The Writing Process (What you’ve heard vs. reality)

The Writing Process

What do I mean by writing process?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to be speaking only of the fiction writing process, though it’s not wildly different for nonfiction. Still, I am a fiction writer, ergo today’s topic. In simplest terms, the writing process is how an author goes about telling his/her/their story.  Whether it’s for a novel, a screenplay, a short story, a comic book, or any other medium that involves characters, plot, conflict, and setting, every author has a system in place for getting from the first flash of an idea to a completed story. How that happens is called the writer’s “process,” and that process can be simple or mind-bogglingly complicated depending on the author.

Assorted scholarly texts will tell you that there are four specific components of the writing process. They are:

  • Prewriting
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Editing

Occasionally you will see five components listed instead of four–with the fifth being “Publishing.” To me, publishing is its own process and technically not part of the writing process, so I’m not going to cover that here. Occasionally you’ll see three components instead of four. Some sources combine the Revising and Editing steps and label the third step “Postwriting.” Prewriting…Postwriting. (So very clever, right? *cough*)

writing process tidy graphic

Having these nice, tidy labels for the pieces-parts of the “Official Writing Process” is all well and good. But in the real world, the thing to keep is mind is that that there is no one method that works for everyone. The writing process can be boiled down to a simple (and yet messily complicated) statement: a writer has an idea, they get it down however that happens for them, and somewhere along the line revisions/editing occur but that may or may not be after the book is written. Clear as mud, right? You see, the thing about rules and lists and processes in the writing game is that there are very few rules, lists, and processes that are set in stone. In reality it’s a big jumbled free-for all. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not.

writing process reality messy graphic

If you’re reading a writing “how-to” book and it says you *must* do A, B, C, and D in order to be a successful writer, throw it out. Anything that says you must follow a certain plan to be successful is full of crap. Okay, you don’t really have to throw out the how-to book…some of what it says might work for some writers. But I guarantee you it’s not going to work for every writer. It’s not even going to work for most writers. Why? Because just as every individual is unique, so is a writer’s process. I’ve been a professional writer for almost twenty-five years, and in that time I’ve met hundreds of authors, both published and unpublished. And guess what? Not a single one of them has the same writing process as any other. Sure, some might have similar methods, but none are exactly the same.

There are definitely things to be learned from how-to books, or from writers’ conferences and workshops that are chock full of “how to write” sessions. I’ve picked up a lot of excellent tidbits over the years from books and workshops. So when I say “throw out” the book that says you *must* follow rules X, Y, Z, what I mean by that is read it if you’re so inclined, see if any of it resonates with you, and if so, file those bits in your mental filing cabinet for future reference. But as far as the rest of the information in the book, if it reads like some obscure dialect of Klingon or it makes you feel as if you have to give up your left toe and your firstborn child in order to make it work…throw out that shit. If how-to books are your thing, and you’re just starting out in the writing biz, then be sure you read widely. Meaning, don’t just pick up a couple of famous how-to books and bank your career on the words of wisdom those authors have to offer. Read a LOT of how-to books, by a LOT of different authors. Read ’em, absorb what resonates, what *feels* right, but don’t beat yourself up if the rest of the information isn’t your thing. That’s completely okay. In fact, it’s expected, and you are hereby granted permission to hit the mental delete button on anything that doesn’t work for you. It takes time for each writer to develop a method for getting words on the page. Some of us learn by assimilating the bits and pieces of advice we’ve learned from other authors, and some of us learn by trial and error on our own. Some learn from a combination of both. And guess what? Every writer’s method is the right one. Right for them. It might change over time, and that’s okay as well. It’s still right for that author.

That said, there are a couple of main pieces to the storytelling process that every author experiences. They don’t experience them the same way, mind you, but every author at some point has to a) find a way to go from having an “idea” to putting that idea in practice on the page, and b) determining the best way to write the actual words and complete the story. There are, of course, lots of moving parts to an author’s complete process, but these are the biggie questions that need answers.

So, how does an author take an idea and get it on the page?

Some authors are what folk in the writing industry call “plotters.”  Plotters know more-or-less what’s going to happen in their stories before they even start writing. This might involve general or extremely detailed outlines, character information sheets, mind maps, extensive notes, pages of research, spreadsheets, and or synopses of each scene or chapter. Plotters like to know exactly who their characters are and how they’re going to make their journey through the story. They also typically want to know how their plot is going to play out, who the goods guys and bad guys (if their story requires them) are, when and how characters will interact. They want to know when the black moment’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen. They know ahead of time if they’re going to include any red herrings (and what those red herrings will be). And they want to know all or much of this before they write a single word in their manuscript.  Some plotters do so much extensive “prewriting” work that they have nearly as many pages of prep and info and outlines and notes as they do manuscript pages when all is said and done.

