It’s time to come clean:  I’m not nuts about one of the bits of writing advice I keep hearing everywhere.

Just write.  It doesn’t matter if it stinks.  Just get it written.

Even a couple of the quotes I posted yesterday offer this advice, or something like it.

I just can’t buy into that philosophy.  I wish I could.  But I’m a recursive writer, and in fact I think many of us are recursive writers and it just goes against our nature to do it any other way.  I think that for recursive people, it’s not possible to do it any other way.

I regularly ask my students to list the steps in their writing processes, from the day they receive a writing assignment to the day they turn in a completed paper.  As it turns out, very few of them seem to incorporate any steps into their process that are very different from anyone else’s steps.  I’m pretty sure these steps are universal, whether one is writing a freshman paper in college or the Great American Novel.

As the students call out their steps, I write them all on the board:

Read.  Think.  Procrastinate.  Brainstorm.  Generate ideas.  Outline.  Write.  Read out loud.  Revise.  Proofread.  Spell-check.  Edit.  Check formatting.  Submit.

Sound familiar?  I’m going to guess yes.  If you’re a writer, yes.

These steps all invariably fall into three categories:

  1. Invention (aka prewriting)
  2. Drafting (aka writing)
  3. Revision (aka rewriting)

So here’s the zillion-dollar question:  Do you do these in order when you write?  What I mean by this is, do you do all of your brainstorming and invention, get all your ideas together, do all of your research, and then start writing?  Do you write a whole draft from beginning to end without getting writer’s block, without doing any further research, without stopping to come up with new ideas, without changing a single word?  Do you wait until you have a whole complete draft before you launch into the dreaded revision and editing process?

I’m going to guess that unless you’re Jack Kerouac, the answer to that is a big fat NO.

Nobody does that.

That’s because writing itself is a recursive process.

You get an idea (invention).  You jot it down (writing).  You get a few more ideas and jot those down (invention and writing).  These jottings are starting to look like a story, but man, that third paragraph needs to come sooner.  So you move it (revision).  Now there’s a gap where it used to be, so you sit and think about how to fill the gap (invention).  You write another paragraph (writing), but the opening sentence is off, so you go back and reword it (revision).  Meanwhile you realize that you really don’t know anything about X, and you’re going to have to do some googling before you can move the story forward (invention).  Then, as you’re chugging along (writing), you develop a terrible case of writer’s block.  And back to idea generation you go (invention).

Sound familiar?

That’s the recursive nature of writing.  It bounces back and forth between those three stages.

And it’s NORMAL.  Almost nobody writes in a completely linear fashion.

Yet the writerly advice persists:  Just get it written.  You can go back and fix it later.

It’s true—you can go back and fix it later.  In fact, you’ll have to.  The recursivity of writing is not a substitute for good, solid revision once a draft is complete.  But the fact is, nothing I’ve ever written using the “no matter how bad it is, at least you’ve written something” theory is worth a crap.  It always results in my making more work for myself, not less.

Good writing takes time, no matter where you spend that time—but I know that no matter how much research and planning I do ahead of time, I’m not going to get to the complete draft stage without engaging in a lot of recursiveness in between here and there.  And I’ve found that beating myself up for doing it that way—for breaking someone else’s “rules”—is a mistake.  I’m sure that method works well for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

So here’s my theory:  There is no “right” way to get a draft done.

The “right” way to do it is your way.

So be bold.  Embrace your recursive self.