My Writing Process

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 🙂

Published by Nabil

Nabil Othman, MD is an anesthesiology resident physician at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA. As a Michigan native he advocates calling carbonated, sugary beverages "pop". When he is not an indentured servant in the hospital he enjoys CrossFit, telling everyone he meets about CrossFit, and attempting dangerous hikes in Hawaii with his college roommates.

2 thoughts on “My Writing Process

    1. Hi Reg! Early in the writing process I learned I had strengths and weaknesses. I had to adopt my writing process to my individual quirks. Other writers may do different things that work for them

      My strengths:
      – I have the cognitive stamina to write between 1000-3000 words per day consistently. That means I have a large volume of writing to use.
      -When I write I digress often. That means I have a large diversity of writing to use

      – I have poor insight into what writing is appropriate and what is not. I did best when I told my editors what I was trying to do then asked them if my writing achieved my goal or not. When multiple people from multiple perspectives agreed my writing matched my goal I knew It was probably true.
      – When I write I think my writing is a lot simpler than it actually is. In order to correct for my own bias I asked people who had no knowledge of medicine to read my writing. I had to set goals then delegate the decision-making to a third party because I lack the perspective to give an unbiased opinion

      I realized I was the best person to create writing and set goals, but I was not the best person to figure out how to meet those goals. I needed to rely on others because they had a third person perspective of my writing I would never have. I chose all of my readers for a specific purpose: one inside of medicine, one outside of medicine, and one in between the two. That way I was sure the writing would be engaging to medical people while being accessible to non-medical people.

      Feedback is difficult to hear for everyone. Humans naturally think they’re always right! Every time I asked for criticism I forced myself to accept my reader had only good intentions. My job was then to figure how they were trying to help me!

      Liked by 2 people

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