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December 10, 2015

Discovering Our Writing Processes

Light trails over black background with text: Any Process Can Get Us to "The End"

I’ve been reading blog posts about writing for about 7 years now (wow!), and there’s one thing that drives me crazier than anything else: advice implying that there’s only one right way to write (or do any part of the publishing process, really).

If we’ve been around the online writing world, we’ve seen us vs. them attitudes for many aspects of writing—plotting vs. pantsing, traditional publishing vs. self-publishing, etc. Heck, I’ve even seen the attitude that there’s only one right way for an editor to edit. *shakes head*

Here’s the thing… (And we all know this, but a reminder never hurts. *smile*) Just because something works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.

Or to take it a step further, just because something works for us one time doesn’t mean it will work for us all the time. Our process might evolve with more experience, or adjust as our situation, our mood, or our connection with the story itself changes.

I call myself a pantser (as in, writing by the seat of my pants), but for some stories, I’m pantsier than others—and that’s okay. The point is to find—and use—whatever works for us. In the end, there’s only one thing that matters.

Why There’s No Such Thing as “One Right Way”

I can’t go more than a couple of days without coming across a post by someone proclaiming “Here’s the right way to do X.” (Of the hundreds of articles I read a week, I refuse to tweet many of them because I don’t want their “one right way” attitude to mislead other writers.) Their “evidence” for such a statement usually comes down to “This is what worked for me.”

Great! But everyone’s brains are different: what we notice, how we process information, what gets us stuck or unstuck, what motivates us, what helps us connect to our characters, etc.

Our situations are different: our free hours in a day, the distractions or other obligations in our lives, our budget for pursuing our dreams, our support system, etc.

Our goals are different: the types of stories we want to write, the income we want, the sacrifices we’re willing (and able) to make, how we define success, how we hope to connect with readers, etc.

The process that works for someone who wants write plot-focused stories with flat character arcs and lives on their own with no kids underfoot is likely to be very different from the process that works for someone who wants to write character-focused family sagas and has to squeeze in words between loads of laundry for a houseful and taking care of an ailing parent.

The Cure? Experiment with Different Processes

Yesterday, Orly Konig-Lopez wrote about how she discovered that her tried-and-true process didn’t work when she switched genres. Whether it comes down to genre, story, characters, themes, our moods, life chaos, or anything else, our process is going to be personal to us and might change over time.

So whether we’re just starting off and trying to discover what works for us or we’re struggling with how to adjust a process that’s not currently working, let’s talk about some of the options we can try:

Motivation Aspects

  • writing in the morning vs. at night
  • using music vs. silence
  • setting deadlines vs. not
  • seeking support from other writers (NaNoWriMo, writing sprints, etc.) vs. answerable only to ourselves
  • writing only when we have big chunks of time vs. writing in stolen moments
  • aiming for a certain number of pages or words or hours a day

Drafting Aspects

  • researching in advance vs. researching as the story calls for it
  • using a story seed of a plot or a character or a theme or a premise or a turning point scene or a first line, etc.
  • outlining in advance vs. beat sheets vs. pantsing (or anything in between)
  • writing linearly vs. jumping from scene to scene
  • focusing only on dialogue (or whatever) in the first draft vs. writing a fully layered draft
  • thinking of each scene as a short story (beginning to end and an arc of change) vs. keeping the threads of the overall story in mind
  • editing as we go vs. only going forward during drafting
  • fast-drafting vs. taking as long as we need
  • working on one project at a time vs. bouncing between projects as needed for writer’s block or other reasons
  • knowing how the story’s going to end ahead of time vs. figuring it out when we get there
  • setting a story aside for a different idea when it’s not working vs. putting in the work to make it come together

Editing Aspects

  • only reading through the story first vs. making changes while doing a first read
  • focusing only on big picture stuff at first vs. fixing anything and everything we find when we find it
  • relying only on beta readers or editors within our genre vs. listening to revision and editing suggestions from any source
  • fixing everything we can before sending to an editor vs. saving time on nitpicky stuff by relying on our editor to find the errors

We might write our ending first and our beginning last. We might draft in “telling” mode and add in the “showing” details later. We might write all the scenes from one POV and then write the other POV scenes. There’s no wrong answer.

