Humans are optimized for face-to-face communication using tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. People commonly say 80% of communication is non-verbal. While the statistic is not technically true, scientific consensus seems to be non-verbal communication is more important than the actual words we say. People are generally good at understanding each other even if the wrong words are spoken.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, writing is a communication style void of non-verbal communication. Readers cannot experience my facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language. Therefore I have to code my message so readers can understand it without the advantages of non-verbal communication. This is why writing is unnatural and difficult to learn. Humans are not cognitively optimized to express themselves without non-verbal cues.
Face-to-face communication is highly decentralized: either person can direct the conversation towards the subject he or she specifically needs at any time for any reason. A conversation between two people about computers can be paused or diverted an infinite number of times until both people understand the content. Perhaps Person 1 needs to ask Person 2 a specific question about software. Go ahead! Then Person 2 forgot a specific detail about hardware: “one sec, let me Google that.” Natural communication is a two people building a mutual understanding from the bottom up.
Writing is highly centralized: only one narrative can exist then can’t be changed to accommodate individual needs. A single narrative must be understood by hundred or even thousands of people at the same time. Errors of fact, unnecessary details, or digressions now carry a very steep price because they distract the reader. Writing is an unnatural one-sided lecture from someone you have never met. It is a single idea expressed from the top down.
I had to find a way to outmaneuver hundreds of thousands of years of evolution…turns out that wasn’t going to happen. I quickly learned how I initially expressed myself was beyond my control, but processing the initial writing was 100% in my control. I adapted by word vomiting all of my ideas out on paper, taking a break of 1-7 days, then re-organize those ideas into meaningful writing. Periods of uninhibited, inventive creative expression were followed by periods of deliberate, draconian editing.
Every iteration of creative expression followed by editing yielded a more precise message. It felt like tending to a garden: I would plant seeds, see what grew then adjust my gardening techniques to optimize growth of the best ideas. My creative process was like a random idea generator. My editing process was highly methodical and systematic.
I also figured out never to delete anything: no writing is useless it is just in the wrong place or occurred at the wrong time. Some of my best writing was saved for months until its purpose became apparent.
Below is a graphic describing my writing process:
Above all else this process required humility. I had to accept only 10% of my ideas were worth keeping. I also realized I was terrible at choosing which ideas were the good ones! I showed my writing to my editor, colleagues, and friends then followed their advice. When all parties gave the same feedback I knew the feedback was probably true. Writing a book meant accepting criticism with grace. If I wanted a quality book I had to leave my ego behind.
I had to make every decision based on what my audience wanted not what I wanted. This meant deleting irrelevant stories I really liked. William Faulkner called this “killing your darlings”. A strong emotional connection with a story has nothing to do with whether the story should be included in a book. The most painful part of the writing process was removing my favorite stories, knowing they might never see the light of day.
An unexpected byproduct of this harsh editing process was enough material for at least one more book! A second book may or may not be already outlined 🙂