Heeding Advice on the Writing Process

If you're anything like me, you've wondered from time to time whether your particular writing process is effective. Perhaps you follow your intuition and do what feels right for you, but there’s a nagging voice in your head telling you that you could do better. There are seemingly endless articles and videos out there in which famous writers expound on their own tried-and-true writing processes. Is listening to their advice helpful or harmful to an amateur writer?

Bill Brooks
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If you're anything like me, you've wondered from time to time whether your particular writing process is effective. Perhaps you follow your intuition and do what feels right for you, but there’s a nagging voice in the back of your mind telling you that you could do better. There are seemingly endless articles and videos out there in which famous writers expound on their own tried-and-true writing processes. Is listening to their advice helpful or harmful to an amateur writer?

 I personally love to write for a few hours before noon, and I tend to edit my first drafts as I write them. Sometimes this bogs me down and I have to force myself to focus on new material and leave the rest for the second draft. Is this the best way I could work? I don't know. Could I be more efficient if I adopted another strategy? Perhaps. I often think I could benefit from writing faster. I've read endless articles and a few books about the writing process to try to find something that works for me. I have written a first draft of a novel by the seat of my pants because I thought I was a pantser, only to abandon it because the result was too much of a mess. I've tried excessive plotting and gotten bogged down to the point where I didn't want to write anything. I've recently gone back to my initial edit-as-I-go style as I write some new short stories, and although it's working as well as it ever has, I have a confession to make. Sometimes I feel that I'm doing something wrong.

I'd like to clarify that I don't think I'm doing anything wrong -- I feel like I am. This is an important distinction. The latter is a compulsion, and I think it originates from obsessing over the styles of other writers, writers far more successful than myself. Stephen King, for example, says he writes 2000 words-per-day religiously, even on his birthday and holidays. He claims to be able to hold all the logic of his novels in his head without writing down so much as a sentence on a sticky-note. In comparison, I need to take at least a day off of writing a week for my own sanity, and if I work two or three hours I might generate 1000 new words. Should I try his don't-write-anything-down method? Tried it, and no. That doesn't work for me. My memory is horrible and if I don't track the plot it slips away on me. Another famous author, Jerry Jenkins, edits his previous day's writing each day before he starts the new stuff. He claims that writing and editing are separate processes that should not intermingle. Someone tell that to my brain, because I don't think it got the memo. If you listen to the styles of enough successful authors you will hear plenty of different processes for writing, and many of them will contradict.

Am I suggesting you shouldn't listen to these masters? No, not at all. I've picked up plenty of gems from reading how other authors work. But it's like picking through a yard sale -- you have to wade through the junk to find the occasional gem. You need to be discerning about what advice you take from other authors, even the super famous ones. It's not all going to apply to you. 

And perhaps most importantly, learn to listen to your gut. Ironically, this advice is echoed in the tale of another master storyteller's process, that of author Les Edgerton, who admits he also tried to follow the process of other writers and eventually, after several frustrating years, discovered that his own process -- writing morning until night, editing his work as he went until it was exactly the way he wanted it -- worked best for him.

One final exception to the rule when it comes to the writing process that I would like to mention is famous horror novelist Dean Koontz. I've found that most writing process advice from famous authors stresses daily word count and pumping out first draft material as fast as humanly possible before editing. Mr. Koontz claims he works contrary to this, and his personal process is driven by the fact that he is so insecure about his own work. He states that, much like Edgerton, he can sometimes work from morning to night on a single page, throwing out countless versions until he has a draft that he believes works. Although this is an unusual process, I don't think anyone would argue that it's been wildly successful for Dean Koontz.

So, listen to others when considering your writing process, but be discerning. Never stop listening to your intuition. It often knows what works best for you. 

15 Comments

Freakyzeke

Thank you, i needed to see this today. I always “feel” like I’m doing something wrong, even thought I’m very diligent about my writing time. Nice to know there are others out there going through the same thing

Aug-24 at 11:08

Wleeb

Yep. For a long time I though I was doing something wrong, now I think this is simply what it means to struggle through the writing process.

Aug-24 at 11:34

Glitterpen

Great blog post. My memory is bad too. I definitely can’t hold stuff in my head (at least not massive amounts of info). I don’t think I could write 2000 words a day either. I barely got in 1667 words each day, during NaNoWriMo, and that was only for one month. I’m a big planner—I just love it—so I like to read about all the different methods.

Back when I first started fiction writing, six years ago, I accepted that it would take a while to come up with a process that I felt comfortable with. My favourite method of outlining is to make a spreadsheet for each novel, before I start the actual writing. I think I’ll be using this method long-term. I’ve already used it for three book outlines (with two more book outlines that are half done), and am happy with the results.

Aug-24 at 11:57

Dougp

I love your comment about pantsing creates a mess! I can’t imagine writing a first draft without an outline. In fact, I copy my outline to the manuscript, then break it into subsections and estimate about how many words it might take to write each bit. It gives me a good sketch before the final picture takes shape. I always want to know where the story is going before I attempt to write it, and if I was wrong and it flows in a different direction, that’s okay. Outlines are cheap.