If something’s not working for us, we can change up our process. Or we can try something different the next time. We’re not stuck with anything because of this wonderful invention called the delete key. *smile*

The Only Step That Matters

There’s a reason none of those choices (or plenty of others I didn’t mention) come down to “right” or “wrong”: None of those choices will prevent us from putting finished stories in the hands of our readers.

Every single option (even “setting a broken story aside to work on another idea”) can result in a quality finished story. And isn’t that really the point?

Readers can’t tell from reading a story whether it was pantsed or plotted. Or whether we tore our hair out with writer’s block for 3 months in the middle of drafting it. Or whether we *gasp* edited as we drafted.

That’s because none of that affects our ability to end up with a quality book. Readers don’t see the sausage-making, only the sausage itself. As long as that sausage is yummy, they don’t care about our process.

We will never see a reader proclaim, “I refuse to read any story that was written at night. Morning writing is better.” The very idea is ludicrous.

The only difference between the options is whether they work for us. Some writers tout their process as being more efficient, but that’s an individual measurement. So the question should be, is one method more efficient for us than another?

For example, do we take the time to write clean prose because that’s more efficient for us than fixing it in editing? Or would we like to be a morning writer, but our sleep schedule isn’t cooperating?

The reasons why something may or may not work for us are personal. They depend on how our brain processes information and how our situation and our goals affect our writing.

None of those reasons are wrong. Others just might not understand our reasons because they are personal. But if they work for us, they don’t need to work for everyone else too. *smile*

Have you seen advice that assumes there’s only one right way to do something with our writing processes? Does that attitude stop you from sharing the advice? Or do you share it but add disclaimers? Has your process had to evolve or adjust over time? Do you agree or disagree about the only step that matters?

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44 Comments on "Discovering Our Writing Processes"

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Davonne Burns

I couldn’t agree more with this. I have even read books, not just blog posts, on the craft that assume there is only one ‘right’ way to write. That type of advice creates a lot of unnecessary anxiety, especially when it’s coming from neurotypical abled persons. Oftentimes advice like that comes across as ‘if you don’t do x then you are not a ‘real’ writer.’ bleh

I’ve grown a lot more selective about what advice I share, even if it comes from a well-known source or author. I’ve also become a lot more cognizant of how I personally give advice and making sure I’m not dictating my personal methods. This is especially true given the nature of my current blog series.

I love: “I refuse to read any story that was written at night. Morning writing is better.” My writing process has evolved a lot over the years. It HAD to. When you have a chronic illness, three kids and are basically a single parent, finding time to write can be tricky. I really appreciate how you brought out that all of us have different goals and situations.

I think sometimes, we see advice from a successful author and automatically accept it at face value because we want to be successful too, whether or not the advice is actually good for us.

Christina Hawthorne

To me, all the advice in all the world creates a whole from which we get to pick and choose and reassemble as desired. That’s what I do. I’ve read advice where I rejected 99% of it, but felt thankful for the 1% that might work for me. I don’t give writing advice often and when I do it’s more to share a new twist on my process that I’m trying that might work for someone else. Take it or leave it.

On the other hand, if you’re writing your books at night I WILL find out and I WON’T be happy! 😉 I think there’s a good story in there somewhere.

Elizabeth Harmon

Great post. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of my-way-or-the-highway writing advice and I’m ashamed to say, I’ve probably given some myself. I’ll definitely be more conscientious of this is the future. My CPs and I were discussing our processes the other night. A couple of us have just discovered beat sheets, so we’ probably sounded like those people whose lives have been changed by finding religion, or eating more kale. (Oh my God! You’ve GOT to try this!) Sharing! and thanks.

Ashley
Ashley

Yes! This is SO TRUE! The problem for me is that nearly all of the “you should do it this particular way” advice that almost made me give up on writing… comes from my own brain. Doh! Years ago I was reading a book about writer’s block that recommended figuring out whose voice you were hearing when you had doubting thoughts – a parent? A teacher? I thought about it and realized it was my own voice – my parents and teachers have always been highly complimentary and (perhaps, for my personality) overly encouraging. So for me it’s been extra-difficult to decide, “How should I do this? Is this really working for me and if it isn’t, is it because it really doesn’t work or because I’m fighting it trying to force myself to do it this other way?” *eye roll*

Renee Regent

Great post. I’ve learned over time what to listen to and what to ignore. The same points you made could also be applied to career advice. There are those who think they know the “right” way to launch a book, handle marketing, etc. When in fact all that is subject to personal situations, too.

