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.
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.
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.
-easier to get into the flow of writing—the story practically writes itself
-ideas come more easily
-enjoyment of writing is high
-too much of little value is added into story
-the plot becomes cumbersome, or it’s been buried
-more difficult to revise
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.
-fewer rewrites later
-easier to write from beginning to end because you know the main track
-less likely to lose threads of subplots
-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.
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!