When I was young, I learned that I’d rather not complete a project than turn in an imperfect one. I was a perfectionist with ambition, and the problem is that those qualities plus a deadline do not usually go well together.
It’s not that it’s impossible to create something excellent that reaches the proverbial, self-defined brass ring by a deadline. It’s just that a writer must first observe, be honest about, and analyze his or her own writing style, learn from and adjust it as necessary to make those deadlines, and then work, work, work.
There are no right or wrong answers, only the answers that work per person. That said, I’ll share my process with you.
1. There’s a cool literary journal online called Referential Magazine. Its premise is that everything contained within the magazine takes a line from another piece in the magazine. A writer can write a poem off of a line from a story, for example, and the resulting poem can be completely different in tone and content than the one from which the line originally came. The author of that line is credited, and you can work backward through the maze to see what inspired what else.
Reading makes for a wonderful source of inspiration. So do prompts, such as taking a line that strikes you and running with it (as long as you credit the original writer appropriately). Observing people, watching movies, and listening to music and looking at photos that remind you of certain events can also be great sources of inspiration.
2. Once finding my inspiration, I flood the page. For my process, I brainstorm best when I write without lifting my hands from the keyboard until I’ve run out of steam. This goes for writing a poem, story, or nonfiction, or even an amalgam of all three. I used to time myself, not stopping for five minutes, but I’ve gotten to the point where I just “go!” and reach an average of 400 words. I don’t count them, but this is what I see at the bottom of the Word document, where the number counter is.
3. Third, I organize. For prose, I tend to categorize, usually by highlighting ideas, images, and lines in different colors according to theme. Then, I might make lists of those items. This is so that when I draft, I can work from just one category or possibly braid in details from three categories. Anything I don’t used can be saved in a separate document for later use.
Others may be more comfortable using word bubbles or maps.
For poetry, I often organize my ideas into a form. Pantoums are my favorite forms. In a pantoum, each line repeats once, and it gains or changes meaning with repetition, as fresh lines are added between those that are repeated. However, I can also organize free-verse poetry by focusing on white space, line breaks, and stanza breaks.
4. I write a true first draft. Up to this point, I’ve been brainstorming. When writing my first draft, I pay attention to what’s going onto the page. I add to and apply the items in my lists. I pay attention to the way words sound and to the sentence structures as I write, but I do not worry about them yet.
5. I rest. I leave the piece for about a day, when I can’t stand not looking at it again. I just have to work with it.
6. I revise for the first time. I highly recommend saving the original draft separately from any revisions and then every so often saving a revision separately from the draft that will follow.
When revising, I “see” the work with fresh eyes. I’m not editing yet, unless I find something egregious. I’m working with the “big picture.”
7. I rest.
8. I revise.
9. I rest.
10. The length of time between revising and resting gets shorter and shorter. I get sick of revising. I rest longer. Then, I edit.
11. I edit, looking for unintended fragments and run-on sentences, awkward phrases, awkward uses of commas, misspelled words, and so forth.
12. I edit again. I use programs that check spelling and grammar very carefully. I never say “yes” to every suggestion.
13. I worry, worry, and worry that it’s not good enough, which I don’t suggest. I’m being honest here, so I’m including this.
14. I take a deep breath, pick a literary journal with guidelines that are appropriate for what I’ve written and go over the guidelines ad nauseum, making changes to my cover page and the story’s first page so that the guidelines are met.
15. I draft, revise, and meticulously edit my cover letter for this journal (though I can use its skeleton for other submissions).
16. I send it away, lean back, and feel dizzy. Getting to this step is very difficult for me.
There’s my process. Honestly, it was exhausting to even write it out, and I’m sure that other writers have different methods that go with their own pathology. Methods can change through time and varying degrees of success, too–trial by error.
I have come to terms with the fact that I am not perfect and that little, if anything, ever will reach my standards, but I also don’t have to lower my standards. However, without trying and taking work as far as I can and then finally sending it out, just like with finishing those projects in third grade, I will never know where I truly stand. No, I’m not getting graded anymore, but there are still thresholds to cross.
The bottom line? Read, read, read, and then write. Don’t stop, even if the work is imperfect. Allow the imperfections to show, and then revise. Allow everything–even the anxiety and imperfections–to spill onto the page, making the work more genuine. You can always mop up your mess when you revise, proofread, and edit.