feel like we can get our arms around what the world is.”

Now it’s time to get more serious about your topic. Once I’ve had a few great conversations about an idea I’ve been thinking about, I’ll do some more intentional research. A Google and Wikipedia rabbit hole is often the first direction I head, to get a feel for the breadth of coverage on the topic. Then I’ll use a keyword or key phrase search in my Evernote and Roam databases and scan the notes that show up for anything interesting. I’ll pull quotes and references into a rough note collecting ideas. 

I love the way Koppelman calls out first-person interviews. This is a huge part of our discovery process for working with clients at Curious Lion. 

Journaling 

“So you have a lot of conversations about the kinds of people who are drawn to this world. You’re doing a lot of journaling about this, you do a lot of thinking about what would bring you into the world the right way, what are forces to set against one another.”

Research is wasted unless you’re also writing about what you’re thinking. Your subconscious is working even when you’re not, and a regular routine of journaling, such as Morning Pages, is a great way to capture and organize ideas that might be floating around. Very often, my best insights come in the moments away from my desk, out running, or in the shower. I’ll use the voice capture on Drafts or Evernote (and more recently, Otter.ai) to capture these thoughts. 

Outlines

“Then you start to think about a story structure that would bring these forces into opposition because you need conflict, in every scene of a screenplay or teleplay… you’ll start to outline, a version of a story that might work.”

Fingers to keyboard time! My goal with outlining is to just get thoughts on the page. High-level. For this article, I used my notes from the Brian Koppelman interview to organize the piece into the headings you see now. I can then look at the headings and see if it makes sense; if it actually represents the way I write.

Writing coach Ellen Fishbein recommends coming up with a 1-liner to organize your ideas around.

My 1-liner for this article: writing is the iterative process, optimized by involving others, of adding detail to the pillars of a single idea. 

Sections

“Then you’ll revise that outline, and then we use index cards and really start to take the outline and break it into beats, which are the flow of scenes. Then you break that down into the scenes themselves and at a certain point, you have a completely beated out outline.”

Once I have my overall flow outlined, I can go into each section and pour in the cement that fortifies the foundation of the article. This means adding the quotes, editing them for clarity, and jotting down my own ideas of what I want to cover in that section. 

Depending on the topic and the length of the article, this outline could be pretty long. In creating Billions, Koppelman and his creative partner write about a third of their final output in this phase. 

“Let’s say an episode of Billions is 60 pages. The outline from which we worked is usually 20 pages. So you have a 20-page document. That’s every scene, a bunch of dialogue, and what’s happening in the episode.”

Drafting

“The most fun part of it is when you’re actually taking that outline and turning it into scenes themselves. That’s the part where your hands are going wild and you’re working from the freest part of you.”

I love drafting, and I love this description of it. I will often finish the outline and move on to something else. I want to give it time for the outline to sink in, but I also want to start fresh for the drafting. I find I do my best outlining in the morning with a cup of coffee and my best drafting in the evening with a glass of whiskey. Your results may vary. 

I’m not advocating for supplements like caffeine and alcohol. But the contrasting effects of each are the perfect parallel to what outlining vs drafting is like for me. For Brian, too, it seems:

“Outlining is that most arduous, grinding on how to make the story better and how to create conflict and not settling and second-guessing. But once you have the outline, then you’re free, that’s like jazz, you’re free to improvise, you’re free to go. Because you have a base to return to. And because you know, you can always rewrite. You know how to rein it back in back to this outline.”

Using the outline as boundaries for constraining your focus when drafting is a great way to avoid going down unnecessary rabbit holes that divert the message of your piece. 

Editing

“Once you’ve written out all the scenes and you put that back together, you read the whole thing. And you go, oh, this section here is boring or this section goes too fast or oh, these three scenes, we’ve got to put something between them to create more tension. But that’s all fun.”

This is a part I struggle with a lot. I’m a self-editor, and I’ve had to train myself to separate the flow-state of drafting from the analysis state of editing. Training yourself in this separation is worth it, as they really are two different mindsets, and as Brian says, they’re both fun in their own way. 

Get your ideas on the page. Let your fingers fly from the freest part of you. Don’t let them up from your keyboard until you’re done. 

Then step back.

Take a break. 

And come back. You’re now free to read it fresh. Does it make sense? Does it flow? Does it have a satisfying end? You’re now free to edit away until it does. 

Here are two actionable articles to help you know what to look for in edit mode:

  1. 21 Tactics to Help You Become a Better Writer by Nat Eliason.
  2. Riding the Writing Wave by David Perell.

Feedback 

You’re not quite done yet. One of the most powerful inputs into your writing comes, once again, from outside. Great writers know this:

“David and I are the showrunners. So we run the writers room, we have a group of seven other people in the room with us.”

The first time I received feedback on my work was when I took Write of Passage in August 2019. That’s less than a year before writing this article. In that short space of time, it’s been the single biggest factor in improving my writing. It blew my mind. I have never asked for feedback on a piece of writing and not learned at least one new thing to apply, not only in that piece but in all future pieces. 

When you ask for feedback, be open to criticism and doing something about it. Don’t waste someone’s time asking for positive feedback. You’re not going to become a better writer from that. Besides, if your work is good, you’ll get that too. Instead, ask for your reviewer to share the questions they have when reading your article. 

Also, consider asking for feedback earlier than you think you have a final draft. Often this early feedback can help you refine the direction you’re headed in. 

“David and I work together and get the outline into what we think is pretty good shape. We then share that outline with our writers room team. They give us notes. They might say, oh, this is great, but we don’t understand what happens there when x talks to Taylor, was she actually playing a game or was he? They’ll ask questions that then allow us to refine what we’re going to do. We then incorporate the notes that make sense to us.

That emphasis is my own. This is a question I hear often from writing students I’ve mentored – do I have to make all the changes people suggest? 

Absolutely not. It’s still your piece. You’re the author. You get to decide what makes sense and what to take on board for fine-tuning. This is a judgment call you have to make. Someone asked me how I go about deciding what feedback to incorporate. I don’t have a rule of thumb other than to say you know better than anyone where you are headed. As long as you look at feedback with an open mind, you will know if something helps you get there in a quicker, clearer, or more elegant way. Trust your instinct here.

Pipelines

The final piece of the puzzle in your pursuit of publishing is to have multiple ideas. Multiple articles. All in various stages of the process. Yes, build a pipeline.

I use Trello for this. I have an Inbox for ideas. Each card represents an idea, and I’ll attach references or links to Evernote notes to capture consumption, discussion, research, and journaling. 

Writing is Not a Solo Pursuit
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Then I have my pipeline, so I can have multiple articles on the go.

Writing is Not a Solo Pursuit
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Finally, I have the publishing production which I involve my team in helping me execute.

Writing is Not a Solo Pursuit
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Using this process has helped me leave an article I’m stuck on and start another. It’s helped me keep a mental image of the ideas I’m writing about in mind, so when inspiration hits, I know where to add it. 

Most simply, this process has helped me sit down at a keyboard and type. 

It doesn’t always follow a perfectly linear process, but by keeping my pipeline full, I keep my writing habit going and vice versa, creating a flywheel effect. 

Then my friend, before you realize it, you have an article. Ship it. Share it. Rejoice in the fact that your writing was not a solo pursuit, and neither will be its consumption.

Writing is Not a Solo Pursuit
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