Every writer gets asked, from time to time, his or her process for writing. For those on the outside of the profession, this question is usually cloaked in the guise “Where do you get your ideas?” – something I’ve answered here and there on previous occasions – but for those on the inside, the question is more frequently couched in more specific terms. In particular, I’ve been flattered with praise for my ability to see the trees while keeping an eye on the shape of the forest, for being able to hold a broad overall plan in mind while focusing on a narrower question. My campaigns have a similar style about them, with smaller building blocks – adventure plots and subplots – that come together in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts by virtue of the connections between those creative elements.
I use the same, essentially self-taught, process for writing everything – from RPG adventures to fiction, correspondence to game supplements. That means that it is a subject worth examining here at Campaign Mastery. I’m going to do so from two perspectives: first, I’m going to talk about how I write a Blog Post, using this very post as the example, and then – at some future point (which might be as soon as next week) – I’ll illustrate how I write an adventure for one of my campaigns.
I start with a subject. Sometimes this is just a heading, sometimes it’s a paragraph, and sometimes there’s correspondence. I keep a list of these at the bottom of the file in which I keep blogs under development – the only time a prospective post leaves this document is when it gets deleted after posting, or when it gets extracted to a separate file because it has formed part of a tightly-connected series. Quite often, this will form the blog title and/or subtitle, or at least, a working title. There’ll be more on the subject of article titles a little later.
The initial subject for this article was “How I (Usually) Write” – which has indeed formed part of the subheading for this post.
Although I will occasionally write a 1-2 line synopsis of what the article is about when I first list the subject, I will more often leave that until I actually start writing the blog post itself. The synopsis outlines the subject of the article and the value that it proposes to offer the reader. This is a reminder to myself of where the article is to go, what I’m trying to say in it, and why the journey is worthwhile. These almost always end up being incorporated into the first paragraph or two in the introduction, or the last paragraph or two in the conclusion (very rarely, both).
The synopsis for this article was “Structure, Process/Procedure, Narrative – same process as for adventures and novels. Creativity and dialogue vs. logic.”
I then break the discussion down into a series of bullet points that will usually become the topic headings. While I may sometimes have a clear vision of the breakdown sequence, more often than not these are generated by free association and then ordered into something vaguely sensible. These are signposts on my mental “map” from point A (introduction) to B (conclusion), with the narrative to serve as tour guide. If there is no obviously logical sequence, as when I am trying to look at all aspects of something, or (sometimes) when I am trying to answer a question, I’ll try to proceed from simplest to most complex.
More often than not, a single layer of headings is not deep enough or rich enough to encompass the full details. This is especially true if there is a list of some sort involved, where each item on the list needs its own discussion. As a rule of thumb, if everything I have to say will fit into a single, reasonably brief, paragraph, the list is better treated as such; if it doesn’t fit that restriction, then it’s better to present the list and then dedicate a subheading to each item on the list.
Because both headings and subheadings are generated by both logic and free association to identify related questions, this permits a holistic approach that usually ensures full coverage of a subject, and a somewhat organic structure to the article that reads naturally. While they will often be listed in the same sequence they are thought of, because one thought naturally follows another, there will be times when I will go back and insert a new item, and times when I will use drag-and-drop on a line to re-sequence the thoughts into something more coherent.
The end result is a working blueprint for the content. The progression from discussion point to discussion point should be reasonably clear; to mix metaphors, the blueprint is a plan for the eventual shape of the forest. Using it as a guideline, I can focus as much attention as necessary on each individual tree while preserving the overall shape of the landscape. I will usually review this blueprint a time or two before I start actually writing the article, just to ensure that there are no other topics to be discussed, and that the “roadmap” does indeed get from point A to B, from proposal or idea to some sort of destination.
The “roadmap” for this article, showing both headings and subheadings, is shown below, exactly as I produced it. A couple of the entries were inserted afterwards, and some of the topic headings became subtopics, and vice-versa, but the overall structure reflects the routine process that I employ to write a blog post. You’ll notice that I’m often lazy about capitals in the list – I want to generate it as quickly as possible.
* initial subject
* blueprint review
** heading synopsis
– why, how, the urgency
* stylistic considerations
* one section at a time
** narrative considerations
** resequencing headings & subheadings
** author’s comments, asides, and sidebars
** links & references
* length & subdivision
* read it
* revise it
* spellcheck it
* the title
* re-read it
Usually, the heading is enough. Sometimes, though, the heading might be more artistic and expressive than defining of the subject, or there might be some subtle point that I want to be sure to make. When that happens, I’ll add another 1-2 line synopsis under the heading. It’s important to do this before you start writing anything more than the introduction, and preferably while still at this stage of the writing process, because these are the sort of details that can get lost when you get distracted by the actual writing, or that can so monopolize your attention that you lose focus on the overall direction of the article – that “forest for the trees” problem manifesting itself.
