The Writing Process

The Seven Stages of Writing

Image credit: Dariusz Sas | Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image credit: Dariusz Sas | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Writing, eh? On good days, it’s more fun than a box of illegal fireworks. On bad days, it’s like having a tooth extracted without anaesthetic.

I think that this is, in part, because when you’re writing – or at least writing well – you’re immersed in your characters’ world and experiencing their pains and joys as your own. When they are sad, you feel weepy; when they triumph, you celebrate with them. Your imaginary world can, in emotional terms, be both chaotic and extremely realistic.

However, that’s not the whole story. Just sitting down at the laptop and typing can, in terms of the emotional toll it takes, be a far more turbulent experience than many people tend to realise. I don’t know whether my experience tallies with anyone else’s – I’d love to hear other writers’ opinions on this – but it seems to me that the writer goes through several distinct stages…

Stage one: the Road to Damascus moment

Hallelujah! Handel’s Messiah is an excellent theme tune for this phase. The gods are obviously smiling on you, because you’ve just had one humdinger of an idea – the kind of idea, specifically, of which great stories are made! Everything else is forgotten as you scribble away frantically or hammer at your computer keyboard until it smokes. You’re so excited, and you just can’t hide it! With the wind of inspiration filling your sails, you cruise smoothly into:

Stage two: hope

Image reproduced courtesy of Angelle Mcgraw, Dreamstime Stock Photos
Image credit: Angelle Mcgraw | Dreamstime Stock Photos

This is, quite possibly, the most wonderful part of the process. Being immersed in sweet, carefree creativity is like being ten years old again and playing a game of “let’s pretend”. Writing a first draft is fun, fun, fun! You don’t have to worry about all the niggling little problems at this stage – that’s what the editing and redrafting process is for. Anyway, your idea is shaping up so well that nothing can possibly be seriously wrong with it, can it…

Can it? Welcome to:

Stage three: realism

Reading through a first draft is like waking up with a hangover, and groaning as the memories of all the harebrained things you did the night before come flooding back in lurid, merciless detail. God, did you really say that? Could you really be so stupid as to do something like that?

Well, yes. Yes, you could. Because let’s face it: this masterpiece of yours isn’t quite as good as you once thought, is it? In fact, it’s bloody messy.

It’s not just the typos and grammar mistakes and clumsy sentence constructions. Oh no! These are trifling problems, easily corrected. The problem here is the whole bloody thing.

How writing can feel on bad days. Image reproduced courtesy of ryanlerch, via
How writing can feel on bad days. Image credit: ryanlerch |

Your plot is either wafer-thin or so fantastically complicated that nobody could be expected to work out what the hell’s going on. Your characters are either one-dimensional cardboard cutouts or the kind of self-obsessed idiots who fill up page after page with the kind of endless internal monologues that are usually found in adolescents’ diaries. Your dialogue is stilted, your prose laboured. Reading through your manuscript with a bewildered, sorrowful eye, you inevitably slip into…

Stage four: self-doubt

Aaargh! You are to fiction what Showgirls is to cinema, or the Fast Food Rockers are to popular music.

(Clicking on the above video, by the way, is not recommended for those of a nervous disposition.)

If Mike Myers’ no-talent police actually existed, they’d have arrested you years ago for daring to even think that you could be a writer. Let’s cut to the chase here: the only person who could possibly love your writing is your mother. In fact, even your mother is probably lying when she says she likes it. It’s like when you were a spotty teenager and she sent you a Valentine’s card, disguised handwriting and all, to shield you from the dreadful truth: that nobody out there could ever, possibly, fancy you.

This dreadful insight leads to:

Stage five: despair

All right, you’re not contemplating suicide; but you may have begun to contemplate collecting garden gnomes, which is only a few steps up. You may put a gloss on this most awful of phases by giving it various euphemisms: “taking stock”, perhaps, or “examining your options”. Perhaps you should get a proper job? If you already have a proper job, perhaps you should start putting some real effort into it, instead of treating it as a disagreeable necessity? After all, a promotion to the Human Resources Department might be every bit as rewarding as writing fiction; and even if it isn’t, perhaps you need to grow up and accept your limitations. Maybe you should try your hand at karate, or Portuguese, or cake decorating. After all, there must be something out there that you’re good at, mustn’t there?

Image reproduced courtesy of Photoeuphoria, Dreamstime Stock Photos.
Image credit: Photoeuphoria | Dreamstime Stock Photos.

Crawling through your mental morass, you gradually arrive at:

Stage six: seeing the funny side

Oh, come on! It’s not like you’re performing open-heart surgery or attempting to save the world from a direct meteor strike or anything. So what if you are a loser? I mean, everyone loves an amiable loser, don’t they?

Cheer up, crack open a bottle of cheap wine, and listen to some Gloria Gaynor. With a little luck you’ll get so drunk that you won’t even notice as you gradually drift into:

Stage seven: renewed optimism

In the words of John Cleese in Clockwise: “It’s not the despair … I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

Yes, perhaps your real talent is for masochism, because here you are, ready to climb back up into the saddle of the horse that just threw you. You’re like a dog with a writing bone, or a jaded old romantic who keeps on falling in love despite the fact that all your affairs inevitably end in heartbreak. Perhaps you try to resist at first: after all, that application form for the job in Human Resources won’t fill itself in, and you’d made provisional plans to attend your first cake decorating class tonight. But the lure of the laptop is just too strong to be resisted. You sit down, switch on, open Word and prepare to begin the cycle all over again…

Is this at all similar to your experience of writing? Leave a comment.

4 thoughts on “The Seven Stages of Writing

  1. Brilliant! You’ve perfectly described the emotional roller coaster ride that is the creative process.
    Now if only I could get out of stage 3. The realism stage is not a fun place to be!

  2. I started out writing this way, but the work would get so chaotic I was unable to finish anything. (I’m organizationally challenged.) Now I create an outline, keep things tidy (sort of), and exploit the technique’s many advantages. The benefits include consistent characterization, easier plot construction, better pacing, and the ability to link things together more thoroughly. Best of all, I can make big changes without a whole lot of rewriting. While this way of working doesn’t provide the emotional roller-coaster ride, it does become engrossing and strangely satisfying. Perhaps personality determines the preferred method.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Thomas: I do sometimes think that a more organised approach might be of some benefit. I’m actually trying it out at the moment, so we’ll see … However, I find that the emotional journey is just as intense whether I start with a strong, well-thought-out plan or not :-).

      I believe that personality does determine which method works best for you, and that there is no gold-standard, one-size-fits-all technique. You have to play around a bit and find out what suits you best.

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