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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Creating a Text – Carla Nayland

What phases are involved in the creation of a text?

I write fiction and technical non-fiction. Perhaps surprisingly, the writing phases are similar in both. I would say there are four broad phases:

The spark
This might be likened to the soul of the piece. In non-fiction it will be the key conclusion of the article, the one fact or idea that I want readers to remember if they remember nothing else. In fiction it will most likely be a question of some kind: What would happen if…? Why did he do that…?

The structure
This would be the bones of the text. In non-fiction it will be a chart of the main ideas that build up in sequence to reach the main conclusion, together with the information that supports each idea. In fiction it’s likely to be a few characters and their relationships with one another, and a sequence of events that arise from or modify those relationships. The sequence will be far from complete; when writing fiction I usually know the beginning and the end and one or two key events in between, but I never know all the events when I start. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel a need to tell the story.

The words
This would be the flesh of the text. The ideas in the structure now have to be translated into words that express the original idea as precisely as possible. There is always some distortion when translating from idea to words, rather like converting sound from analogue to digital or translating between languages. The writer’s job is to minimise that distortion. This is hard, slow and difficult to assess, because the writer knows the original idea. In fiction, the writer knows a character’s exact appearance, tone of voice, facial expression, motivation, thoughts and probably their entire life since birth. In non-fiction, the writer knows the contents of all the reference materials. The reader only knows what the words on the page say, and the writer has to make those words convey enough information for the reader to recreate the idea in their own mind.

The polishing
This would be the equivalent of clothes and cosmetics. Does the piece look its very best? Could it be made clearer, more powerful, more moving, more amusing, by changing a word here, a sentence there? This phase can go on indefinitely, because perfection is an unattainable goal. Any piece of writing can always be improved. The ideal is to stop before the law of diminishing returns has set in and the improvements are no longer worth the effort. (Most writers, I think, stop somewhat after this point if left to themselves, which is why Ernest Hemingway said, “A piece of writing is never finished, it is merely due.”)

The phases overlap and most texts iterate through each phase several times. Outlining the structure will often generate more questions. Fleshing out an idea may generate a separate idea that demands its own place in the outline, or show that events must have happened in a different order or for different reasons. Occasionally a turn of phrase will appear in the polishing phase that feels so ‘right’ that the structure has to be amended to accommodate it. Often I know the exact wording of the last line of a piece from very early on in the writing process, because it’s likely to be closely related to the take-home message or question that sparked the piece in the first place.

Finally, writing is only half the process. Words were invented to transfer ideas from one human mind to another. Converting the idea in the writer’s mind to words on a page is the first step, but the process is only complete when someone else reads the words and understands them.

Carla Nayland writes historical and fantasy fiction. She blogs at:

One Response to “Creating a Text – Carla Nayland”

  1. ren.kat says:

    I’ve never heard anyone comparing polishing writing to clothes and cosmetics. It’s interesting, though. Dressing up a living, moving creature. . .