Teach Write: The Three-Step Writing Process

May 29, 2019

Welcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.

And today we’re going to focus on that word: process.

One of the biggest misconceptions that people of all ages have about writing is that they’ll sit down at their keyboards, and their word babies will spring fully-formed from their brains, a bit like adult-Athena springing forth from the mind of Zeus.

Hey, I’m not judging. I used to think that’s how it worked, myself. And then I considered myself a talentless hack when my hot mess of a first draft bore no resemblance to the shining prose I was aiming for. But of course it didn’t, because that’s not how writing works.

Writing is a process, with three stages:

  • preparation
  • drafting
  • revision

Skip any one of these stages, and the result is a dog’s breakfast.

The next thing I had to learn was that not all stages are created equal… and in fact, the one I was giving the most effort to – drafting – is actually the least important. A more effective approach is what we in the biz like to call the 40:20:40 rule of writing:

  • 40% of the effort going into a piece of writing is preparation
  • 20% of the effort goes to the first draft
  • 40% of the effort goes to revision, rewriting, editing, and proof-reading

Thanks to Brian Hotson at the SMU Writing Centre for introducing me to the 40:20:40 rule! Changed my life…

In the coming weeks, we’ll dig more into each of these stages, begin with preparation. In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you! Do you (or your students) jump into the first draft expecting instant success? How does this 40:20:40 guideline compare to your own process for writing?

Hey, did you know I teach writing workshops? It’s true – I work with adult writers, teachers, and students of all ages. Contact me to learn more.


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