pantsers vs plotters

Other writers are what we in the industry call “pantsers.” Pantsers typically do little to no preparation before they begin writing, and oftentimes start a story only having a vague idea of a character and/or a situation and they let the story evolve organically from there. Unlike plotters, who like to know all the details before they start, pantsers tend to have more of the “Ah, I’ll just wing it” or “It’ll all work out” or, to quote naturalist John Burroughs (and later author Julia Cameron), “Leap and the net will appear” philosophy. The writing process for pantsers is, in some ways, comparable to the journey a reader makes as they dig into a new book; pantsers often don’t know what’s going to happen during their daily writing, and sometimes are as surprised as a reader would be when unexpected scenes, events, new characters, and plot twists pop up. Some pantsers will even tell you that’s part of the fun of writing for them–the not knowing what in hell is going to happen. They’re often energized by how things work out, how threads come together intuitively, how characters appear when they’re needed and “magically” fit into another character’s arc. They will tell you that it is magic, and that’s why they love writing. Of course, this kind of belief gives hardcore plotters heart attacks because it’s so random and out of the author’s control (plotters really like to be in control). Meanwhile, the pantsers will clap their hands in glee and say, “Exactly! And it’s awesome!”

sometimes plan sometimes wing itOther writers, a lot of writers, actually, use a combination of plotting and pantsing (what is sometimes called “plantsing”). This means they might make a few notes, or lots of notes, or a vague outline-ish sort of something before they begin writing, or they might have an idea of a beginning and an end for the story but don’t know what’s going to happen in between those critical points. In other words, their prewriting prep might involve actually planning or at least knowing a few things before they start. But even if they do that pre-planning, regardless of what they might know (or guess at) ahead of time, they still typically give their characters the lead and let them choose the path of the story. There could be some course correcting along the way to keep things in line, but they also allow for the unexpected and, if it feels good, whatever comes up, they roll with it.

Regardless of which general method a writer uses (plotting, pantsing, or some combination of the two) this is one of the main ingredients of their storytelling process. As I said, every author has to find a way to get from the “idea phase” to the “storytelling phase.”

The other part of a writer’s process that’s critical is how the actual words, sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters get onto the page of the manuscript to complete the story. Whether the writer uses a laptop, an iPad, or old-fashioned pen and paper, each author has a practical writing method that works for them.

keep calm and write fast

Some writers simply vomit out a story until it’s done. Yeah, vomit doesn’t sound very nice, but it’s kind of accurate sometimes…just pound away, words, more words, cough ’em up, get ’em out, and get it done. As Hagrid says in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Ron’s regurgitating slugs, “Better out than in.” Writers who work this way believe in getting it all out, then going back later to tidy it up and edit it. Many prefer this method because it allows their creativity to flow without interruption. Often (not always, but often) writers who use this process tend to write faster than authors who don’t do this. But, of course, it usually means they have more clean up work to do at the end because they leave all of the revisions and editing (remember those scholarly steps 3 and 4?) for later.

snoopy editing

Other writers are the edit/revise-as-you-go types. They write a little, then read back through it to tidy up before they move on. Some go back through a new scene or chapter numerous times, tweaking and polishing to make it as shiny as possible, before they proceed with new words. Sometimes they write a new scene, then go back and read a chapter or two before the newly written scene (or go back to the beginning of the book and read it all again) just to make sure it all flows together. Then and only then are they prepared to move forward with new words. Needless to say, this takes a bit more time (or a lot more time), which means these writers typically don’t finish books as fast as writers who blast through a story all at once. This is why the scholarly “rules” of the writing process don’t work in many cases; because some writers do steps 2, 3, and 4 simultaneously. (If you want to get really technical, edit-as-you-go pantsers sometimes do steps 1, 2, 3, and 4 all at the same time!) The flip side of being an edit-as-you-go writer is that often when these authors finish a book, it’s fairly clean because they’ve exhaustively revised it as they’ve gone along. It may take them longer to finish a “draft” of the book, but the completed draft may only need minimal attention before it’s ready for submission.

There’s no right or wrong to any of these methods and anyone who tells you otherwise is an egotistical, control-freak poo-poo head. Again, the thing about writing is…it’s completely individual. The writing process that works for me isn’t going to work for my writing friends, nor are their unique methods going to work for me or anyone else. New writers often explore a variety of methods at first–they play around with plotting and pantsing, with going full-tilt NaNoWriMo-style-balls-to-the-wall-write-a-book-in-a-few-weeks, and, alternately, with slowing it down and polishing as they go. Most experienced authors, on the other hand, have already sorted out what works best for them, and they tend to stick with it because…well…why wouldn’t they? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as the saying goes.

