by Joseph Bentz
I would like to declare a new stage of the writing process. I call it “after-writing.” Even though I never see it discussed in books or articles about writing, for me it has been a crucial stage in the writing of my books.
I teach writing in a variety of venues, from freshman courses at Azusa Pacific University to professional conferences like the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, where I will be leading a Morning Mentoring Clinic on writing nonfiction books this year. In textbooks, writing experts often identify and describe the various stages of the writing process as pre-writing, drafting, revision, editing, and proofreading. The “after-writing” stage that I am proposing is not represented by any of those steps. By overlooking it, writers may be losing an opportunity to harness much more of their creative energy.
Here is how after-writing works for me. I sit down for my scheduled daily writing session on the book I am working on. Let’s say I have three hours for that session. At the end of that time, I will have to set the book aside, move on to other things, and come back the next day to pick up where I left off. By the time the writing session is over, my ideas are usually flowing pretty well, I have an idea where I am headed next, and I look forward to getting back to it the following session.
As you may have experienced, what often happens the next day is that as I glance over what I wrote the day before, my sense of momentum that had felt so strong the previous day has now shut down. I often think, Now, where was I headed with this? What was I planning to write next? I can spend much of the current day’s writing time trying to reconstruct that mind-set of the previous day and re-enter that creative flow.
“After-writing” helps prevent that dilemma. Now, instead of merely stopping at the end of a writing session, I make sure to leave a little time—maybe ten or fifteen minutes—at the end of a session to jot down a note to myself about what I would have written next if I had been able to continue. This “after-writing” note is usually rough. I don’t worry about getting the wording just right or tracking down the documentation of a source or even writing in complete thoughts. What I’m after is a road map for the next day. I need notes that capture my thinking of that moment so that when I read them the next day, those thoughts will come alive inside me again, and I won’t have to waste time recreating my earlier mind-set. The notes might be so rough that they would make sense to no one but me, but I am the only one who will read them anyway.
“After-writing” has another benefit. I have noticed that when I am in my more formal writing stage, I am sometimes a little tense as I try to get the sentences and paragraphs just right. But once I enter the “after-writing” stage and the pressure is off, sometimes that unleashes a whole new burst of creativity. Even though I might have felt worn out from writing, I suddenly have a new gush of words that I can barely type fast enough to get on the screen. That second wind sometimes leads me to postpone my stopping time and keep going awhile longer.
I have discovered one final advantage of the after-writing stage. After many years as a writer, I noticed that once I have stopped writing for the day and my mind has let go of that disciplined way of thinking, I often have another rush of ideas about an hour later. I used to ignore that or even squelch it, thinking that I had already done my work for the day and should relax and return to it tomorrow. But now I prepare myself for that little “brainstorm” and take advantage of it by jotting down whatever comes during that time. Then I can go back to whatever else I was doing.
For me, writing a book includes many moments of joy, insight, and satisfaction, but it is also a long, hard slog. Good ideas are precious commodities in that process, and I want to do everything I can to capture the ones that show up. “After-writing” is one of the best techniques I have found to accomplish that.
Joseph Bentz has published four novels and five nonfiction books. His most recent book, Nothing Is Wasted, was published in 2016 by Beacon Hill Press. He is a blogger and currently at work on a book about passages of Scripture that have changed the world. He is a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California, where he teaches courses in writing and American literature.