Aug-25 at 01:51

Wleeb

I’ve written a few partial abandoned novels and one massive novel pantsing and ended up throwing it all away. I’m a newbie to planning stories, actually, but it seems to fit my personality given that I’m a software architect, so I’m big into organization and design. :slight_smile: I’m sure pantsing works for some people. Not for me, though.

Aug-25 at 11:03

Onalimb

Good advice here. IMO, the main things that hold people back from developing a process are fear that it will stifle their creativity, and the belief that no learning curve should be required.

I can pants out a simple story, but for anything more, I definitely need an outline and a process. Far from stifling my creativity, it’s key to it. Even with a process, and with practice, every new story brings new challenges.

Aug-25 at 13:16

Lucasparke

Great blog post. I hadn’t heard Knootz’s process and that is nice to hear. My own “process” is a painful mess of hand written notes, outlines, a rough draft, second rough draft, then a a layer of details written into it. Massive cuts and edits. Another layer and another layer followed by more cuts and edits. I have no idea if this works or is conducive but I’m convinced I can’t force myself to write another way.

Aug-26 at 02:16

Leglessme

Thank you for this blog post. Not for me, but for the others who struggle with writing insecurity. I had a mentor who taught me her methods, but stressed that my process may be different and don’t hesitate to adapt. Even she doesn’t take her own advice when actually writing a novel. She says, “don’t revise while writing” all the while her blog of her current WIP series is full of, “so I went back to change” whatever was wrong.

I use stickies, then I distill into Scrivener, then I do a first draft. The revision starts when I realize half of everything is in a white box, the dialogue stinks, and there are a few logic leaps and logistcal details which needs explaining. But now I know that’s my MO with my MS since I’ve learned from others, yet adapted to the way my brain is wired.

Aug-26 at 17:31

Wleeb

Sounds like we’re similar. I pants short stories, but nothing longer, since my stories start to meander off course after a while. I’ve toyed with the idea of pantsing a few chapters at a time, revising until I’m happy, then moving on. I’m actually doing that with a novella I’m writing at the moment.

Aug-27 at 10:31

Lisae

Helpful info…
I’m new to writing, having recently retired. I’ve always wanted to write, so I’ve made it a goal to start with writing 5 minutes a day. It’s now (mostly) part of my morning routine.
Setting aside that 5 minutes to just write ‘something’, even if it ends up being some sentences about how I can’t decide what to write about, has been helpful to start exercising these new muscles.
If I get going, I’ll go past the 5 minute mark so I don’t lose what I have.
So far I’ve posted one short story and gotten some great feedback, which I’ve used to make some adjustments.
Ultimately I’m thinking about writing something much longer based on my life. Not sure if it will be a memoir or a novel that uses my story in some way, but I like the idea of outlining that to try to organize my thoughts.
I’m looking forward to learning a lot from this community.

Sep-02 at 00:43

Marisaw

I think pantsters who discover outlining are like cigarette smokers who manage to give up. They are evangelical and eager to convert everyone to how wonderful it is.

My advice? Try it, by all means, but don’t try it on a story that’s dear to your heart. Outlining doesn’t work for everyone, and if it doesn’t work for you, you don’t want to wreck a good story.

That’s what happened to me. I tried outlining, and in the process, I discovered that a big part of my motivation for writing comes from wondering what the characters are going to do, and how the story will turn out. As soon as I had outlined the whole thing, I lost all desire to write the story. What’s the point? I already know the ending.

Sep-02 at 00:55

Wleeb

Welcome, I wish you luck in your writing endeavours. :slight_smile:

Sep-02 at 10:41

Writerbri

Great post. I identify with so much of this. In my writing process research I uncovered a few authors, David Baldacci being one, who alternate between plotting and pantsing as they go. I plan to try this: know my beginning (which may change), kinda know my ending (which definitely may change), my mid-point. Maybe, maybe, some key plot points in between but then connect the dots by pantsing. Once I get stuck, and I certainly will, plot some more and continue. I also think the importance of knowing your character’s backstory (leading to motivation) and the story’s backstory (what happened before your story begins) cannot be overstated. This can help writing forward.

Sep-03 at 15:12

Aanya

Well, in my whole life, I’ve never jotted down notes or even created an outline and still managed to get halfway through my novel, but there are certain things I left behind because I didn’t feel interested in that idea anymore. I have no idea why, but things seem to stick into my head, and once I’m through figuring out details about a work of writing, it stays in my head. Although, I do forget sometimes and have no choice but to just let it go for a while.
I don’t think I actually need an outline when my brain knows and remembers everything, from characters, setting and plot to every detail I’ve figured out.

Sep-05 at 17:38

Leglessme

Probably happened if you got to a point the story wasn’t fun for you to write anymore. There are snippets of dialogue or plot points which I look forward to writing, like I look forward to a piece of chocolate. But I don’t ignore the rest of the story. I love leading up to those parts. When I get to the “chocolate” scenes, I am so excited to write them. It gets me through the frustration of “this isn’t quite right” that will be taken care of revision, through to the end of the MS. One the draft is done, the revision begins. I love/hate this process, but the results are even more satifying than writing the draft.

Sep-06 at 00:02
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