Off the Beaten Path

(This draft considers my writing process for academic purposes. I didn’t really consider the fact that I could also detail my process when writing for pleasure until I had already written this. Oops!)

If I could control my own writing process, it’d go something like this: I would receive an assignment prompt. As soon as I got home, I’d sit down (my brain teeming with ideas) and design a colorful, sprawling mind map. Each neatly and carefully drawn bubble would correspond to a different body paragraph in my essay. Shortly afterwards, I would hand-write a draft in twirling cursive, the words tumbling out of me Nabokov-style in a half-creative, half-logical exchange.

That’s how I wish my writing process would go. I crave the structure of knowing exactly where my thoughts are going. I long to be able to effortlessly pair together seemingly incongruous words. I yearn to form sentences that mesmerize. In short, I want writing to be easy.

But usually, writing feels a lot like digging for quarters right before doing my laundry — necessary, desperate, and full of dread. When I begin embarking on the uncharted territory that is an assignment prompt, I have no idea where I’m going. I’ll think anxiously about the assignment for several days, chewing on it as I ride the bus home. I’ll fall asleep with it on the back of my mind, I’ll brainstorm out loud as I shower, and I’ll meticulously pore over the Internet for hours on the hunt for an inspired idea.

Eventually, I will officially take a step forward into the unknown: I’ll figure out something I want to write about. And 99% of the time, it’s trite and not even CLOSE to inspired, but it’s always a seed of an idea. (At this point, I constantly have to remind myself that it’s not necessarily what you write about, but how you write about it.) 

Next comes the germination stage of my writing — this involves getting my thoughts out into the universe. I do this by essentially projectile-vomiting words onto my laptop screen and forming them into some sort of a draft (although I do sometimes wonder whether writing by hand would be a little more…I don’t know…creative? Less prescriptive? But typing so far has worked for me). Writing the first draft is a stilted process — my introductions are written after my conclusions, body paragraphs are jumbled up as I develop later ideas before earlier ideas — but these paragraphs eventually join into a cohesive whole that, no matter how crappy, leaves me feeling extremely relieved. I consider completing this milestone to be reaching a base camp of sorts.

Perhaps the most important stage in the growth of my essay is revision. My favorite English professor John Rubadeau always says that “Good writing is the revision of shit drafts.” And I’ve learned that he’s right. No matter how awful I think my first draft is, I’m always surprised by how many good (or, at the very least, semi-good) ideas are embedded inside of all of the garbage.

I always have to let my first draft simmer for a few days. Once I’ve had some distance from my paper, I’ll begin the revision process by carving out the few gems I can find, outlining a very general structure to organize them, and then rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. On we go!

(At this stage, it always helps to receive peer reviews or to get a friend to look at my paper. It helps to have a set [or sets] of objective eyes to tell me what’s wrong, what’s missing, what’s extraneous, etc.)

As my deadline looms closer than ever, I’ll print out my final draft. I’ll painstakingly read it aloud until I’ve identified every possible mistake I can locate. Then I’ll painstakingly reread it backwards. I emphasize painstakingly here because I am, unfortunately, as Type A as it gets, and so I stubbornly cannot let go of any potential errors until the paper is safely nestled in the hands of my professor. Now is when I begin to exhale — the end is in sight!

When I finally give my work in, I’m usually surprised to note at the new life I’ve created in my hands. I’ll admit that, sometimes, it’s a life that’s already withered. But sometimes, it’s a life that promises to produce another set of seeds and sprouts.

It’s always gratifying to know that what I’ve written is a living, breathing argument; I’m always a little proud of myself when I write something that goes on a journey.

After all, each time I write, I do too.

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