The writing process is poorly understood. Even veteran writers sitting down in front of the blank screen can feel like they’re doing it for the first time.
But there’s a remarkably helpful way for writers of all kinds and all levels of experience to approach the writing process. It’s called the Flowers paradigm, for the University of Texas professor who created it. It asks writers to inhabit four mindsets at different stages of the writing process: madman, architect, carpenter, and judge.
Writing starts with ideas, and for the madman or madwoman, no idea is too crazy. Because ideas beget more ideas, and because the writing mind continues to work while we’re doing other things, it can be productive to work the madman stage in short sessions with long breaks, over time.
Once your ideas are set down, you switch to a very different mental gear. As the architect, you’re looking for patterns, sense, narratives, flows of logic. You sift your best ideas, shaping the outlines of what will become the written piece.
With the floor plan drawn, you become the carpenter, translating the overall plan into the words, sentences, and paragraphs that bring the architect’s plan to life, while retaining the verve and spark of the madman.
Only when you’ve done the work of these three characters do you become the judge, applying a critical, evaluative eye to the ideas, organization, and execution of your writing.
The Flowers paradigm nicely explains why beginning with outlines often fails (you’ve skipped the madman stage) and why it’s so important not to be critical (judging) in the early stages of writing. It shows up most writing problems as errors in sequence, and provides a simple way of staying on course.
It can also help you evaluate your writing process. Maybe you spend more time than necessary in madman mode. Or the judge in you is showing up too early, making you tense up when you should be open and loose.
Use it as a roadmap in planning specific writing assignments. If you have four days to produce a finished ad, you may budget one day for each stage. A Q&A may require very little of the madman—mainly in coming up with great questions—and much more architect and carpenter.
Of course, no process should be followed slavishly. We are humans, not robots (most of us). In practice, you may find yourself moving back to madman mode or jumping ahead to judge, for very good reasons. Just because we don’t always stay on the path doesn’t mean the map is useless, or that we’ve failed. It means that when we take the inevitable side trail, we can more easily get back on track.