What is Your Writing Process of Choice?

Writing process is the system writers use to begin and finish their projects. Each process will vary from writer to writer. Some writers are overwhelmed by the need to tell a story, caring only about letting the story loose onto the page, wildly spilling forth the characters, setting, and problems, like an adventurer without a map. Other writers are methodical, controlled, and deliberate; their need to tell a story may still be great, but their approach is more like that of a hunter tracking prey. And then there are those writers who fall in the deep middle, incorporating a little of both extremes.

It may either encourage or frustrate you to be told that there is no one single or right approach to writing. As with everything else, what works for one writer may not work for another. This is all because of your natural writing forces. Finding your writing pace and discovering which processes work best for you is necessarily a product of practice and search pursued by writing every day (Time Warrior’s wisdom), or on a regular basis.

Let’s explore the two different extremes of writing process.

PANTSING

Writing by the seat of your pants, or “pantsing,” is a method whereby writers defer attention to quality and structure in order to simply get words on the page. An organization commonly known as NaNoWriMo by and large endorses this method. “National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo),” declares NaNoWriMo’s website, “is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30. Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought fleetingly about writing a novel.”

Pantsing is useful as a means of combating a preoccupation with the accuracies, nuances, nooks, and crannies of stories that can lead a writer to stall out and precipitate a story’s early demise. The philosophy is to move a story forward with words. When you get stuck, skirt around the obstacle by writing more words.Do you have trouble finishing projects or making time to write? Could be because you don't identify yourself as a writer. Read this post by Kate Johnston | Author & Story Coach on why identifying yourself as a writer can help you become a more effective and powerful writer.

This process is similar to free writing or brainstorming, whereby writers originate story ideas by simply writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is off-limits. Good ideas often hide behind not-so-good ideas, and unstuffing our imaginations is one way to flush them out.

BENEFITS:

-easier to get into the flow of writing—the story practically writes itself

-ideas come more easily

-enjoyment of writing is high

 

DRAWBACKS:

-too much of little value is added into story

-the plot becomes cumbersome, or it’s been buried

-disorganized

-more difficult to revise

 

PLOTTING

Plotting is mapping out a story’s and characters’ arcs prior to writing detailed scenes and chapters. Black-and-white thinkers who love outlines and bullet points and charts will likely be quite comfortable with this method. To ensure that everything fits together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, some writers spend months outlining their structure and major events—before they even begin writing the actual story. Working through ideas and sketches and blurbs in outline form enables them to catch and fix problem elements like unnecessary characters, plot holes, and weak conflict before the story goes off track.

One of the most prominent outline methods employs Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles. Originally conceived for screenwriting, the method generally works for novels as well. Beat sheets are used to plot a novel before drafting it. Beats are events that motivate a story’s characters to face dilemmas and make choices. Knowing the beats helps an author identify a story’s arc before commencing writing.

 

BENEFITS:

-fewer rewrites later

-more organized

-easier to write from beginning to end because you know the main track

-less likely to lose threads of subplots

 

DRAWBACKS:

-lack of storytelling at the outset.

-the process can feel too academic, too sterile

-tougher to get into the “zone” or the “flow” of the story

-possibilities are sometimes missed when plot is kept on a tight leash

 

Both writing processes need to go through revisions, but generally speaking the pantser is faced with a more arduous task than the plotter due to DETAIL.

Tightly woven narrative and neatly tied threads make for a smooth, enjoyable, and engaging read. This, my dear ones, is all about detail: characters with plausible motivations; setting that breathes with life; strong writing; snappy dialogue filled with tension and subtext; foreshadowing, strong scene cycles, narrative thrust  that makes you turn the pages . . .

To get all of those major storycrafting elements in place (and in place well), the author must have firm control and understanding of the story from beginning to end. ALL the details need to flow the reader through the pages without distracting him, without leaving him confused (for a bad reason), without leaving him dissatisfied.

Authors who plot (or outline) know more about their story BEFORE actual scenes are written, before a narrative thread is stitched onto the pages.

That knowledge is kind of critical, don’t you think?

Actively writing the story, with scenes and plot, before you know all of its possibilities and wonders will hamstring you at the end of your draft.

However, the most effective method to getting to know all of your story’s possibilities and wonders is through organic writing. When you release the Muse with pen and paper in hand, into that nether world, telling her not to miss a single secret, a single beat, a single whisper between characters.

This is why using both organic writing and plotting in some kind of combination will give you the best of both writing processes.Characterizations of a writer include the effort and nature of your writing process. Writers fall on a spectrum between Exploratory and Intentional. Read this post to learn what qualities determine the kind of writer you are!

TIPS TO USE BOTH WRITING PROCESSES

Index cards (or pocket notebooks), sticky notes, and a fresh notebook are my top tools for exploring a new story idea. I use the index cards to organize ideas by categories (CHARACTER, CONFLICT, SETTING, RANDOM, etc.).

Sticky notes are for figments of ideas. Figments hit when I’m engaged with a rote household chore, showering, or otherwise unable to dig in and see how this figment will shake out. The sticky note makes it easy for me to move figment wherever I need it: on my writing wall, in my notebook, on my laptop screen.