So that is an abbreviated explanation of the writing process. There’s so much more to it that involves everything from where plot bunnies come from (we grow them under our beds, of course!), to authors who jot down ideas, titles, even character names whenever something exciting comes to them so they can revisit these bits and bobs later, to discussions of whether a classic 9-5 daily work schedule is better than a free-form-write-whenever-you-feel-like it approach, to how many ritual cups of coffee must be consumed (or games of solitaire played, or minutes on Twitter or Facebook surfed) before the writing can begin. Yes, authors have rituals, even superstitions sometimes, that are almost as important to them as anything else, and you are not allowed to laugh about it. We all have our version of the athlete’s “lucky jersey” or the gambler’s “lucky coin.” 🙂

Now, if you’re still with me and you are interested…

I’m going to make this post personal and ask you what type of writer you think I am? Plotter? Pantser? Something in between? I’ll give you five seconds to think about it. Ready, set, go….

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If you guessed pantser with a thin layer of plantser frosting, you win! 🙂

pants with wings - flying by seat of pantsI have written books where I literally had no idea what I was going to write. No idea who the main character was. I simply opened a blank page and started typing and et voilà, hello, character! Followed by, oh, hello, situation the character is in! I’ve also written books where I’ve known ahead of time generally who a main character is (or at least their name and maybe occupation) and nothing else. I’ve written books where I’ve known generally what kind of story I wanted to write (contemporary fantasy about a witch, fantasy with a dragon, college student who falls for best friend) but not known anything about the characters themselves before I started. I’ve also started a few stories where I’ve written several pages of notes about my characters before I’ve begun. What I have never done is written an outline. I have hated outlines from the moment I learned how to make one in elementary school. I hated them even more, with a desperate passion, when I was forced to use them in middle and high school. I never used one to write a paper in college, and just the thought of doing one for fiction makes me feel as if I need to stab something. No thank you. Outlines, for me, are too restrictive. (And, yeah, I know, I’ve heard every defense of outlines in the book, so those of you outliners who are reading this and going, “But, but, they’re NOT restrictive because…” save your breath. You are not going to convince me otherwise. 🙂 )

All right, next question. HOW do I write my books? Do I bleuargggghhh them all out at once, or do I revise and edit as I go? Five seconds to think…

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day in the writing life revisionsIf you chose revise/edit-as-I-go, you win that round! Not only do I revise and edit as I go, I’m one of those authors who reads back through everything, sometimes from the very beginning, a dozen, two dozen, three dozen times, as I go along because not only do I feel compelled to edit/tweak words, I have a serious thing about how the story is flowing. It is very difficult for me to move forward if I’m not happy with something. I’ve tried to forge on ahead and come back later to mucky parts, but I just can’t. It bothers me to the point of distraction BECAUSE I’m mostly a panster. Which means whatever I write today will affect what I write tomorrow because I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. Therefore, I feel driven to fix the problem stuff now, so that when I do move forward, I can be fairly certain what I have preceding the new material is the real deal.

What this means is that I’m not a particularly fast writer. Sure, sometimes I can vomit out words with the best of ’em. I actually won NaNoWriMo this past year–got my full 50K words done in a month–because I just happened to be at a part in my very long book where things were flowing well. I still went back each day and tweaked stuff along the way, mind you (I can’t help it…it’s a compulsion!) but was generally able to do that and still stay on track for my 50K.  There are other times, however, when the words don’t come quite as fast for a variety of reasons. It could be that I’m in the middle of a particularly emotional chapter where it simply takes time to get those emotions right. I also tend to move more slowly if I’m working on a dense section that has lots of action going on–fight choreography scenes, for example. Love scenes tend to write more slowly for me as well because it takes time to find the right balance of “action” and emotion, not to mention there’s usually some choreography there also. 🙂 And, last but not least, I find that the deeper I get into a series *cough cough the Draegan Lords* sometimes the slower it goes because I have so many characters, so much world building, across so many books, that I have to do a lot of reading back through sections of previous books to be sure I’ve got details right. Or that my timeline is still on track. Or that I’m not contradicting things I’ve said in other books. Or because sometimes it’s tricky to weave together story threads that have been building for two or three or four previous books.

I’m sharing my personal writing process with you because I think it represents just how truly unique each author’s process is. And also, my process is one of those that pretty much shoots to hell the “Official, Scholarly, Oh-So-Important Writing Process” steps that many how-to books and writing courses teach. I frequently do 1, 2, 3, and 4 at the same time, along with some X, Y, and Z, whatever those might be at any given point. I also know authors who follow the official steps exactly. And I know authors who do everything in between and sideways and upside down while riding a bicycle and smoking a blunt (hey, I live in Colorado…we can do that here). And the thing is…ALL of those are right. For those authors.

So, be free, fellow writers! Find the writing process that works for you, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong. It’s not. There are no rules. Writing is a creative art. Go forth and be creative!

creative writing creativity colorful laptop

Author: mlrhodes

Author M.L. Rhodes writes bestselling m/m romance and fantasy novels. She's also a geek, an introvert, a night owl, a potter, and a damn fine margarita maker.

One thought

  1. Very well written, i never knew how complicated and time consuming it really was. 🙂

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