I Hate to Write, Part 2: Eating the Elephant

“When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.”
~ Creighton Abrams

Teaching the writing process sometimes gets a bad rap. I suspect this is largely because there are too many writing teachers out there who treat smart guidelines and helpful tricks as hard-and-fast rules that brook no exceptions, not even if those tricks and guidelines aren’t helping. That’s a shame, because the point of writing is to communicate ideas, and any action that doesn’t get those ideas down in a clear and understandable fashion is not worth doing. Period.

With that said, however, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Some techniques make writing easier for most people, and it’s a good idea to try them out instead of suffering along alone. If one doesn’t work for you, reject it and try something else. It’s a personal path.

With apologies to elephants and vegetarians, there’s one strategy that I’m tempted to say is a hard-and-fast rule: eat that elephant one bite at a time instead of trying to jam the whole thing in your mouth. That’s what the writing process does. It breaks down what seems overwhelming and makes it manageable. It does take time, but it takes little bits of time instead of a big bunch of scary, painful, overwhelming time with too many jobs to do all at once.
Here is my outline of the writing process. You should adapt the process as needed so that it works for you, but starting here will probably save any elephant-eater from a sore mouth.

  1. Start Early

    No, that numbering isn’t a mistake. This isn’t really a step in the process; it’s a way to make writing easier because of the way brains work. Start thinking about your writing the moment you know you’re going to write, and even when you’re not consciously working on the essay, your brain will be running in the background, solving writing problems for you.

    The catch: you have to really think about what you’re going to write, not merely let your eyes pass over the titles of the readings you’ve done. Brains engage when they’ve been primed with challenging ideas, and starting early means digging deeply into those ideas.

  2. The Thinking Phase

    Now is the time to use whatever brainstorming or freewriting or idea-mapping or lotus-blossom idea-generator that works for you. If you always use the same one, how about trying something new? Brains like new approaches.

    Be creative when you mull over the texts you’ll be writing about. Find a way to look at the material that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to the average reader, such as similarities in two obviously different characters. Your goal is to say something new and exciting that makes your essay worth reading.

    One good thinking strategy is to push your ideas hard for no more than 15 minutes, and then take a break. Come back and push them some more. This lightning strike strategy is often a good way to get started eating the elephant because it doesn’t allow time for a writer to feel pressured. However, if long, quiet meditations work better, do that instead. Or try a little of both. Whatever works. There are no rules.

  3. The Planning Phase

    This phase is the beginnings of a logical structure for your writing. Outlining is helpful, but it doesn’t have to be an “Every Roman numeral I must have a II” formal outline. The point is to put those ideas from the Thinking Phase into some order that makes sense.

    This is also a good time to examine the reasons and evidence that will support those big ideas you’ve generated. Do you have reasons and evidence? Do they support your big ideas effectively? Before you’ve put paragraphs on paper, develop that support. That way, you won’t start writing and find that what seemed like a great idea simply doesn’t work.

    Don’t skimp on these first two phases. Remember that writing is really about ideas, not words, and so you’ll have a much easier time getting words down if you took sufficient time to develop and organize your ideas.

  4. The Drafting Phase

    Write. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar. Get the idea and all supporting reasons and evidence on the page. Accept that it won’t be perfect, and that’s okay. Revision is inevitable.

    Happily, words are cheap. You’ll make more.


    If you spent enough time in the Thinking and Planning Phases, the Drafting Phase will usually be a lot easier than you expected. If you weren’t well prepared when you got to the Drafting Phase, you’re probably going to know the joy that comes of spending lots of time revising.

  5. The Revising Phase

    Revision is about re-seeing your own writing. It is where you stop reading as the writer and start reading as your audience. Will your argument persuade them? What’s weak? What isn’t working?

    This is probably the hardest phase for most writers. It’s not easy to poke holes in your own work, but that’s the best way to fix holes before the reader finds them.

    I strongly recommend having someone else read your work aloud to you when you get to this point in the writing process. (At the very least, read it aloud to yourself.) Sit with a copy in front of you and mark any place the reader stumbles over words or looks confused. Mark anything that doesn’t sound the way it did in your head when you wrote it. Pay attention to any weak points in your argument, and note that revision is not about fixing sentence-level, nitpicky mistakes.

    Change is healthy. Make changes.

  6. The Editing Phase

    When everything in your argument is working well—and only then—correct sentence-level problems, including word choice, grammar, and spelling. Don’t edit until the ideas and support are purring along, however, or you’re wasting your time.

If you took your bites one at a time, you should be an elephant-eater with writing you’re proud to share.

Where do your kids get stuck in the writing process?


Kriston Sites Eller

Kriston Sites Eller has an M.A. in literature from Indiana University, and she completed all requirements for a Ph.D. except the dissertation. She has designed and taught literature and composition courses for students from age 10 through college. Currently, she tutors and teaches homeschoolers online and in person, in groups and one-on-one. When she's not teaching or parenting her two children, she’s making puns on Facebook, knitting, or rewriting one of several novels that she hopes to publish. Her literary claims to fame include eating dinner with Toni Morrison and having Dave Letterman read a Dr. Seuss book to her when she was a child. Follow her: twitter.com/KristonSEller or facebook.com/KristonSitesEller

One thought on “I Hate to Write, Part 2: Eating the Elephant

  • October 21, 2015 at 1:42 pm

    Great article! I’m going to suggest the Lotus Blossom technique for my creative writer who sets up great stories but has trouble wrapping them up.

    Here’s a free mind-mapping tool I recently came across – it’s called MindMup and has the option to save maps to GoogleDrive: http://www.mindmup.com

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