A fresh notebook is vital. I just love brand-new notebooks to begin with, and I love knowing I don’t have to worry about running out of space because I have an ENTIRE notebook at my disposal. I carry this baby around with me wherever I go and this is where I explore questions and possible gaps in my story idea. Lots of “What ifs” are uncovered in the notebook because here I write with abandon. No idea is off-limits. This is organic writing for me, or what I call Discovery. It is my treasure hunt, my sole adventure, and my story’s awakening.

I am a reformed Pantser. I can speak from experience about the pitfalls of pulling a story through the trappings of pure imagination. It’s a beautiful, enchanting place to get started, but not the place where a well-written and tightly woven story is developed.

A story that other people will want to read needs to be stripped down and shaped carefully through a different kind of writing process. Plotting, or outlining.

Once you have the loose bundle of threads that are your story, a process of outlining that includes structure, scene cycles, character arcs will help you weave each of those threads together.

I start picking out the main events (major turning points) and plug them into a three-act structure, which I literally plot upon my writing wall. Then I work on character arcs to make sure they go through the necessary growth and change that will fit their journeys.

Your method needs to be designed based on your writing strengths, but you also need to be willing to make compromises along the way. You have to be aware of what your story needs, not what you think it needs, and this requires a different kind of assessment, something a little less self-indulgent.

WARNING SIGNS YOU’RE USING THE WRONG WRITING PROCESS:

-can’t finish your story

-having trouble organizing your ideas into sequences of events

-you’ve lost the main thread

-characters aren’t growing, changing, or enacting growth/change on someone or something

-you’re bored or you’ve lost enjoyment

-your story feels flat

-you have writer’s block

-you’re fixated on a particular area

 

Keep in mind, these warning signs aren’t solely due to wrong process. You could be suffering from any of the above and process may not be the problem. Regardless—if you are encountering one or multiple unfavorable issues, the story is not working on some level. Rather than revising (which only treats the symptoms), go back to the foundation to find the root cause.

 

Are you a pantser, plotter, or somewhere in between? Are you happy with your writing process? What warning signs come up for you that alert you to foundational issues in your writing?

 

Have a writerly day!

19 thoughts on “What is Your Writing Process of Choice?”

  1. OK, I know I’m ‘only’ a blogger, but I’m going to answer your question because despite what many people think, blog posts don’t just drop from heaven ready to be posted. They have to be *gasp* written. And to do that, over the years I’ve moved from a plotter to a pantser to what I’d describe as a plotting pantser. That is, I know what I want to write about and what I want to include in the post [plotter] but then I write the post in a fast chatty way [pantser]. Somehow this idiosyncratic process works for me.

    • Seriously?? Blog posts don’t just drop from heaven already written? 😉 Knowing how your blog posts come across, I would have guessed you do a little of both. Your voice is unmistakable and it’s consistent from post to post. To me, that’s got “pantsing” written all over it. I find that too much plotting dilutes voice. But you always have a point, and you never lose focus (even the posts you call random). Whatever your system entails, it’s working just fine!

  2. Before I got my first publishing contract, I was a total pantser. Now, having to write a synopsis with each book, I’m forced to map out my story. When I start to long for those pantser days, I break out a pen and notebook and write a short story…no mapping required.

    • Yes, a synopsis is really helpful to map out beginning, middle, and end. I force myself to do synopses (along with loglines), but I find them difficult to get through. Not my favorite aspect to story development, but when it’s done I’m much better off.

  3. [Apologies in advance: this is going to be long….]

    A combination of considerate structure and complete abandon works best for me, especially for stories that I want to be worth the paper they’re printed on. Not all pieces are that; some are simply breaks into self-indulgence. For the more ambitious stories, though, I like having my path figured out before I start the journey. Of course, that doesn’t mean I can’t deviate from that path if I want to!

    One misconception I had for a long time was that I thought my outline needed to be all-encompassing. But an outline doesn’t have to be precise or have bullet points that cover all aspects of the story. It’s there to give me the highlights and guide me along. If in my writing I – or my characters – decide to go for a sideways jaunt, that’s okay. We can take the unexpected adventure and return to the outline when that’s done. Or, sometimes my subconscious will lead me to that adventure because it knows there’s a better plot twist or development waiting at the end of it, that will shape the rest of the story as a whole. But I’ve learned from experience that it’s dangerous to let myself wander off on a bunch of tangents.

    A story can get only so far on passion alone. At some point, the dopamine rush that comes from seeing the words on the page will wane. That’s where it’s good to have structure. With an outline, I can see where the characters and story need to go next. There are few slowdowns I can’t manage when I know my destination in advance.

    Plotting doesn’t need to completely shut out pantsing, either. Personally, I pants my way through countless drabbles of conversations, descriptions, plot points and more while I’m working on my chapter/section framework (a more detailed, deeper-dive breakdown of what’s going to happen in each chapter). These tidbits not only help me ride the tide of new-story-goodness while it’s still high, they can also help me recapture the feel of a scene or character later when I’m in the actual writing process.

