On Process and Product

By Troy Headrick

If you’re a regular reader of my posts, you know that I’ve been a writing, literature, and critical thinking teacher for many years.  I mention this again because it’s going to be relevant to the topic of this blog.

In recent decades, there has been something of a transformation in how college and university teachers of writing approach their work.  In the old days, way before I entered the profession, there was a great deal of focus on product and little attention paid to process.  In other words, educators focused on what was written and less on how the writing happened. 

Today, we understand that good writing is more likely to result when writers understand the importance of the creative process and have some tools and techniques at their disposal.  Thus, we teach research methods and idea generation and problem solving and creating the right mood.  We talk about brainstorming and keeping records and epiphanies.  Metaphorically speaking, we now understand that what takes place during the gestation period is key to what sort of baby is to be brought into this world and so we do a lot of prenatal care.  Having said all that, it still must be noted that most instructors mostly assign the most significant grades to finished pieces of writing.

The world we live in puts tons of emphasis on product.  Just imagine the work that you do to earn your living.  Your boss is going to judge your performance on results, mostly, right?  Let’s say you’re in sales and your numbers look bad for a given period even though you did all the right things—your process was good, in other words.  You can describe the process you followed to your boss until you’re blue in the face, but process can’t be measured.  It doesn’t fit into a cell on a spreadsheet.  There is no way to quantify it or even see it.  (For years now, I’ve been saying that learning is messy and very often can’t be observed with the naked eye.)  No one is going to continue to pay you forever just because you keep doing all the right things apart from sealing the deal.

I want to conduct a little experiment.  Listen to the following two words and tell me which one connotes success and accomplishment more—“finishing” or “finished.”  If you’re like most people, “finished” is the one you chose.  That’s mostly due to how the English language works, linguistically speaking, and partly because, culturally speaking, we equate success and accomplishment with having things all wrapped up.  “Finishing” may not ever become “finished,” right, so you can’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.  Here’s the important point to remember, though.  Being finished can never happen unless one engages in finishing.  No products or results ever occur after a magical snap of the fingers.  Plus, the more elegant and thoughtful the process, the more likely it is that one will have a product worthy of appreciation.

This is a huge subject that I’ve spent many years thinking about, and I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.   

Thanks for reading.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

30 thoughts on “On Process and Product

  1. Great post, Troy. 👏🏻
    It’s funny that you mention process vs. product, because my husband and I had a conversation along these lines just this morning. As you may know, we have a Class-A RV. We bought it in the height of the pandemic, as it was the perfect solution for socially-distanced traveling, especially with our baby. Anyway, we were talking about how the journey is half the fun! Sure, we like to arrive at different parks and see the sites, but we also have a blast in getting there. May we all embrace a more “becoming” attitude in the things we do! 🕊

    1. I bet you’re having an absolute blast traveling around like that. And you’re an artist too. Just think about painting. If you’re like me, I almost never look at a piece of art once I’ve completed it. If art were all about product, it would seem that I’d be more interested in spending loads of time gazing at finished pieces. Instead, as soon as something is done, I put it with all the other completed works and start something new. I think that’s a pretty sure sign that process is what I’m into when it comes to making art. Thanks for sharing your story and for reading and commenting.

      1. Yes! I can definitely relate when it comes to art. Sometimes I get so focused on the fact that I’m not “done”, that I miss out on enjoying the process itself. I judge my work for still being just a work-in-progress, which really is unfair. Many great things take time! Thanks for this thoughtful post, my friend. 🕊

      2. It seems very easy to focus on the start and finish of things. Why is it so difficult to be fully in the moment during those in-between periods? Perhaps humans are just very limited? (We love to think of ourselves as being such special life forms in overall scheme of things.) I’m also reminded that we often “finish” things in response to some kind of artificially imposed deadline. We call things finished but does that mean they have reached a kind of apex of development or do we simple to “turn them in” because the time on the clock has run out?

  2. This is fascinating to me because I stand somewhere between East Asian and Western literature, and I think this touches on some relative cultural values. I’ve written in here about how Japanese story-telling doesn’t translate well into Western narrative patterns, and vice versa. Japanese literature tends to emphasize interaction from which characters emerge (process), mirroring the Chinese idea of one’s identity being determined by social perceptions (“face”). Conversely, Western narratives are character-driven, goal-oriented and eventually “finished”… the “Hero’s Journey”, or the “Tragedy”, or the “Mystery”… (product)

    Watch the very ending of the Chinese film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, or the Japanese horror film, “From the Depths of Dark Water”. Viewers have to decide what just happened, and it’s entirely based in an understanding of what character interactions have established. Japanese stories likewise tend to just stop at some point, leaving Westerners saying things like… “So how does it end?”

