How to Write Well: 5 Steps to Get You From a Blank Page to a Decent Piece
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
Writing well is hard.
There are things that you can do to make it easier, like practicing (write lots!) and reading, but even then it’s often hard.
Having a process can help.
I have taught English to middle and high school students for years and I give them a 5-step process to help them mentally structure how to write a decent essay. Rather than provide a set of rules to follow, this process is intended as a tool for getting past those beginning moments when you’re looking at a blank page and feeling overwhelmed.
“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it to be God.” – Sidney Sheldon
This process can help you get your writing started and, once started, keep you from getting stuck. I’m presenting it to you here for the same reason: don’t think of it like rules you have to follow, think of it more like a map that will help you find that treasure of a written piece you’re looking for.
The steps are: brainstorm, organize, draft, revise, and publish.
The first step to great writing is to get a great idea.
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” – Herman Melville
The message is an essential component of any kind of communication, but it’s especially important for writing: you have to have something interesting to say.
Brainstorming is quite different from the rest of the writing processes. In brainstorming, the goal is to generate ideas. When we think of an idea we are often tempted to immediately evaluate it—to think about whether it’s a good idea or not.
Evaluation of our ideas is important but it can hinder idea generation. This is because creatively generating ideas is a different process than evaluating them. For this step, we want to turn on the creative part. We want a free flow, a monsoon of ideas. Often ideas we won’t use can spark other ones that are useful. So in this step, write down everything that comes to mind and try to avoid evaluating them.
Can’t come up with any ideas? Try these:
Think with a partner or colleague. Talking to others, and getting their ideas, helps us generate our own.
Play a creativity game. Word association, improvisation games, and other creativity games game are all useful in helping us generate new ideas
Read. We get our best ideas when we’re thinking about other things. Reading can help us connect ideas together and come up with new ones.
Jot notes. My best ideas often come to me when I’m on a walk or in the shower. Don’t lose the gems just because you’re not at your desk; use a note pad or your phone to jot them down.
This is the step where you decide which ideas you like, link them together in a coherent way, and then fit them in to the structure of the piece you’re writing.
“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” – Ernest Hemingway
First, decide which ideas you want to keep. Your brainstorming should leave you with a big list of ideas. Lots won’t be great, and you won’t use those. Hopefully some are great. Use this step to do the evaluation I discouraged you from doing earlier.
How do you evaluate? Use your intuition. We kind of just know when an idea resonates and when it falls flat. Pick the ideas that resonate and work out, roughly, what you want to say. You don’t need to have it all sorted out at this point, but you need to know where you’re going. Feeling unsure? This is another great place to ask for help from friends or colleagues. See what resonates with them.
Next, figure out your structure. Different kinds of writing have different structures. Some are more rigid than others, but there is always a structure. A paragraph has a topic sentence, a few sentences of content, and a concluding sentence. A short essay has an introduction, a conclusion, and some body paragraphs. A story has a beginning, a conflict, some rising action, a climax, and a denouement. A 5-step blog post has an introduction, 5 steps, and a conclusion. Figure out what your structure is.
Now fit those ideas you chose to keep into your structure. Put the main ideas you want in each paragraph. Then, under those, put any sub-ideas. At the end, you will have an outline for the piece with a clear structure that is populated with ideas.
3. Write a Draft
This is part where you really get your ideas down on paper. Again, don’t try to be perfect at this stage. Just aim to get something down. You can come back to edit your ideas later.
It is at this stage that many people can experience writer’s block.
“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.” – Terry Pratchett
As nice as it would be to be Terry Pratchett and never get a little stuck, that’s not the reality for most of us. Remember the goal here: like in the brainstorming stage, here we’re trying to create—not to evaluate. Just write.
Here are a few strategies to help you if you’re stuck:
Free write. Give yourself 30 minutes where you must keep your fingers writing, even if you have to write the same word over and over again. The process of moving simply your hands can help the words come.
Create a writing schedule—and stick to it. By creating a writing habit you will make it easier to write.
In this step, go back and edit your draft.
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.” – C. J. Cherryh
Start with the big stuff: your structure. This is at the section level. If you organized well, this should be relatively easy. But even the best organizers find that they have some ideas out of place, or that the logic is not quite tight enough. Make sure the structure of your draft makes sense.
Then go through and edit for coherency at the paragraph level. Make sure you’ve hit the right voice and that it’s consistent throughout.
Finally, check at the sentence level. Make sure your grammar is solid, your punctuation supports your message, and you have not made any embarrassing spelling mistakes (every writer does, on occasion).
Bonus Step: Revise Again
Revisions are iterative. If you’re new to writing, or you’re writing something unfamiliar, editing can take a long time. As you get better, revising may simply become a proofread. But, for most of us, writing requires several rounds of editing. Take your time here to make sure that you are effectively communicating your message.
At the end of this step, you should have a polished, interesting piece.
Finding revision difficult? Try these:
Involve family, friends, or colleagues. Advice from others can often be useful in helping us improve our writing. Behind every university graduate is a mom that edited at least a couple of their papers.
Leave it for a few days. If you have time, walk away from your work, and come back to it later. The mental break can help get us out of the details and help us better determine if the piece is working.
Hire a professional editor. If you’re still struggling, get some help. A professional editor can help ensure your piece shines. (Psst: We can help you with that! Get in touch here.)
5. Submit it.
"I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged." – Erica Jong
This step seems obvious but it should not be taken for granted. Most of us are writing with the intention of sharing our work: submitting it, publishing it, posting it—whatever.
For some of us, this is the stage at which we suddenly get shy. It can feel scary to submit something we created; after all, once we share it, it can be judged. We’re hesitant to post or send something for publication, wondering if it is any good.
Submitting our work, like writing itself, is something we get better at with practice. And publishing is often a numbers game: the more you submit, the more you are published. At this point, you just need to click the send button.
Our advice: if it feels done, share it.
Still having trouble? Get in touch with us and we’ll help.