On Writing

Sharing my writing workflow.

After last week’s blogging hiatus, I started planning this week’s post and quickly realized I didn’t really know what to write about… I thought about some ideas I had stashed before, but they weren’t that interesting. And as I was thinking about what to write, it became clear: why not write about writing?

Over the last few years I’ve written quite a few things, blog posts (I had a “humour” blog once, it wasn’t funny), scientific articles, interviews, press releases, project grant applications & deliverables and a (big) thesis. During this, I developed my own writing process. I know it doesn’t suit everyone, but sharing is good!

My iterative writing workflow is comprised of three steps:

1. Plan & outline

2. Write freely

3. Refine

I’m a big proponent of the “plan ahead” mentality. Always have everything well mapped before starting the actual work is an essential step for successfully achieving your goals. This rule of thumb is also valid for many other scenarios, such as project management or software engineering (I’ll leave this discussion for future articles). I start writing everything from an idea, which I transform into an abstract or summary. Next, I organize the structure of what I want to write. This includes outlining the general article structure and of each (sub)section individually. I also try to organize the actual textual content, paragraph by paragraph. I often resort to just defining some bullet lists regarding what I need to write in each section. Although, when the expected outcome must be excellent, I go more in-depth and outline the ideas for specific paragraphs, figures, tables or lists, in each section.

Once the initial article structure is finalized, I write. More importantly, I write freely. At the outset, I just write to cover the ideas from the outline. Later on, I try to “get it on” and start writing whatever comes to my mind, literally dumping content. I know that then I will delete some stuff and rewrite other sections, so I try to not worry about the quality of what’s coming out. I worry about the quantity. I think it’s better to write a lot and they trim down some extra words. I just let it flow until the first complete draft is finished.

With the draft complete, it’s time to refine its content. In this step, I focus on improving the message I want to convey. This mostly covers checking the text’s size, clarity and consistency. On the “free writing” component, I tend to write a lot. This means I digress a lot and start rambling on inessential things. The solution: cut & rewrite. On most occasions, there’s also a size limit, whether it’s pages or words, so I really have to pick the best sentences and prune the worst ones. Improving text clarity is probably the most challenging step. I have some difficulties in being objective, mainly because I’m not a native English speaker/writer (Portuguese grammar and language are very different and much more vibrant). However, improving the text clarity is an essential, yet daunting activity. To finish, I review everything to make sure that the content is accurate and consistent. Contradicting yourself or the ideas you’re presenting screams lack of interest and effort and will disengage the reader. These items, size, clarity and consistency, are even more relevant in the scientific context. In these cases, I also rewrite abstracts, introductions and conclusions, making sure their ideas match.

Lately, with more to write on less time, these steps’ boundaries are blurred. I try not to skip steps, but I start from more generic content descriptions and reduce the number of rewrites and refinements I make. Nevertheless, this overall process is tailored, i.e., optimized, to my thinking and writing style. I hope that showing this workflow can help anybody in the future…

Tools of the Trade

Just a final note on software. I write everything in Markdown. All texts are synced via Dropbox. For scientific articles or web content, I use Microsoft Word for proofreading and to generate the final formatted .pdf content for submission. On the Mac I use Sublime Text and iA Writer. iA Writer is also my app of choice on the iPhone, which I combine with Editorial on the iPad to write/edit everything on the go.

Pedro Lopes
Aveiro, Portugal