    To the Japanese reader, there isn’t anything more to write once the character is established, and explaining the rest of the process can actually be seen as a bit insulting. One of the most beautiful Japanese stories I’ve ever read is about a woman that the reader comes to understand is contemplating suicide while on her way to a funeral. I suspect it would have driven an American reader crazy with how the story just stops when she arrives at the event and sees the people there. But to a Japanese reader, there was a powerful sense of momentum that left the story “finishing” in her own mind.

    1. I feel like there are a millions things I want to write in response to your comment. First of all, where do you live and what sort of work do you do? I apologize if these questions are intrusive. I ask because you seem to be very knowledgeable about literature and such and that intrigues me.

      I have lived and taught academic subjects in Poland, the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, as well as the US, my home country. While I was abroad, I found that many cultures have an entirely different view about what makes academic writing “good.” For instance, while in Poland, I found that good academic writing wouldn’t necessarily have to come to any firm conclusions nor would it have to have a point or try to sell an idea. To write beautiful prose one would simply need to wander around a subject or perhaps discover a subject through the wandering. The beauty would come from how well the writer had taken the reader on the journey. If the journey looked exploratory and had covered lots of interesting ground, that would be enough. It would not be necessary to ever “arrive” anywhere.

      In America, the very traditional way to teach writing is to have a point and to offer compelling evidence in support of that point. (To “sell” an idea, in other words.) this is very indicative of the the power that our capitalist values has to shape our culture and what we value. The unspoken truth behind all this is that a writer should not waste a reader’s time because time is money. To be indirect is to flirt with the possibility that one might possibly leave a reader with the feeling that she has been trifled with or to have nothing of value to offer. Value is very much part of the way communication works. There must be value, efficiency, purpose, and an idea to sell. I keep using the word “sell” and that’s not accidental.

      The way we order our minds and tell our stories is fascinating. One can learn much about a country and its culture by studying how it communicates and what it teaches to those who are engaged in communication.

      Your comment was delightful to read and I feel like my response only scratched the surface of what I want to say about all this.

      Thank you very much.

  3. I think that this fits any creative or artistic venture. Take music, a band can be finishing something they have for years. Which is cool until it’s been 8 years and it finally comes out and now it sounds dated or underwhelming. Perhaps the listeners tastes matured or changed. The again some art is too rushed. I am no more than a simple blogger with too much ADHD and general life to enjoy the foreplay of writing. I think it, I type it and proof it. 45 minutes and I’m done or I’ll not be able finish it. Then again if I had a good place to do research and writing in peace for more time than that, I would.

    1. The cool thing about owning a blog is that you get to do the writing the way you want. Your comment remind us that there is the artist and the audience and that, in some cases, there is a commercial relationship between the two. Often times, the finished product is shaped by time limits and tastes and such external/societal forces. There is supply and demand. I appreciate that you root art in commercial reality. That complicates the whole issue of process and product. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. I did my dissertation in two years and spent another five finishing it. One day my major professor said, “you’ve got to stop finishing this before it becomes outdated”. Then I defended. It never got finished. It got published.

    1. Your story is an example of failure being success. So your didn’t finish your PhD but you became an author instead? That’s a good kind of “failure,” isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your story.

      1. I’m a scientist and I published my dissertation in peer reviewed journals. If you think about it, most projects are never finished, it’s us who give them a stopping point, and say “ this is it, no more. “

      2. When it comes to creative endeavors, the notion of “being finished” is a rather arbitrary one, isn’t it? The ending almost never comes because we feel like we’ve done something absolutely perfectly. On the contrary, we “finish” because the clock runs out. That’s likely the reason why I almost never want to read anything that’s been published. I always see so much fault in every “finished” piece.

  5. If only the process was appreciated as much as the end product, there wouldn’t be so many failures in this world. Completion has the upper hand and outweighs all the steps taken to achieve it. When we view others and even ourselves, the desire for wholesomeness drives us towards judgements and decisions. Accomplishments are like finished jigsaw puzzles, beautiful, but highly improbable without each piece securely in place. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I think if we shifted our focus just a little, we’d likely enjoy life a lot more. If we see product as the primary indicator of success, the moment something is done, that success ends. If we focus more on the “doing,” we could have a lot more enjoyment because we could enjoy all the doing that happens between the starting point and the finishing point. (After all starting points and finishing points are just “points” in time.) Your analogy of the jigsaw puzzle works nicely. Thanks so much for the comment.

