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I recently came across the HBR Guide to Better Business Writing, a book that has a chapter on the four stages of the writing process. Reflecting on my experience writing blogs and non-fiction books, I recognized these stages even if I’d never consciously labeled them this way.


This is the brainstorming phase. You gather material related to the subject you will address, generating as many good ideas as you can. Don’t think of this as a rough draft, but more like a collection of thoughts. Do your research and write whatever you think.


This is the outlining phase. Take the material you created and gathered in the “madman” phase, and organize it. If you run into trouble putting together an outline, it may be that you’re working with either too much or too little content from the first stage. Ditch what you don’t need. Go back to the madman stage if you don’t have enough. Whatever you do, try to keep your outline simple and precise.


This is the writing phase. Take your outline, set a time limit (if that helps keep you on task), shut down your internet connection, and turn off your phone notifications. Then write. Fill in your outline. Remember, this is the building stage, not the time to finesse your work. Just write according to your outline and you’ll end up with a rough draft.


Now you have a piece of writing, but you realize it’s a piece of work! Here’s where the Judge comes in and changes your draft. As you walk back through your work, deliberate on word choice, make corrections to grammar and punctuation, check the accuracy of your statements, and evaluate how naturally your work flows from idea to idea. I suggest coming back to your work as Judge multiple times, usually on different days. I also recommend reading it out loud. When you’re satisfied, you (hopefully) have a polished piece of writing.


Here are the three mistakes writers often make:

1. Starting as the Carpenter

The first is sitting down with your Carpenter hat on, thinking you’re going to suddenly generate good, thoughtful, well-organized material. Rarely does this happen. (Maybe after years of practice.) In general, you need to start with ideas and an outline – at least in your head if not on paper. Everyone starts as the Madman, not the Carpenter. If writing seems difficult for you, it may be that you think you’ve got to start as the Carpenter.

2. Combining the Stages

The second mistake is trying to do two stages at once. For example, during the Carpenter stage, you find yourself carefully selecting every word and going back to verify every citation or grammatical choice. Stop it. Let the Judge come later. The most important thing to do in each stage is fulfill the purpose of that stage. You’ll slow yourself down and frustrate yourself if you try to outline and write at the same time, or write and edit at the same time, etc.

3. Leaving a Stage Out

The third mistake is leaving one of the phases out. You may think you can get by without the Architect, but chances are, you’ll wind up with polished porridge. Or you may think you can get by without the Judge, but you’ll embarrass yourself with rambling incoherence (“It made sense to me at the time!”). Or you may think you can just start writing without ever being the Madman, but you’re likely to run out of ideas or to fail to have enough material to organize.

What about you? What problems do you run into when you write? What strategies work best?

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7 thoughts on “The 4 Stages of Writing and the 3 Mistakes We Make”

  1. Josh Cushing says:

    This is such a perceptive way to think about the process. I too have learned these steps without categorizing them this way.

    It’s ironic that to write an excellent piece of work, you have to let go of perfectionism in the early phases. I never enjoyed writing papers until I came to this realization.

    I think that these principles apply to research as well. We can be bogged down when we try to read everything with strenuous detail at first. In the early stages of research, I sometimes have to read like a mad-man, before I can decide what to read with more careful attention.

  2. Joey Cochran says:

    I often put carpenter before architect and realize that I wasted time because of poor structure. I then lop off entire sections once I figure out precisely what I’m saying. This is a great way to be more efficient with time and words. Thanks!

    I’ve learned the value of writing in the raw and then returning to edit — using a thesaurus, dictionary, and leveraging rhetorical language to crystalize ideas.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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