Uncertainty: The Normal Writing Process

When I teach writing, I realize that I make everything sound like it’s a straightforward process. Well, it’s not. Listen to Anne Lamott:

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t–and in face, you’re not supposed to–know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing. Anne Lamott, novelist and essayist.

When we discuss writing, we separate out the voice, the character, the plot, the language used, etc. so we can actually find useful things to talk about. And there are many useful and helpful things to discuss. However, the actual writing is a combination of all these, a gestalt. The whole is greater than its parts.

It’s helpful to embrace uncertainty in the writing process, to just write and see what happens. Those of you who are outliners–who plot endlessly and have cards for every scene–you still have to just write. You’ve managed to remove one level of uncertainty, but there are still enough layers left to keep you on your toes. You still must make decisions on what details to include, what words will express the thoughts, and so much more.

For every sentence, there are numerous decisions to be made: the basic thought expressed, nuances of that thought, connecting the thought to what came before and what follow, the vocabulary, the sentence structure, and punctuation and spelling. Outliners only manage to eliminate the first choice and maybe ease the nuances and connections of the thought to other thoughts.

Every time you face the blank page, you face uncertainty. It’s a normal part of the writing process.

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