Lecture 1: Why Process is More Reliable Than Muses

The importance of process

Processes are part of our personal and professional lives. After getting into a car to drive, we fasten our safety belts, adjust the seat and mirrors, start the engine, put on the radio or music, look over our shoulder for traffic, and so forth. This routine helps us drive comfortably and safely. The same happens when we follow a recipe. If you forget to marinade the meat until after it is cooked, the dish probably will not turn out the way you wanted.

When it comes to writing, however, romantic notions cloud our reason. Instead of process, many people assume inspiration is what gets the job done. An off-the-cuff approach may work for emails, brief missives meant to cover no more than a couple of simple issues at a time. Even then, it is good to have a process. For complicated projects, waiting for inspiration can be a fool’s game. Muses, if they exist, must surely be too busy breathing wonder into the work of artists, writers, and musicians to spare time for the mundane matters of business.

Muses and processes

The truth about muses is that they are an extremely unreliable bunch who rarely show up when needed and take endless lunch and coffee breaks. People who make their living from writing rely on the rigour of process. Process helps prevent them from discovering half-way into a book that their plot hinges on the implausible because they missed out a piece of research.

Process is vital. It helps writers divide up the enormous task of writing a book, for example, into chapters they can tackle one by one. It helps them draw up a schedule for the day, week, or months that the job is likely to take. It gets them through several drafts, editing, proofreading, and submitting to their publishers on time. Process is so important that famous authors frequently find themselves in interviews under interrogation about their writing habits. What time do they start writing each day? Do they do warm-up exercises? How long do they work in one stretch? How much research do they do before starting a new book? Do they write first drafts with a pen and a notebook sitting beside a quiet river or on an Apple laptop in a noisy café?

Example of writing without process

I cannot stress enough the importance of having a writing process because I have seen what happens without it. For example, a group of financial experts from different organisations consulted regularly over 18 months to determine whether investing in the bonds of countries with responsible-investment policies was a better bet in the long term than those without. The criteria of such policies were that they avoid damage to the environment, society, and governance (ESG). The group also wanted to find ways of measuring the impact of ESG-related policies and plugging them into formulas for predicting the return on investment. One member of the group had the job of turning the group’s findings into a paper.

No one had done an outline. The working premise was that ESG policies were likely to be significant in securing higher returns on investment. But meetings did not break the enormous project down into manageable tasks. The research papers and notes were helter-skelter. The writer in charge was trained in mathematics and information technology. He produced a 50-page paper, ultimately deemed unpublishable. A second attempt ended with the same result. Desperate to produce the paper that the group had committed itself to writing, the group hired a professional writer, me.

I sifted through stacks of reports and notes, worked with the original writer to set up a dozen interviews with the group’s members to identify their original contributions to the subject. In other words, we had to go backwards in the lifetime of the project. It was not impossible, but messy.  In a matter of weeks, we produced a 20-page paper that served the original purpose. It was perhaps the most difficult writing job I have ever encountered. If the group had followed a process, it would have not come so close to having to abort the project with nothing to show for its work. It might not have required help from an outsider like me.

Process outline

You will find different ways of dividing the writing process. The most basic involves three stages: pre-writing, writing, and editing. My process is similar. But I call pre-writing “planning,” and I include a separate stage for outlining and research. Instead of “writing,” I call the next stage “drafting.” To summarise, my process is:

·      Planning

·      Outlining and research

·      Drafting

·      Editing

The stages of the process are not rigid. For example, while doing a second draft, you might find that the examples or statistics you dug up during the research and outlining stage do not make your point as clearly as you would like. Obviously, you would go back to research what you need. In doing so, you might happen upon something else that is worth putting into your document. This might prompt you to rewrite your conclusions to account for the new material. All of that is fine, as long as you leave time for adjustments in your process.

I developed my process over decades. It is based on books about writing, writing classes and workshops, style manuals, and tips from managers, editors and colleagues at former employers including Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal, the Globe and Mail, and several other publications.

Even if you have never bothered to articulate it, you probably already use an informal process. For emails and other brief, routine writing, you go through a process in your head. As you go through this section, try to jot down the stages and steps your already use, whether conscious or unconscious. Compare your notes to what we discuss in the next few lectures. My process is not a set of commandments. You should adapt it to suit your needs.