The “roadmap” shown above uses a heading synopsis when describing this very section. I probably didn’t need the “why” and “how”, but wanted to be sure to remember to mention the urgency, ie the need to do such synopses while you still have the overall article in mind – and not to wait until those details are forgotten.
When I write, there are a couple of rules that I try to follow, from which I will only deviate when absolutely necessary. The first is to always try and describe or explain the need for something before I actually provide it – I always want the answer to the question “Why is this here?” to be self-evident. The second is to ensure that there is always a topic introduction before moving into subtopics – something you’ll see in action in the next section of this article. And the third is to always define a term or procedure before I employ it, unless that term is sufficiently well-known within the sphere of RPG games or is otherwise self-explanatory.
The Writing Begins
I then start writing the article. I tend to adopt a conversational style, simply because that comes naturally to me. Sometimes, I even point-counterpoint myself to keep the narrative going. While I may have a general idea of the topic, and even of what is to be said concerning that topic, I’ll generally start at the top of each section and work my way down until they are all finished – or until the length becomes so great that I have to divide the post into a series (more on that a little later). Sometimes I will have a few rough notes to follow, made when I start working on a section, just to make sure that I mention everything I want to do, and use any particular turns of phrase that have come to mind and that I especially like.
I tend to write very quickly as a result of this approach. However, unlike a real-life conversation, you can always go back and insert in an afterthought when one comes to mind (as it often does) – such as this entire paragraph.
Sometimes I will leave writing the introduction until the end, at other times it flows naturally. In general, the less sure I am about what conclusion I will come to, such as when I am illustrating or discussing some process or procedure that I use, the more likely I am to leave the introduction until the end.
I also have a weakness for being warm, friendly, and (hopefully) witty in my opening paragraphs – if they aren’t entertaining enough, they may get scrapped and left until later.
Another point that should be made is that I don’t slavishly follow the blueprint. If what I have to say in any given subsection leads more naturally to a different subheading than the one originally scheduled to follow the passages just drafted, then I will at least consider moving that subsection. Conversely, if for some reason I’m having trouble elucidating the point of a particular subheading, then – after a couple of attempts – I will move it down the list, or simply leave a half-dozen lines of blank space so that it becomes obvious that there is a blank to be filled in.
The goal is to have the narrative flow naturally; instead of completing one subtopic and going all the way back to the main topic to start the next, I try to build on the neighboring (and preceding) subtopic.
That also means that sometimes, one subsection will consume another – as this one has done to what was supposed to be the next subtopic, “resequencing headings & subheadings”.
Author’s notes, Comments, Asides, and Sidebars
I’ll often drop these in to break up an article that’s becoming too monolithic. I have no rules to decide when to do so – in general, if I think of a side-comment at the time, I’ll often include it in the narrative at that point, but use some form of formatting to set it aside from the rest of the text. So they are usually written at the time and when I get up to the point at which they appear.
Another reason to include them is that I am a big fan of glimpses “behind the curtain”. If you know what an author or game designer is trying to achieve with a given chapter, rule, or subsystem, whether they succeed or fail becomes less important. It helps interpret anything that’s unclear, and provides a direction for any replacements – whether those be by the same author, by a house rule, or by some other means up update. If I know why something is there, it can help me understand what is there. Or elsewhere, by analogy. It also helps distinguish between design objectives and unintended byproducts.
Comments also get added in, occasionally, when I feel the need to clarify something and don’t want to monkey with the original text for some reason. These are the equivalent of footnotes, but are presented generally at the point of referance rather than at the end of the article.
Sidebars are a different story.
When I toured the US in the 70s, my family and I visited Las Vegas. While there, we had the option of a side-trip to the Grand Canyon, but couldn’t afford it – and were distracted by the theft of our luggage, anyway. When I went back to the States in the 90s for the Boston Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention for the uninitiated), I took in a day excursion to Salem, Massachusetts. Sidebars are the same thing – something extra, not needed for the main text, but relevant and that add something substantial to the article.
Sometimes, these are written before I start work on the article, sometimes they are written when I get to that point in the article, but most frequently I will leave them until the very last. The reason for this is simple – until the main article is written, I can never be sure whether it will prove necessary to incorporate them into the main text or not. There have been any number of occasions when I have written myself into a corner and something I had slated for a sidebar furnished the escape hatch. (There have also been occasions when content originally thought to belong in a sidebar grew sufficiently to become a new article in its own right.)
Having learned from this type of experience, I will generally define and position a sidebar at the time I’m working on the main text but leave the writing of it until I’ve reviewed the text without it. At most, I’ll make a few notes in advance.