  6. I found this magnificent blog after seeing Bogdan like on my post. At first, I’m not a native English speaker, and I’m still young. I have been wondering if I make the process on my English learning journey since I first started to learn it by myself. I realized that the more I seek accomplishment in my process of learning, the more I will be unmotivated to continue stepping on my journey. I have been on my self-discovery journey for over 2 years after being in gloomy days of depression caused by my addiction. I’m making process every day, and I’m happy with it. Thank you again for sharing your ideas!

    1. Hi. I’m so please to hear about your story. As someone who has taught English to non-native speakers of the language in the past, I’m delighted to learn about your progress and the joy the process of learning is bringing to you. May your way and delight continue unabated. Thanks so much for your inspiring comment.

  7. Hi Troy, my own perspective on this may be interesting to some of your readers. My formal school education was shorter than most -I was at sea at 15. I came from a practical minded family, builders and farmers. I was judged highly intelligent as a boy and I guess my desire for a sea life took precedence over formal school and college studies, however, I did self educate myself in the following 5 years and process that really has never stopped. I remember querying a schoolmaster what pi was and ruffled him somewhat has he clearly didn’t have such understanding to impart at the time. To me the most important aspect of the process of education is application -whatever is being learnt should always be demonstrated by way of application, no matter whether we are talking about technical or artistic forms of learning. I learnt my 10 x tables in infant school and the application was spending my pennies in the tuckshop!

    1. Your life at sea at an early age sounds wonderful. Like you, I also dropped out of school, but not at such an early age. I quit my PhD program because I got a job offer which took me abroad to Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE. I’ve long said that travel is better than books, and I think your life demonstrates that truism. I’m back in the US, my home country, but I’m chomping at the bit to take off again, for parts unknown. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  8. I don’t think I have ever thought about the difference between finishing and finished – fascinating post. Like many writers, I rarely think that any of my work is good enough even if finished.

    1. Is a piece of writing ever really finished? I always feel this unease about sharing my writing for this very reason. I rarely reread anything I’ve published, and when I do, I always feel ashamed of how unfinished it feels. Thanks so much for your comment.

    1. Yes, but we often forget to think about life in this way. We focus on “achievements” while forgetting, all the while, about the lovely in-between times that come between these “accomplishments.” Mindfulness and living fully consciously is about being aware and awake during the “process” of living. If we are able to achieve this wakefulness, then we can find joy everywhere and all the time. Thanks very much for your comment.

  9. Really enjoyed reading this entry Troy. I’m a bit of a process guy, and a different level of unique – so it’s no surprise that I chose “finishing” really. In fact, the more I let go of outcome, and just enjoy the process of writing, of being, and living life as it unfolds, I feel far more free. And yet, paradoxically of course, the “finished” products seem to be more polished, and of better quality. Ari

    1. It’s one of life’s great challenges to be able to “let go of outcome.” If you are able to achieve that, then you are, as you say, absolutely free. I’d like to ask you for whom do you write? Do you write for yourself or do you write for others? Perhaps it’s not that either/or? What role does audience play when you are penning something? Thanks so much for your wise and inspiring comment.

  10. I really liked this post. I also like the comment “Life is a process too” and your response about achievements and accomplishments. Unfortunately, in this modern world people do not have much control of achievements and accomplishments. That is, we do not have much control of product – our goals are swayed by our modern surroundings. In turn, the “process” of life is lost or, at least, difficult to consider in our personal life plans…just a thought! By the way, you asked me before about my blog – I am on wordpress.com platform
    Nice post and I will keep reading future posts

  11. Oof, this hits hard, in all the right ways. How often we can see the top of the stairs of whatever goal we’re aiming at and want to be there because that’s the thing we think we’re aiming for. It is admirable to have those far reaching goals, but the process to get there needs to be one we trust in, or at least understand some of, so we can travel sort of in the vague direction to get there.

    I feel like I’ve been “finishing” different pieces of my novel for over a year now, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is how excited I am to be in the process of finishing and looking forward to it being a finished product, a book for people to read. That’s how I know I’m travelling the right path.

    As always, thank you for taking the time to share, Troy. It is valuable to learn from someone as thoughtful as yourself.

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