Deborah Makarios

I’ve found the way I work best is in large chunks of time alongside a large pot of tea 🙂
Most of the rest I am still experimenting with, although the mere idea of writing a linear story non-linearly still blows my tiny mind. So, can’t see that one working for me…

Jo Lamb

So true, Jami. There is so much advice for writers out there and I’m guilty of trying the ‘next best way to write’. It’s great to have so many resources and ideas, most of them free and without obligation but at the end of the day nothing gets done unless we write! I am now concentrating on a number of blogs that kind of match how I want to develop my style and suits me and trying to sit on my hands and ignore the rest of the other stuff that comes up.
I’m also rethinking the way I blog, I’ve struggled with producing posts that offer advice as there is so much out there. I’ve decided that if I’m going to get anything out of it I need to change my mind set. So will be taking a more personal approach, about my writer within and if nothing else, it will be a record for me to look back on!

Nathan
Nathan
This is an excellent post. In particular, I appreciated the aspects to consider. My problem (among them, I should say) is that the story that feels like it has hold of me is good, and it is complex. I’m glad that I feel like it is good — as does others with whom I verbally shared the overview, and who would tell me if they didn’t think it was good — but the complexity of it keeps weighing on me. It feels like it is too much for my first novel. I’m trying the approach of writing a scene at a time. I’m also trying to fast draft (based on your recommendation, Jami). Both are helping, but still I consistently am facing this feeling of it being a good story, and yes one I can write, but not the novel or two with which I should begin. A second novel idea I have is also complex, though not as complex as the first, and requires more world-building since it is fantasy/sci-fi. I’ve also read and heard the advice of writing series. That makes sense to me. Develop an easier plot with a strong, attractive lead and then write series of books to attract readers — whether in print or ebooks or audio or all — and hopefully build a following. I definitely like an occasional big, juicy plot that challenges or confirms my view of the world, but I also like this idea of simpler plots with characters that I… Read more »
Raylene
Raylene

Hi Jami,
I’m new to your blog and have been researching and outlining a story of mine for almost a year now. I have a solid outline and have done most of the character questionnaires, but I’m stuck actually doing the writing.

A little background..I was a technical writer for years and still DO write technical specifications and requirements for a software company. I can write school papers and essays and all of that, but when it comes to creative writing…as in a novel, I don’t know WHEN I’m supposed to start, what is needed before I can actually WRITE…

I’m definitely not a pantser, more of a plotter and researcher, which parallels how I approach technical writing or scholastic writing. I feel my story is good and while I KNOW technically how to write, I can’t seem to get started. I know I’m a good storyteller because those that I’ve written have been well received.

I guess I’m just scared and not sure how to know when I’m ready to begin. and wondered if anyone else out there gets “stuck” like this and worries that they don’t know enough about the topic or enough about how to write to actually DO the writing.

Sincerely,
rj

Connie

I particularly liked the points you made under “Why There’s No Such Thing as “One Right Way” and The Only Step that Matters.” I keep reading helpful ideas, most of which are the same ones just said a little different. It’s a relief to know it isn’t just me not hitting the mark; that it’s more the mark may not be suited to me.

Julie Glover

Oh my goodness, I want to hug this post and give it chocolate. I completely believe what you’re saying! Nothing drives me nuttier now than “one way to write” advice. (Except maybe the “you’re not a real writer unless you…” followed by something unrelated to finishing books.)

It has taken me a long time to both own my writing process and to be flexible when the usual isn’t working for me. And I didn’t get here by carrying out the 10 specific steps that worked for someone else. I love hearing about other writers’ processes, because they spark ideas of things I can try. But what works for any specific writer is about turning out quality books, not the journey to that destination. Thank you so much, Jami!

J'aime
J'aime

I’m experimenting at the moment with using one of your beat sheets with an already written story draft, instead of at the planning stage. I didn’t do so badly, except I seem to have have a really long Act One relative to the rest of the piece. Ha!

Next step: trim Act One, and get things moving faster.

It’s fun to try doing things differently.