Links & References
Links & references, on the other hand, happen while I’m writing – and they happen afterwards as well. Let me explain:-
Because I write my posts offline and only upload and format them when they are ready to go – except under unusual circumstances – URLS don’t become hyperlinks until the editing stage, when I’m actually using the word processor that comes with the Blogging platform. Prior to that, they exist in a far more primitive form.
Nor do I like interrupting the flow of adding words to the text to go chase up some reference unless I need the information in order to continue writing. The rest of the time, I’ll simply put the phrase to be hyperlinked on a line by itself, followed by a blank line, and then the reminder “[link]”, and then continue writing the text. Like this:
Here’s a line of text that is going to have a
in the middle of the sentence.
Once I’ve finished writing, I go through and look up / search for the URLs that I need for the link and copy-&-paste them into the blank line. I can find them within the text quickly and easily because of the world “link” in the square brackets. So, assuming that I have done so for the example, it would now look like this:
Here’s a line of text that is going to have a
in the middle of the sentence.
If, on the other hand, I needed to look something up in order to continue writing the article, I’ll put the URL into the space immediately I access the web page. So it will look like the second example above immediately.
In the editing phase, I cut the URL out of the text and convert the phrase on a line by itself to a hyperlink, do any editing (I like URLs in my articles to open in a new tab rather than taking readers away from the article, so I insert ‘target=”_blank” if I have to), then tidy up the sentence. In other words, the above would be changed to read
Here’s a line of text that is going to have a
<a href=”http://www.goesnowhere.com/not-a-real-web-page/” target=”_blank”>linked referance<a>
in the middle of the sentence.
and then to
Here’s a line of text that is going to have a <a href=”http://www.goesnowhere.com/not-a-real-web-page/” target=”_blank”>linked referance</a> in the middle of the sentence.
once I have double-checked that the link works properly. Which means that the reader sees:
Here’s a line of text that is going to have a linked referance in the middle of the sentence.
exactly as intended. NB: don’t bother clicking on that hyperlink – it doesn’t go anywhere!
Length & Subdivision
I aim for my articles to be between two and three thousand words each, but I’m pretty poor at estimating the length as I go, so I’m not overly bothered if a post weighs in at anything less than 5,000 words. If a post is significantly more than 5,000 words, I start taking a hard look to decide whether or not it can be split in two. If I look like hitting that 5,000 word limit (i.e. I’ve written “a lot” of text) with 3/4 or more of the article still to be written, I’ll think even more seriously about whether or not it can be turned into a series of smaller articles.
Several of the 21 series (and counting) that we have here at Campaign Mastery started life intended to be a single article.
Lately, I’ve been a little more flexible in this respect; our WordPress installation used to have a problem losing text if a post was more than about 5K words. The longest post that I can remember ever posting here is about 12000 words long – a special case – and the shortest was only a couple of hundred – again, special circumstances. By and large, I average 3500-4000 words a post.
Subdivision, if it is to occur, happens in one of two ways: (1) I simply run out of time and put the break-point at the end of the last-completed section; or (2) where possible, I divide the article into two parts along more logical lines.
Once again, this article is an example; the original notion was to include the ‘writing an adventure’ equivalents as part of the text, probably in a different-colored text box to distinguish from the ones that look like this. By the time I got to the section on sidebars above, I knew that approach was a non-starter as I already had three-and-half screens of text. These words are located most of the way through the fifth screen. So I immediately revised the opening paragraphs and split the article in two. This part comes in at between 4800 and 4900 words.
The first thing I do when I finish writing an article is to read it – top to bottom. I’m specifically looking for phrasing that doesn’t sound quite right, explanations that don’t explain clearly enough, obvious errors of logic, and other such faux pas. I’m also giving my mind a chance to find any blank spots in the text where I should have explained something but didn’t. I usually won’t revise it at this point – I want to read through the whole thing without pausing. Anywhere that needs revision, I’ll simply change the text color and move on.
Having read it from start to finish, I’ll start again, revising it as I go.
While I don’t use a full-powered word processor to write things – I normally rely on Wordpad – when the article looks finished, I’ll copy it into a word document and spell-check it. I didn’t do this for the first year or so, and as a result some horrendous errors crept in. I usually set the language to US English, even though my native tongue is Australian English – we have some different phrases (which stay in), and some differences in spelling – “colour” instead of “color”, “behaviour” instead of “behavior”, and so on (which get corrected). The reason is that most of Campaign Mastery’s readers are American, and this is at least a gesture of recognition of that fact. Once I’ve finished, I’ll copy-and-paste back over the original in my working document.
It’s common for me to have the title of an article before I start to write, but I have been known to be tweaking it at the 11th hour. Most Campaign Mastery titles come in two parts, the artistic and the literal. The artistic title is what I actually think of as the title of the piece, and the literal is a subtitle that explains what the article is about.
