How do writers write? The journey of an idea from conception to completion


People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it. – Harlan Ellison.

I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect – Billy Wilder

One of my favorite characters in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series is the hugely successful mystery writer, Ariadne Oliver. As an alter ego to Dame Agatha herself, she comes across as this delightful and highly intuitive writer, whose main aim in life is to avoid any public function or gatherings that forces her to meet her simpering and fawning fans. The reason? They always ask her how she does it! And they gaze expectantly at her, waiting for this answer that maintains the illusion that writing is both magical and mystical.

Poor Ariadne – how does she answer in a single sentence the agony she goes through when she creates a piece of fiction? The hours of hard work striking at the typewriter, the frustration in having an idea come to nothing, the soul-searching and the self-doubting when the writing has to be edited, and oh the relief! when the manuscript is shipped off to the publisher.

Sounds familiar? As writers, big or small, for the print or the online world, we probably have been asked similar questions by our friends and family, and have gone through similar experiences as Ms. Oliver. Sometimes we surprise ourselves at the creativity that bursts forth from our mind, and at other times, we rant and rave when we stare at a piece of white paper (screen) wondering how we are ever going to meet the deadline.

So how do writers really write? Shorn of all technical details, here is what I think happens when a writer sets out to write.

Phase 1: Germinating:

The seed of an idea can be from anything or anywhere. Chance conversations, questions, remarks, travel, articles – anything can tickle a writer’s fancy. Sometimes the writer is not even aware that she will write about it, but anything that intrigues, worries, or rankles is recorded sub-consciously.

Over lunch, my cousin and I were talking about formatting and updating documents for his financial client in the UK. In my mind, I thought what a relief it is to know that I never have to format my resume ever again! (Entrepreneurs rarely need to do that).

Random thought? Yes.

Phase 2:  Solidifying:

While there are some obvious themes a writer writes about – some of them specifically requested by a publisher or a client – there are times when these sub-conscious recordings (aka random thoughts) start coming to the forefront. Maybe reading another article, or a quick conversation with a colleague can help solidify the idea.

I was watching my husband pack for one of his numerous business trips. The first thing he always packs? Phones, chargers, data card, connectors……..This triggered the next thought: If he were to go on a vacation, he takes all these too.

Phase 3: Thinking:

When the urge to create comes, it usually is because there is this small voice in our head that sometimes whispers, sometimes nudges. When that happens, the thought process starts. I call this the commercialization part: is there enough meat in this idea to develop it into an article? A blog? What if I add my perspective on entrepreneurship? Or do I keep it light and funny?

So here I am thinking: What else does an entrepreneur need not do? Cannot do? Can he go on a vacation without all these paraphernalia? Even if he does, will he be able to relax?

Phase 4: Outpouring:

As these thoughts come crowding, one on top of another, then the writer has to sit down and write. At that point, it can be the middle of the night, she can be driving to work, or packing lunch for the kids…there is this urge to somehow find a piece of paper and pour it all out. And once the writing starts, other unconscious thoughts or observations come rushing out – thoughts that we had no idea we observed or preserved.

Six awesome things you can never do as an entrepreneur was the result of the outpouring. It came out over a quick “download” session that lasted only 20 minutes in the middle of work.

Phase 5: Editing

The actual agony starts now. By now, writers have fallen in love with their piece of work. To them, every word is perfect – perfectly construed and placed. But writers also know that the first draft rarely cuts it. So they go away, do other things (all the while rephrasing, adding, editing, polishing in their mind!) and come back to it. Some writers insist on giving themselves at least a day before they edit; some may not have that luxury. But usually leaving it alone helps.

I started the article with 10 things, but felt that some of them were feeble. Weak. It did not add punch to the article. So I started trimming it to the only ideas that I did not force onto the page. The first few ideas that flowed quickly were the ones I kept in. 

Phase 6: Worrying!

I agree with Henry Miller when he says that writing is its own reward. But writers are also human enough to want some appreciation, a recognition that their words have made a difference, momentarily, to someone. That it made them think, laugh or reflect. Until the first acknowledgement comes through, the worrying phase is indeed trying!


For me, writing is an addiction.  So is the case with almost all writers. Once they get hold of an idea, it hounds and haunts them until they sit still and pen it down. The idea can either peter away to nothing, or blossom into a piece of honest writing that pierces the reader’s soul. But either way, the writer goes through the agony and the process, and emerges richer – with or without a piece of content to show for her efforts.


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