Somewhere in a deep corner of my files, there is a single piece of paper with just a few words on it that changed my life as a writer and teacher.
It was presented in 1982 to a seminar of writers gathered around a table in a decrepit bank building that served as the original home of what was to become the Poynter Institute. The presenter was Donald Murray, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and writing coach at The Boston Globe and Providence Journal.
Murray argued that good writing sometimes felt like magic to the reader, especially if the reader was also a writer. But magical thinking was not healthy for writers. Better to think of good writing as a craft, a set of tasks and habits, a number of steps, a process.
I remember thinking "OK, wise old man with a white beard, what are those steps? What is that process?"
Murray’s original process looked something like this:
Five easy pieces to the writing process.
Murray’s model had arrows pointing up and down that list. That was because the writing process was not linear but "recursive." Maybe you get stuck writing a draft. The solution is to go back a step and work on your focus. If you can’t find a focus, go back a step and collect more information.
For each of these steps, Murray offered a set of tools.
How to find an idea? "Spend a morning at the bagel shop listening to customers."
How to collect material for a story? "Interview the most knowledgeable mechanic in the shop."
How to find a focus? "Ask yourself what your reader needs to know first."
How to build a draft? "If it’s not working on your computer, grab a yellow pad a write it by hand."
How to clarify a text? "Read it aloud to hear if it sounds right."
In 2006, my book "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer" was published by Little, Brown and dedicated to Donald Murray and his wife Minnie Mae. I praised them as the godparents to a nation of writers. He was able to read that introduction just months before he passed away.
Over the next decade, I wrote four more books on writing, reading, and language. I could point out to you Don Murray’s fingerprints on every page. Those five words on that single sheet of paper turned out to have a power and influence beyond my imaginings. Murray’s model of the writing process became central to the teaching of writing at Poynter for a generation. The words were not sacred. Not at all. My colleagues such as Don Fry, Chip Scanlan, Tom French, Kelly Benham, Jacqui Banaszynski — along with countless visiting writing teachers — all felt free to play with the model.
My own revision added some steps – which may be a source of strength or weakness, I’m not sure. It looks like this:
Seven common words. I added "Select" after working with so many writers who had a difficult time choosing one scene, detail, or anecdote over another. I added "Order" because I realized how often writers would prepare themselves for writing by imagining an architecture for a story, sometimes just beginning, middle, ending, but often something more elaborate. "Revise" seemed more useful than Murray’s "Clarify" because it contained the meaning of "to see again" and could be applied to all earlier steps in the process.
When I think of the endurance of Murray’s model, I recognize these benefits:
- It offers to writers and editors a shared vocabulary for discussing the process.
- It is a tool of assessment, both for individual stories and the collective work of a writer. "That story lacks a focus." Or "You are good at finding a coherent order for your stories."
- Writers can use it on themselves. I know, for example, that I am stronger at idea generation than I am at information collection.
- Writers and editors can use it to solve problems. Just identify where you are stuck, and go back a step or two looking for a solution.
- As someone recently mentioned on Twitter, those five steps (such as idea generation) apply to all creative work, building a framework for collaboration.
My five books for Little, Brown have sold more than a quarter of a million copies. I am delighted to announce the 10th Anniversary Edition of "Writing Tools," which includes five new tools, a total of 55.
Writing tools come from an X-ray reading of good writing. Unlike some other writing teachers, I learn much more from good writing than from bad. I assume that I will learn something new and interesting about the craft — maybe even a new tool — every day. When I do, I pass it along to you as soon as I can. It has become a life’s work.
Thanks to Donald Murray and those five little words.