Ken Hughes

Of course, half the challenge of One Way advice is finding the boundary where the expert moves past “these are some of the basic truths of writing” into saying “I, I mean you, need to always put this three things first and do them this way.” All the advice I’ve ever found has amounted to picking and choosing pieces of the same organic whole–great for cutting through that “analysis paralysis,” but it’s better if they’re the bits that work for that writer.

I like to think of writing as absolute laws–but they’re laws of *balance*, which means you can do almost anything *with* them. If a story’s plot is getting faster-paced, just like a person leaning forward, you may have to brace part of things against that a bit to stay standing (say by keeping the backstory coming as well). OR you can let yourself “fall forward,” stay down a moment, and get up again, if going from pure plot to backstory and back are what you want. Or you can flow with that motion and start walking.

It all depends on what the story needs to be, and which way you want to get to it. The One Way experts tend to be people who know how to balance, and then say you should always walk forward and always stop and rest after a hundred paces. Some of us do better by jogging, or somersaulting.

Kerry Gans

Jami – Great post! Not only is there no one way to write, but as you pointed out, sometimes the process varies from story to story. I’m doing a WIP with 3 POV characters. You’d better believe I outlined more than usual to keep it all straight!

And our process evolves with time. My process before my daughter was much different than it is now, for instance. My creativity works differently now, too. I’m finding myself moving back toward long-hand writing after decades of moving toward all-digital. My process is changing, and I’m not sure I will ever find a single process that works for me in all situations. But that’s part of the fun of writing!

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[…] Discovering Our Writing Processes by Jami Gold. Some totally good advice here! […]

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[…] Not surprisingly, writing is one of those areas of our life where “one right way” doesn’t apply. There are countless ways to end up from a blank screen to a finished book, and none of those methods are wrong. […]

Laurel Garver

Love this post on so many levels. There is no ONE way that fits everyone. I used to beat myself up for being a very ADD sort of writer who would sprint-draft for a bit, get a little stuck, jaunt off for a bit of research, get loads of ideas from that and roughly outline bits of future scenes, come back to the stuck scene and rip it apart. There was no distinct research, plan, write, revise, edit phases done in order. I’d do a little of everything any given day.

Trying to change that process (because it was somehow “wrong”) got me exactly nowhere. I didn’t want to do research in big chunks. Or fix commas for a whole freaking day. So I’d procrastinate rather than dig in.

Rather than fight my non-linear process, I now roll with it and look for ways to simply keep moving forward. My process lets me follow my energy. I AM trying to be more organized now that I’m revising a completed manuscript–mainly keeping a running list that I can check off as I make the changes. But even at revision phase, I am doing more research, drafting new material. Which is perfectly fine. Whatever gets it done.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Yes! I love posts talking about how writing (and editing and reading) is different for different people, because this is much more realistic than the “there’s just one right way” kind of attitude. Hmmm I think I might share advice with disclaimers. Or imply a disclaimer saying that this approach worked for me, and you can try and see if it works for you too. If it doesn’t, you can try some other method. The ability to stick to what works for us rather than being swayed and misled by others claiming there’s only one right way, may come down to writing experience and author self-esteem. When I was more of a beginner writer, I was more trusting and reliant on writing advice books and articles, and perhaps implicitly believed that there are “golden rules”. But now that I’m older and more experienced, I know about the importance of experimenting for yourself and seeing what fits you and seeing all other approaches as maybe valid, but not MY approach. Self-confidence in writing is indeed very important. It makes you more reliant on your muse and intuition on what suits you personally, rather than solely relying on other people’s opinions and not thinking/feeling it for yourself. You know the advice many authors give of writing everyday? (Rather than only writing when you feel inspired.) That advice definitely helps me become more productive, and I like how it keeps me emotionally connected to my characters. It’s like making regular contact with your… Read more »
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[…] doubts about your writing process, Jami Gold explains why there is no one right way to write and how to discover your own unique writing process, while Kate Messner shares 33 rules of writing from some of the most brilliant women in […]

Asrai Devin

Oh man, these are my thoughts in a blog post. I tried once to write them out, but it was jumbled.

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[…] There’s no right or wrong answer. All that matters is the finished story at the end. […]

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[…] percentages. That only proves that all these numbers are guidelines and not rules. *smile* All that really matters is our finished product and whether it feels like a […]

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[…] and how there’s no “one right way” to write. All that matters is that we discover a process that helps us reach “The End” for our […]

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