What Can Best-Selling & Award-Winning Authors Tell Us About the Writing Process?


Have you ever wondered about your favorite author’s writing process? Do they jot down ideas in a journal? Do they rely on an outline? Conduct research?

Recently, a group of academics explored these types of questions in Rethinking the Writing Process: What Best-Selling and Award-Winning Authors Have to Say, which was published this month in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. The researchers hoped that professional authors could shed light on the writing process and provide insight into the way educators should teach writing to our children.

To meet these goals, the researchers sent eleven questions about the writing process to fifty professional writers, and received thirty-nine responses, including from authors Lois Lowry, Jerry Spinelli, and Jane Yolen.

What did the researchers learn from the responses? Unsurprisingly, they found that “writing is a craft that is practiced differently by authors. Some writers carefully plan and script stories, as does Lois Lowry. Others, such as Jerry Spinelli, simply start writing and let the story unveil itself.”

The authors of the study go on to develop advice for writing instructors based on these predictable results, including advising educators to (1) “allow students to experiment with different ways to incubate their ideas: keeping a writing journal, jotting ideas on loose paper, talking with others, and so forth;” and (2) “remind students that writing often starts with an outline but maintains flexibility…” It’s all good advice, though I doubt a survey of professional authors was necessary to develop it.

The study is fun to read, largely because of the extraneous “sound bites” from authors that let us peek inside their creative minds, but I question whether thirty-nine “best-selling” and “award-winning” authors can provide much insight into how educators should structure writing programs in schools.

First of all, what type of writing are we talking about here? The professional authors write a range of materials — from fiction to journalism pieces — and they probably don’t write all types of material equally well. A fabulous writer of dystopian middle grade fiction might have little advice for students on how to write a persuasive article, and a journalist may have little wisdom to provide to students on creative writing.

Second, just because these authors have been successful doesn’t mean they produce “high quality” work from which students should learn. I’m a fan of the survey respondents I recognize in this study — like Lowry, Spinelli, and Yolen — but one-third of the respondents were anonymous and all were chosen because of their “accessibility” to one of the authors of the study.

The fact that these authors have produced best-selling and award-winning books is nice, but not necessarily meaningful. Jerry B. Jenkins, a survey respondent and the author of 16 New York Times Best Sellers, touches on the arbitrariness of success in his “sound bite” on sensing which of his works will be successful:

After 175 published books, I have learned I have no clue. What I believe is my absolute best work is often ignored, while something I have mixed feelings about may win an award or become a bestseller. The market decides.

The market decides the success of a book based on a variety of factors, and the quality of the writing might not be among them. For example, Fifty Shades of Grey topped the best-seller list and sold more than 100 million copies worldwide, but I doubt many educators would want to ask its author for advice on teaching children how to write–and not just because it’s erotica.


Citation: Michael R. Sampson, et al. Rethinking the Writing Process: What Best-Selling and Award-Winning Authors Have to Say, 60 Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 265 (Nov/Dec 2016). [published online, May 2016]


  1. Haha, yes, teaching writing and writing are two different things. I haven’t read the study but what I might like about it is getting less flexible educators, and educators who teach to the tests, to be more wholesome about teaching writing and teach that there very well may be different approaches to different pieces of writing as well as different people working in different ways. I also have seen as an educator a lot of teaching of writing to be completely useless for the real world. An example: the open response for MCAS. I’d love to see school teaching good writing not good test taking. Cool post and I look forward to following and reading more!

  2. Oh, this does sound interesting! Even without depending on the study to draw any universal conclusions about how writing works, I just like knowing how different people approach their writing. As with so many things, it sounds like there are many approaches to achieving the same end, and it’s mainly a matter of finding which ones work for you.

  3. Your comment about Fifty Shades echoed my thought after reading the post. 🙂 It was so badly written, a friend asked me to remove it from her kindle.

    I’m a pantser. I want to write an outline, I even start one, but then the muse screams at me to just write already. I have a general overview, a beginning and an ending, and then I fill in the middle as I write. That’s worked out pretty well for me so far.

    1. I tend to outline and over-plan, but writing with my kids has changed all of that. I’ve had to be more flexible in response to their comments during the writing process. It’s interesting.

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