Darwin's Theories Blog

New Theories for a New Time

My Non-Fiction Writing Process


I’ve occasionally been asked about my writing process. Of course every writer writes differently. Working on an article for Oracle Java Magazine, I had occasion to reflect on my writing process. My hope in putting this down in words is that it might, possibly, help one writer somewhere, sometime, to be a better writer.

Suppose I have a couple of weeks to put together a technical article. That’s part-time, not two weeks full time. Every article starts with an idea, or a short collection of main points. Early days it may seem like I’m slacking, working on other stuff (like fixing busted mailing lists and chat servers, other sysadmin stuff, yard work even). Partly I’m actually thinking about what I’m going to write, even to composing paragraphs and the thread of the argument in my head. But also I partly let the subconscious mull it over.

The last days or so I drop almost everything else in a blaze of putting it all down in words, making code examples work, etc. A bit like Hemingway, who always wrote furiously and then stopped writing at 4 pm and went out drinking, letting his subconscious mull on it. Only without the going out drinking part.

BTW, Speaking of Papa Hemingway, I recommend the book Ernest Hemingway on Writing for anyone who writes, whether fiction or non-fiction. The book takes quotes from his published works but also from his correspondence, and taken as a whole gives a good viewport into how he crafted some of the best-selling novels of the last century - on a mechanical typewriter. No computer editing there!

Towards the end (deadline near!), I’ll break down and print a hardcopy of the draft version. Deliciously old school! But moving away from the computer to a table or desk, and shifting my attention from the screen to the printed page, means a short break after which I can read the article over again with far fewer distractions. Between the printing and the reading I may even take up some distraction or another to distance myself from the piece: a short video game, a crossword puzzle, maybe a coffee nap if nobody’s looking :-). Then I’ll agressively edit: omitting needless words, making sure the text reads smoothly, checking links. I might even repeat this whole section if it’s needed.

If there’s still time I might ask a friend or relative to read it over for typos and for readability. The victim doesn’t have to know the technology, they just have to know what’s readable from what isn’t.

Finally, with a great sigh of relief, I send the article in. By email, not on paper.

With appropriate changes, this also works for book chapters, course sections, etc.