Ask the Editor™
Volume 8, Issue 1

In this issue:

Getting Back to Basics

Spring symbolizes renewal and new beginnings. For me, it always means new hope for my golf game. This is the year I'm really going to break through!

That sentiment lasts for about a month, of course, until my swing becomes totally unglued. But until then, I'll be buying golf magazines and consuming all the latest tips.

A common theme in golf magazines around this time of year is "getting back to basics." Typically these articles deal with the mechanics of the golf swing: grip, stance, back swing, follow through, etc.

I've always thought writing is a lot like golf. There are many skills that you must master to do it well.

And like golf, we can become overwhelmed if we think about too much (organization, tone, grammar, punctuation, style, spelling) at the same time. That's why breaking the writing process into distinct, manageable steps - prewriting, drafting, revising, and proofreading - really helps.

For example, when you're drafting, it is often best to forget about all the rules for a moment and focus on your purpose and audience. You can fix any problems later when you are revising or proofreading.

As Sam Snead put it, "I found the best way was just to draw that stick back nice and lazy, not thinking too much about how I was doing that."

But unlike golf (well, it depends on who you are playing with I guess), you get infinite mulligans. You can revise over and over again until you get it right.

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“I do not write easily or rapidly. My first draft has only a few elements worth keeping.” Susan Sontag

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The Writing Process

Step 1: Prewriting

Clarify your purpose, identify your reader, think about your desired result, and determine the format (memo, report, e-mail, Web page, etc.). Do your research and brainstorm, then organize your thoughts into an outline.

Step 2: Drafting

Get your thoughts on paper by expanding on what you did during prewriting. Don't clutter your mind and worry about grammar and mechanics. Focus on purpose, audience, and content.

Step 3: Revising

Make judgments about whether what you've written represents what you actually are trying to say. Reshape your writing to the reader's expectations by adding, deleting, substituting, or rewriting material.

Step 4: Proofreading

Fine tune your project before it goes to the reader by checking grammar, punctuation, spelling, mechanics, and document format.

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“I do a lot of revising. Sometimes six or seven times. Occasionally you can hit it right the first time. More often, you don't.” John Dos Passos

Tips to Make the Writing Process Work for You

  • During every step, think about your readers' needs. What is their background? What do they need to know? What would persuade them? What can they do?
  • Remember that writing is a messy, nonlinear process; you may perform some of the steps at the same time or out of order, for example, revising what you just wrote as you compose a draft.
  • During prewriting, clarify your purpose. What is the issue? What actions can be taken to resolve the issue? How can you persuade your reader of the desired result?
  • Freewrite for five minutes about the purpose of your writing project, your audience, and possible solutions. Don't worry about making mistakes or correcting yourself. The idea is to get thoughts on paper that you might be able to use in a draft.
  • Brainstorm your writing problem for 15 minutes. Write down anything that comes to mind without judging ideas. If possible, brainstorm with others who have a stake in the writing project.
  • Write the ideas from your brainstorm on individual post-it notes or note cards or in a word processor file. Cluster the ideas into categories and arrange the categories in a logical sequence.
  • Be flexible. Don't feel you have to write a formal outline or be a slave to your original plan.
  • Before drafting, evaluate your prewriting materials. Do you have enough information to support your purpose? If not go back and do more research.
  • During drafting, go for it. Write conversationally and be yourself.
  • Don't worry about failure. Consider your first draft an experiment.
  • Don't get bogged down thinking about rules at this point. Focus on your message. You can go back and fix problems later.
  • If you get stuck, sleep on it, especially if you just finished researching and planning your writing project. Allow time for your ideas to ferment.
  • Keep writing. Sometimes looking at what you just wrote will cause you to freeze up.
  • Set goals. Establish the number of words or pages you want to write during a given time period.
  • Focus on the part, not the whole. Writing a 50 page proposal is daunting. Writing a paragraph or page at a time isn't.
  • Let your first draft sit a day or two before you revise so you look at it with a fresh set of eyes.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Oh, and did I say "revise"?
  • Review the draft from your reader's perspective. Is your purpose clear? Are you persuasive? Are you clear about what you want your reader to do?
  • Read the draft out loud.
  • Review a hard copy to see the document in its entirety.
  • Share the draft with colleagues to get a fresh perspective.
  • During revision, you are still focusing on shaping meaning by adding, deleting, substituting, and rearranging material.
  • Focus on grammar, punctuation, and mechanics during the last step, proofreading.

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“I don't write drafts. I write one page many many times and move on to page two.” Anthony Burgess

Ask the Editor™ Question

What is the difference between lay and lie? Farther and further?

Brad Schumer

Lay is an action word that takes a direct object. Laid is past tense and present participle. Laying is present participle.

Lie is the state of reclining, so it does not take an object. Lay is past tense, lain is past participle, and lying is present participle. (I'm trying to remember if I have ever heard anyone say, "I have lain on the beach all day," but that is the correct form.)

Got all that? For example, you lay down a book on the table, but you lie down in bed.

Farther refers to distance (think "far"), whereas further refers to degree. Of the two titles for the classic blues song, "Farther Up the Road" and "Further Up the Road," farther is the correct usage.

“The Editor”

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