The title of this article, therefore, is “One Word At A Time” and the subtitle is “How I (Usually) Write A Blog Post”. The goal of the artistic title is to be distinctive, and to give the collective “title” a bit of unique flavor.
When it comes to series, I generally turn the Subtitle into the series title and shift the “artistic” title into the subtitle position, though there have been exceptions made. An obvious example is the ongoing series detailing the history of Earth-regency from my superhero campaign.
Above all, the goal of the title is to entice people into reading the article, and secondarily to communicate the subject. Everything else can be considered tertiary to those objectives.
Whenever possible, I like to leave an article to sit for 24 hours before making it public. This gives me time to clear my mind of all the things that I was thinking while writing it, setting me up for the next step:
Every writer strives to achieve clarity in their writing. Clear communication is far more important than any pretentious literary merit that is often only in the eye of the beholder, anyway. The best way that I know of achieving that clarity is to read what you have written after putting some distance between yourself and the process of writing it.
There are three types of picture that go with an article at Campaign Mastery. The first clarifies, amplifies, explains, or illustrates part of the text. These illustrations are not always part of an article. The second is a visual reference, such as the cover of a book that is referenced within the text. Again, these illustrations are not present all the time. The final type I think of as the “anchor” to the article. These are always at the top of a post, and it’s a very rare article at CM that doesn’t have one. Each of these is handled a little differently.
If these are going to be very quick to produce, I do them on the spot. If they are going to take time, I’ll do a quick sketch of what I have in mind on a pad of paper and wait until I’ve finished writing. But I break both rules all the time, depending on how inspired I’m feeling and how clearly I can see the end result in my mind’s eye.
Whenever I cite a reference, I always like to tell people where they can buy it, whether that is Amazon, eBay (okay, there haven’t been any from there yet) or RPGNow. And, when possible – and if it won’t interfere with the flow of the text by distracting the reader from the message and ideas that I am trying to convey – I like to illustrate that reference. If nothing else, it helps break up monolithic blocks of text; but secondly, it can add a second channel of communication. I find that if you are doing nothing but reading words, it often doesn’t paint a picture in the mind; but that once you kick-start the visual sense, it keeps working. I wish that more movie/TV studios, actors, and musicians made publicity stills available for use without copyright complications to use for this purpose, but I’ll work with what I can get!
These exist to function as a visual ‘tag’ for the article, and to kick-start that visual sense that I referred to a moment ago. They are usually left until the text is finished. I always aim for the anchor illustration to add something to the text, whether its a sense of personality or a metaphor for the subject matter. I work hard to find the right illustration, and often have to ‘tweak’ or enhance it before all the nuances that I’m trying to convey are present.
When I finish writing the article, I list as many key words or metaphors for the subject as I can think of. I deliberately try to find a different angle or perspective on the subject in the picture; it’s not enough for it simply to illustrate the article, I want it to add to it. Sometimes this goal is achieved, sometimes I only come close – and sometimes I have to take what I can get. Here are 25 samples from the last two years that I think really hit the mark, in reverse chronological order (click the thumbnail to open the post):
So let’s talk about this article and its keywords. It’s all about writing, so:
quill, pen, words, type, typewriter, typing
If I don’t find the right illustration, or something close enough for me to modify it into what I need/want, then I’ll think again, looking for more keywords. You can see at the top of this article the one that I chose! It came from the very first search term, which doesn’t always happen. I added the blue framing “flashes” to complete it.
Obviously, I don’t upload the graphic until I work on the editing and layout, but I will define any captions and hyperlinks in advance. Here, for example, is a full definition from a recent post:
Caption: The Lunar Prospector was one of the science highlights of 1998. Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.
It specifies that I am to upload both a large-sized image and a thumbnail, and that the thumbnail is to be displayed on the right-hand side of the text and link to the full-sized image.
Editing & Layout
The last thing that I do when writing an article is to upload both it and all the graphics, review it once again, check the layout – I hate orphaned lines because of illustration size, so I do a lot of work on that sort of niggling layout issue – finish converting URLs to hyperlinks, and so on.
“I normally don’t change the text much at this point,” it says in my rough outline of this section. Yeah, right. That’s both true and utterly deceptive. Most of the text won’t change, but occasionally there will be a rephrasing to help the visual flow of text, and there will almost always be something that I rewrite in the 11th hour.
I don’t have to worry about bolding or italics in the editing because I normally incorporate such emphasis in the actual writing process. Similarly, I do most of the work of creating lists, blockquotes, and any html at the time. I do as much as possible in advance because the text editor provided by the blog installation is a difficult to use.
The final touches are administrative – categories and tags. And that’s the procedure I employ to write an article.