The Five REAL Stages of Writing

I submitted the final draft of my book manuscript to my publisher today. It’s Version 3.2 for those who are following the scorecard, so you know it’s been through quite a few revisions over the last year. If you are a writer, then you know the feeling. Relief. Anxiety. Elation. A quiet, lingering Doubt. Somewhere between turning in a master’s thesis to your professor and handing a valentine to your fourth grade crush.

Writers are taught that there are five stages to the writing process: pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. But I beg to differ. Here are the real five stages to writing, at least, the five I’ve experienced in my world.

Stage 1: Inspiration. The creative muse hits you like Cupid’s arrow, and you are suddenly smitten by an idea that launches you into the deep end of the paper. In this first stage, your writing is feverish and your spirits are high. Characters and concepts and outlines practically appear fully birthed (along with a clean diaper) on your page, and you feel like a mere conduit to the greatness of your own amazing (if I don’t say so myself) prose. Words flow effortlessly from your fingers, like luminescent rainbows in an episode of “My Little Pony.” And everything you compose sounds profound and captivating, like a Shakespearean sonnet or Michael Crichton without the boring parts.

Stage 2: Brain Freeze. Ow. Too much ice cream, too fast. Or at least it feels that way. All at once, every cell in your brain cramps and spasms, and everything you write seems banal, trite, cliche. The character arcs and dialogues and plot twists seem impossible to reconcile. The rainbows of cosmic creativity suddenly seem dull and hoary. Words escape you. Even syllables escape you. You grasp at the ghosts in your cerebellum, at those apparitions which were seemingly once concrete and meaningful and fully-formed, but nothing. Seems. To. Make. Sense. En. Nee. More.

Stage 3: Panic. Yes. It is true. You are in way too deep. This is the stage of writing that mirrors the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There are periods when you can’t stand to go near the project. There are periods when you can’t seem to let go of it. And still other periods when you have long, languid, drunken conversations with the personal demons in your head. You consider dragging the entire Word file in the trash. But you can’t even act on that. Doubts linger. This can’t be any good. Why did I want to be a writer anyway? What will my publisher say? What will my peers say? What will my friends say? What do I really have to say?

Stage 4: Revision. You press on. You edit, change, massage, cajole, manipulate, fiddle, alter, wrestle, research, rewrite. You find the courage to get real feedback from people you respect—and they actually give it to you. You correct, rework, adapt, re-outline, re-research, and edit again. And something begins to happen. Something real and true and artistic and good begins to emerge from the wreckage. And it gives you hope. You condense, cut, redraft, clean up, re-re-research, polish, and edit again. Slowly, steadily, it begins to read like a book. You edit and edit and edit once more. And in the process, you begin to realize that the book is editing you.

Stage 5: Publishing. One day you wake up, scan through the entirety of your manuscript, and not feel the urge to change anything. And you find it odd, that after all this time, there is the possibility that you might actually be finished. You let it sit for a week or so, then read it again. And it actually kind of feels right. You cradle a hard copy of all you’ve done in your hands, and flipping from page to page, scanning paragraph to paragraph, you have this odd sense of closure, completeness. And then you realize—you’re done. Like Jacob wrestling the Angel of the Lord, you’ve wrestled the muse and come to peace with your own creation. You compose a quick email to your publisher, attach your baby at the end, and hit send.

And in the five stages, you begin to realize that you have been formed through the process. The research, the conceptualizing, the very discipline of the craft—has formed your soul in some way. You have come away changed from the experience. And perhaps this was the first intention of the book all along.

[NOTE: For those interested, the book is titled HONEST WORSHIP: FROM FALSE SELF TO TRUE PRAISE, and will be released in the summer of 2018 under the Formatio Label of InterVarsity Press.]


4 thoughts on “The Five REAL Stages of Writing

  1. Manuel!
    I am so excit s to read your new book ! Does part of your inspiration journey include Thomas Merton and or Richard Roth? The whole idea of tre self and false self has been freeing for me!
    Keep up the great work

    1. Hi Sandy! Hope all is well for you. The idea of false self and true self have been around for awhile, I think, and my understanding of it comes through the current resurgence of spiritual formation. BTW, do you mean RIchard Rohr?

      My text behind all this is the woman at the well. When Jesus said that we must worship “in Spirit and in Truth,” I believe that he meant not only the truth of who God is, but the truth of who we are, our true self. Jesus’ conversation with the woman appears to bear that out as well. So my book contends that we must deconstruct our false selves in order to worship more fully from our true selves.

      So now that you know the essence of the book, you won’t need to buy it now! Blessings!

  2. Somehow I think there are very similar steps for all creative projects. The initial elation, the slogging, the doubt, the sweat and finally completion. Sometimes I even go back to doubt and more sweat and a second completion….

    Looking forward to your next book!

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