    Plotting is the most economical way to get a story from beginning to end. But embracing the possibilities in writing by the seat of one’s pants can make the journey of getting there a whole lot more fun.

    • You have so many good points here, Mayumi, I want to put a gold star on your entire comment. My process is blended as well. I could never enjoy writing if I had to plan it all out bullet point by bullet point. However, stories need structure to keep the attention of our readers, and that’s where the plotting comes in. I agree with you wholeheartedly. It’s a learning process, for sure. I think we can only find our most effective systems after we fall down a couple of rabbit holes. So time isn’t wasted and experience is only gained. 🙂

    • I know what you mean. I tried strict plotting a few years ago, when strict pantsing wasn’t working. I bored myself silly with the stuff I wrote. That’s when I formulated my own combination of the two extremes, and I’m a much happier and more productive writer.

    • I highly recommend a synopsis, Jacqui. Try starting with your major turning points in the plot so that you have a clear arc with a beginning, middle, and end. Then weave in the turning points of your character arcs, lining them up with the plot’s turning points to see if your characters’ actions and responses make sense with the events. See how that goes for you.

  4. Having once been a pantser, I am now firmly wedged into the plantser camp, planning first and being flexible when it comes to follow-through on the plan. Or at least on how I get to the end.

    • Yes, combining the best of both processes seems to work for a lot of seasoned writers (those who have gone through pantsing and realized it isn’t working for some reason). I feel like I hear from more people who used to pants and added plotting to their system. It’s not often I hear from plotters who added pantsing to their system. I think that’s interesting.

  5. I also am a mix of the two, which seems to be the recurring opinion. I started book after book, story after story, and other than school assignments, I couldn’t finish a single one. Then I found NaNoWriMo. The deadline forced me to get my butt in the chair and push past the normal writer’s block after the first few chapters. I found that I had been pantsing too much for my “black-and-white” personality, as you called it. I very much enjoy outlines and bullet lists, but I never tried to plot my fiction works at all. Don’t ask me why. I had it in my head that I had to start at chapter 1 and write through the entire storyline until I reached The End. When I plotted a little bit, knowing the beginning, the ending, and a few events that needed to happen in the middle to get there, I was free to skip around from scene to scene, whichever one fit my mood that day or whichever one I could envision in my mind most clearly. I consider myself a “loose plotter.” No, I don’t use detailed outlines for each chapter. But I have a rough roadmap of where I’m headed to keep me on track. During this last NaNo, when I used your pre-writing strategies to delve deeper into characters before I started writing, my writing flowed probably the best it ever has.

    • First, I love that my pre-writing strategies helped you with your writing. 🙂 Second, I like your description of the loose plotting. Sounds like that enable you more flexibility and choice throughout the draft.

  6. As a writer, your post made me think. My writing process is a bit of pantsing and plotting, especially writing my first book on living in Australia. Some days I feel like I want to write more words and just write even though the story might not make sense. Other days I feel like a certain chapter might do better with outlining it first and fleshing out all the point I want to address in dot points – and then I’d start writing. I do find, and as you alluded to in the post, when I wrote something based on an outline, it doesn’t need as thorough a revision as and when I’ve simply winged it.

    At times I have felt flat either way. Usually when that happens, I just try to push through and finish writing the chapter. I’ll then leave it for a bit and then come back to it and read it with fresh eyes and see what I feel about it then.

    • Mood has a lot to do with how we approach our writing system. Sounds like you aren’t thrown by that unpredictability factor and you’re able to write regardless. That’s great! One of the reasons writers get stuck is because of the things you mention and they don’t know how to navigate that unexpected twist in their journey. Glad to know you’ve found a system that works for you!

  7. I am a pantser, because I can’t sit and come up with a linear flow of items — nothing happens. Instead, I have an idea and I start on it, and while I write, new ideas spring up. In other words, one idea begets another on the fly. So, while writing in Scrivener, I’ll jot down the new idea inside the current scene. After finishing the current scene, I’ll move the new idea into its own scene. As new scenes accumulate, I move them around in Scrivener to place them in a logical order. Having said that, I also am going to give prior organization a try by using the Snowflake method for starting a new book.

    • I’ve heard about the Snowflake method. I have never used it, but have heard good things about it. I think we have to try different approaches until we find one or a combo that works.

      As a reformed pantser, I can identify with your process well! I still approach my search for story organically, but then I move to a more organized stage to pull the ideas together to make sure things make sense lol. I like using Scrivener too, but have also found that I can’t start there. Gotta start with notebook and pencil. Must be the kid in me. 🙂 Thanks for swinging by and commenting!

  8. What a great post and what fabulous responses you’ve received, Kate. I must confess, if I couldn’t write “in the zone,” I’d never write again. And I write every day because of the pure joy I get from the discoveries that occur when I place pen on paper (or fingers on keyboard). Yes, because of the lack of plotting or forethought, a lot of editing is required. But weirdly, I love that process too!!🤭😍

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