5/15/2015 Peter Durantine

Uncovering the Invisible Process of Creating

To many, the art of writing is a mystery, a process that is invisible to the unknowing. Recent Franklin & Marshall College graduate John Ancona '15 decided to try his hand at solving the riddle.

The result: a semester-long research project culminating in a guide to the "invisible process" of creative writing.

"I wanted to make something that prospective students, students of the College, and faculty could look at and use," the English major said. "They could pick up and see the actual work done by a writer -- everything from conception to execution."

Visiting Assistant Professor of English Kelly McMasters, Ancona's adviser and the author of the acclaimed "Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town," said Ancona's illustrations, using text and images, show how the first draft of any writing project is just the beginning of a complex process.

"That's especially true for professional writers," McMasters said. "He did an amazing job of writing about other people's processes."

  • In 2015, then English major John Ancona, now an F&M alum, shows how he uncovered the invisible process of creative writing. In 2015, then English major John Ancona, now an F&M alum, shows how he uncovered the invisible process of creative writing. Image Credit: Melissa Hess

Ancona said he was initially perplexed by the amount of thinking and drafting that goes into a final writing product. His goal was to find tangible evidence of the process of writing creatively.

"I opened up submissions around the English Department for anything from a crumpled piece of notebook paper with one idea scratched on it to a departmental award-winning essay," he said, adding that six senior English majors and one faculty member contributed their work. "There was a nice mixture of poetry and fiction writing, including a formal essay from an upper level English class."

The contributors provided outlines, letters, drawings, notes and manuscript drafts. In a series of one-on-one meetings, Ancona focused on the specific processes that each contributor went through.

"I found a lot of interesting things -- people who only work in handwriting for drafts, people who don't like using a computer because it constrains what they can and cannot do," Ancona said. "I found it interesting investigating these little quirks or little tactics that everybody has of their own process."

One contributor worked exclusively on a computer, but kept several documents open simultaneously. One of those documents was where the contributor dumped discarded prose. The result: a junk file that was as long as the working draft of his story.

After six weeks of research, Ancona found that most writers follow a similar process: write a first draft, review it, and revise it; write a second draft, review it, and revise it; and write a final draft for submission or publication.

"I think the biggest change that I saw was between draft one and the original idea, because it just got way more fleshed out," he said. "Singular words on an outline became whole paragraphs in the first draft, but as the process moved along, there were fewer and fewer changes."

McMasters said she expects the project, which she praised as being "incredibly utilitarian," to become a reference in the English Department, F&M Writing Center and Philadelphia Alumni Writers House.

"I think this is going to be a great teaching resource," she said. 

Here are examples of the creative process -- three images of a poem in various draft forms. 

  • sonnet invisible process
  • sonnet invisible process
  • sonnet draft final invisible process
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