Have you ever sat down at the computer when you finally carved out time to write, only to discover you have no idea where to start or what to say? You end up wasting a lot of precious time if that’s your approach. In times like that, it’s nice to have a plan, a process, a system of some sort, that helps you take your projects from start to finish.
The Writing Pipeline: Taking Your Projects from Start to Finish
I’d like to recommend you develop a writing pipeline: a process with phases or stages that take a writing project from initial idea to final product…including the step of shipping it out into the world.
I’m not suggesting your writing turns into an assembly line, churning out uninspired content to meet quota or deadlines. Not at all. In fact, a piece you’re working on might live in the draft phase for long stretches while you noodle it. So while a pipeline process might make you become more efficient, it’s not only about efficiency.
Whether you formalize the process or not, any given piece of writing hits various phases along its journey. By identifying where something is in the pipeline, you can work on it and move it along, knowing where it’s at and what’s left to do before it’s ready to ship.
Phases of the Writing Pipeline
Any given writing piece moves through several phases, not including prewriting activities, which would be mainly reading and research. Let’s take a look.
Prewriting Is Pre-Pipeline
Reading and research activities precede and transcend the pipeline, as the books you’re reading and quotes from experts might apply to any or all or none of your projects. I’ll mention them briefly, though, because while they don’t always represent the start of a project, reading and research can have their own storage systems that support the pipeline stages.
Prewriting: Reading and Project-Specific Research
I read widely, just for fun or to follow my curiosity. But I also purposely seek out and store articles, excerpts, quotes, and interviews that might contribute to a particular project.
I have an Evernote folder labeled Research where I can drop articles and things to read, and I also use the app called Pocket. In it, I save articles to read when I have time. And of course I read books of all kinds—e-books, printed books, and audiobooks—knowing in any of these I may find content to include in one of my projects.
Prewriting: Notes and Quotes
My bookshelf, Pocket, and my Research folder are like giant hoppers I continually fill with inspiration and potential. I pull from the hopper to read and curate the best quotes and ideas. Those need to go someplace different, set apart from the jumble.
I put them in a Notes and Quotes folder—I can tag a note with keywords in Evernote, making it easier to search and sort as needed. But I also use a folder, even though a lot of people have abandoned folders in Evernote. I often dip into this Notes and Quotes folder when projects are in the draft stage to integrate the nuggets I gathered.
Those are some of the prewriting activities. Now, the Pipeline itself.
The Pipeline Stages
I’ve identified five stages or phases in a writing pipeline. In Evernote, I actually drag and drop a project file into the next folder and the next in the pipeline as it progresses. You can easily adapt the pipeline concept to many other systems—even a physical system with file folders or a three-ring notebook, moving from hanging folder to hanging folder or divider to divider.
Any project starts as an idea, so I have an Ideas folder. In the ideas folder, I have one master file I can open and add any idea I think of. I might write them as headlines or as a one-sentence summary (or both). If I scribble an article or essay idea on an envelope in the car, I copy it into this file. I also drop in headline templates just for fun or keyword lists that interest me. Those live in their own files within the Ideas folder.
The Drafts folder holds any and all works-in-progress (WIP)—the projects that are in-process. When I’m energized and have time to write, most likely I’ll open this folder because whatever I choose to work on, it’ll require focused mental energy needed for content creation. This is where I’m still building out a project, still developing the idea. When the piece is parked here, the entire draft is not fully formed. This is where the projects—and I as the writer—spend the most time.
3. Final Edits
When the piece has finally taken shape and feels as fully developed as I could manage in the draft stage, I move it on down the pipeline. This means I move the file over to the Final Edits folder, pop on my editing hat, and go to work. I want to spend more time with the project, sticking with it until it feels truly complete—not perfect, but complete. Polished. Proofread. This is where I’ll finalize the piece so it’s ready to send.
I see the shipped phase as its own phase separate from the published portfolio or archive of my work. In terms of labeling the pipeline, think of shipped work as the final version that’s still in-process. I’m no longer tweaking it, though; what’s in-process is the decision and its official appearance in the world. After I ship, I’m waiting for a response from someone—an agent, an acquisitions editor, contest results—or I’m waiting for the publishing date to roll around.
If I’ve submitted an essay or poem to a literary magazine, I’ll have to track that piece. It’s shipped, but it’s not published and requires follow-up. For articles that live on my website, I’ll prep the post and if I’m working ahead, I’ll schedule it for a week or more out. The final version of that piece can live in the Shipped folder until it’s published, and then I can move it to the next phase, which is the Portfolio or Archive folder.
Hey, congratulations! Your piece has been sent out into the world. It’s published—maybe on your own website, maybe as an article in a magazine, or maybe your project is a book picked up by a publisher and it’s launch day.
Now that your piece is being read and enjoyed, your final, shipped version can move over to a Portfolio or Archive folder. For shorter pieces, you’ll get a copy of the finished product, what they call a clip. Whether you grab a screenshot of it online or you get a hard copy to scan and save as a pdf, the clip can go into that file, too. As your Portfolio file grows, you’ll realize you’re creating a body of work. Look back on it now and then to realize you are doing the work of a writer.
The Pipeline’s Projects
You can usher one piece of writing all the way through the pipeline before starting another, or you can steadily move multiple projects down the pipeline, each at a different stage. It’s up to you.
But this is not a manufacturing plant for your writing. This is a way for you to organize your writing process so that when you sit at the desk, you can open the file of any given project, know what it needs given the phase it’s in, and get to work, confidently taking all your projects from start to finish.
- Ep 112: My Best Writing Tools to Get More Done (at Home and on the Go)
- Ep 50: Stop Waiting for Last-Minute Inspiration (challenge to write 50 headlines, or ideas)
- Ep 51: Make the Most of Your 50 Headlines
- Ep 113: An Easy Solution for the Writer with Big Goals and Little Time (write with your voice)
- Ep 95: Focus on Your High-Level Edits First
- Ep 96: When You Really Need Next-Level Edits
- Ep 91: Your Work Needs Revision (but Don’t Be Afraid)
- Ep 92: How to Compose the Perfect First Draft
- Ep 93: Why I’m Committing to the Work-Ahead Advantage
- Ep 99: Submissions: To Get a Yes, You Risk a No
- Ep 37: How Good Does My Writing Need to Be Online?
- All podcast episodes
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