Book review: The Writer's Process, by Anne Janzer

Posted on by Matthias Noback

It's very easy not to write a book.

Mostly since it's such an awful lot of work. You'll first need to figure out what you're going to write about, and find an angle that makes it interesting enough for potential readers to buy the book and spend the time to finish it. The writing itself is hard work as well, and may take several years. Along the way you'll be telling yourself things that will keep you from finishing the task: I'm not doing anything original here. Nobody will be interested. Somebody else wrote a better book about this than I could ever do. If I don't cover topic B as well, it's not going to be a useful book at all.

It's easy to let these thoughts get in the way and let them prevent you from finishing the work. Another obstacle is that book writing offers extremely delayed gratification. If you only get satisfaction from the published work, you'll be using up all your will-power until a year later when the book's intended audience is finally able to read it. Since I'm a software developer focusing on early delivery, early feedback, this makes the traditional book writing process very counter-intuitive. Which is why I've always chosen to publish my books first on Leanpub, and maybe later with another publisher.

Whether or not you release early or often, you'll still need to deal with the fact that you're not a book-writing machine (just like you're not a programming machine). Any project will have ups and downs. One day you'll be very productive, the other day you'll be tired. The mind is not always ready for the different types of activities that are required when you're producing a book. You'll have to come up with interesting ideas, collect them, put them into a draft that's somewhat meaningful. Next you'll need to revise the text, again, and again. If you're working with a more traditional publisher, the editing and revising phase takes even more time than producing the first draft. During the draft phase you'll need inspiration, and a free flow of thoughts and words. During the editing phase you'll need concentration, discipline, patience. And then towards the end, you can give in to your impatience and get the thing out into the world.

The Writer's Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear

Recently I read Anne Janzer's book "The Writer's Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear". She does a great job describing all these aspects of the process of writing, but also explains them using insights about how the mind works. I think her goal with this book is to reduce the pain, and show how you can ease yourself into writing, whether that be a book, a blog post, or a text for your website.

It varies from person to person how they prefer writing a book and what works best for them (pen and paper, computer with or without internet connection, early mornings, late nights, etc.). But regardless of these details, something all writers need is to use different modes of working: the Muse and the Scribe mode. The muse is the part of you which can associate freely. It makes interesting connections between ideas. It needs freedom: unfocused time (staring out the window, doing some physical activity, etc.). The scribe on the other hand needs focus and discipline. You can't do muse work or scribe work all day, so you need to alternate between the different modes.

At the same time, you can't just start a writing project with a blank slate and say: muse, let's get started. You'll have to prepare your mind somehow, so it can come up with good ideas. You also can't be in scribe mode all day, and put words on paper using will-power. The power will be gone very quickly, and you'll find yourself procrastinating all day. The biggest lesson from Anne's book for me therefore is: you'll have to switch between modes, and when you're generating ideas, and drafting, let the words come freely. There will be a revision process afterwards, so just write as if none of it will ever be published (sounds a lot like: dance as if nobody is watching). You need to get rid of all the thoughts that prevent you from expressing yourself freely.

Here are some concrete suggestions from the book that I'll definitely use:

  • During the drafting phase of the book you should let the words flow freely, and not stop writing. A trick to accomplish this: imagine that you'd have to delete the whole text if you'd stop writing for longer than 5 seconds. Try it, it really works!
  • Even if you're not doing any "important" writing, write 700 words each day (you could use the same free-writing trick). If you want to be a writer, make it a habit to write. By the way, here are some of the thoughts that keep me from doing this: "I'll work on a programming project, which is more important and easier to do anyway." Also: "My mind is not quite in writing mood today. Let's wait until it is."
  • Build in some incubation time for the writing project. Investigate the things you're planning to write about, and collect interesting ideas (actually, do this all the time, see also Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method by Gerald M. Weinberg). This allows the mind to get in the mood to write about these things. Priming it with the subject matter of your writing makes a lot of the work being done in the background. Writing is putting thoughts on paper, so you have to make sure that you have the thoughts before you get pen and paper. By the way, I use incubation for programming projects as well. When I close my laptop, I'll first look at some of the open issues and problems I'll be facing the next day. This always makes my work easier the next day I open the laptop again.
  • After the first draft is done, let it rest. Do something else. The next day, take time to revise. Fix the bad sentences, add the missing ones, rewrite parts of it. Taking a fresh look can be very surprising (hopefully in a positive way). Start early with any writing assignments so you'll have plenty of time for this mandatory break between drafting and revising.

Back when I was working at Driebit I had this insight that "I am a developer". Before that, I thought I would be a philosopher, or something else entirely. Programming had been my spare time activity before that, but I realized that I loved it so much that I'd be dedicating my life to it. This is still true, but reading Anne's book made me realize something else too: I am a writer. And I'll be doing that forever as well.

With that theatrical moment out of the way, I'd like to finish this post with a heartfelt recommendation to read Anne's awesome book: The Writer's Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear. If you've always wanted to start a blog, write an article, a book, whatever, but feel like you're not ready for it somehow, or notice that you keep postponing this, read this book, and learn how to do it today.

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