My Ideal Writing Workflow


In the last video we talked about the right way to think about outlining and how outlines can be used at any point in the writing process to get a structural snapshot that can help you diagnose and solve problems with your writing.

In this video I want to move a little closer to the actual mechanics of writing, and show you what my ideal writing workflow would look like.

Everyone who writes a lot has their own approach to writing, but I find that many students who don’t write much, who only write essays once or twice a year when it’s required for a class, don’t even have the concept of a “writing workflow”.

That needs to change. I think students can really benefit from some exposure to the concept of a writing workflow, and some examples.

In this video I’m going to focus on what an ideal workflow might look like, given the importance that I’ve placed on the use of outlines, draft writing and rewriting. I’m also going to talk about integrating the use of reference sources into this workflow.

Ideal Workflow

Let’s start with outlining and draft writing.

1. Synchronized Outlining and Drafting Mode

Ideally I’d like to be able to start out with brainstorming, either in outline mode or some kind of mind-mapping or concept-mapping mode. Mind-maps have a looser structure than outlines and they can be helpful when you’re still in a very exploratory stage, to visualize associations between ideas. But they also have a hierarchical structure, so you want the option of converting a mind-map into an outline at some point.

Now, just about every outlining tool can do the following things:

1. Add sibling nodes and child nodes to the outline.

2. Promote and demote nodes, up and down the hierarchy.

3. Collapse and expand the child nodes at any given level in the hierarchy.

4. “Hoist” a node to the top of the editing page so you can work on it and it’s sub-nodes in isolation from the rest of the outline.

What I want to see in my ideal workflow is to be able to switch from the outline mode to a draft writing mode. I’d like to be able jump in and start writing using standard editing tools, like headings and sub-headings, bold and italics, ordered and unordered lists, and so on.

And ideally, what I’d like is that if I change the hierarchical structure of the document when I’m editing it, those changes will be automatically reflected in the outline. If I swap out section 4 and section 2 in my document, I want that to be reflected in the outline.

The key idea is that I want it to be easy to move back and forth between outline mode and draft writing mode. Any changes I make in the outline will automatically be reflected in the structure of the draft, and vice versa.

That’s what I mean by “synchronized outlining and drafting mode”.

2. Easy Access to Research Materials While Writing

Now, most academic essays are going to require that you do some research on a topic and reference any sources you might have in your writing.

From a workflow standpoint, the important thing is to have easy access to your research materials , while you’re writing. And I want to have access to them whether I’m in outline mode or draft mode.

Your research activities will finding sources, reading articles and books and web sites, finding images, watching videos, listening to audio files, and collecting and organizing these sources in way that allows you to remember what’s in them and where to find relevant information when you’re actually writing.

Ideally, I want all of these research activities to be easily integrated into my writing workflow. For example, I’d like to be able to jump out of outline mode or draft writing mode, consult a source or look up a new source, and then jump back into my writing right where I left off.

I don’t want the transition to be so disruptive that it’s a huge production to look up a source, find the relevant information, and then go back into the writing to paraphrase the reference or copy a quotation. I want this part of the writing process to be just as easy to manage as switching between outline mode and draft writing mode.

Summing Up

So, to sum up, my ideal writing workflow has two major components:

1. Synchronized Outlining and Drafting Mode

First, I want to be able to make changes to the outline that automatically change the organization of the draft, and vice versa. I call this “synchronized outlining and draft mode”.

2. Easy Access to Research Materials While Writing

And second, I want my research materials to be easily accessible while I’m writing, so that I can consult it and refer to it during the writing process, without disrupting the writing process too much.

People who write a lot develop their own workflow, and the emphasis will vary from person to person. A student has different needs than, say, a professional academic who makes heavy use of journal articles in their research. And an academic has different needs than, say, a novelist who need to keep track of plot and character elements and research materials that are used to inform the setting of a story.

But anyone who writes a lot will recognize the value of the features of an ideal writing workflow that I’ve emphasized here. How these are implemented will differ from writer to writer.

If you’re student then the sooner you start thinking about writing workflow the better, because a good workflow makes any writing task easier.