Learn How to Make the Most of the 5 Stages of the Writing Process

Learn How to Make the Most of the 5 Stages of the Writing ProcessFinding success as an author largely depends on how effective your actual writing process is. The key to not just getting words on paper, but to getting good words on paper is finding a daily system that invites you to enjoy your work, optimizes your creativity, and provides the support of feasible daily habits.

The writing process is different for every writer. The only commonality is the act of writing. Otherwise, I may prefer solitude, you may prefer a bustling cafe. I may prefer percussive music, you may prefer silence. I may write for two hours, you may write for one–or for four. I may need a familiar surrounding, you may be able to write anywhere, anytime.

Whatever the case, there are two truths to be recognized here:

1. You must find the unique writing process that works for you.

2. You can glean tidbits and insights from what works for other writers.

Reader Roberto emailed me, asking me to share my own current writing process:

I’d like to suggest a new post about your writing process. Can you explain in detail how you write? A typical session of writing, with all good and bad things and stuff you use daily.

5 Steps to a Complete Writing Process

For years, I used daily rituals (what I called “warming up“) to help me ease into the writing zone. The more I write, however, the less I require artificial aids. My writing process becomes simpler and simpler. Today, I’m going to share the basics of my creative process—all the way from the first spark of an idea, right on through to the end of revision.

1. What My Conception Stage Looks Like

The earliest breathings of inspiration, when a story is still congealing into something solid enough to write about, is of course the least structured part of the process. Really, there isn’t any structure at all. There’s just me daydreaming and occasionally taking notes. But there are some commonalities that show up in this part of the process from book to book.

1. Dreamzone

This is where it all starts. Sometimes it’s just random daydreaming. But I also consciously pursue inspiration by creating conducive creative environments. My favorite is listening to music in front of a fire pit on a moonlit night. I let the music guide me and my visual imagination take over. The spontaneous images and scenes that arise are usually random, but almost always vivid and organic. These will form the core of my story when I start outlining. The more of these visual ideas I store up, the more I will have to work with later.

2. Name the Characters

I never have a story until I have at least two characters. The relationship dynamic—whether it’s romantic, familial, antagonistic, or something else—provides the reason for the story and sparks all the questions and possibilities to come. As soon as I can see my characters, I have to name them, which is often one of the most difficult parts.

3. Title the Story

No, I take that back. Titling is always the hardest part. But story ideas never truly gel for me until I have at least a credible working title. It’s like I don’t have a place to put a story in my imagination until the title creates a box for it. Once I have a title, everything solidifies, finds its focus, and starts coalescing thematically.

4. Write a Summary

I’m never in a hurry to start writing things down. Once I write something down, it becomes a fact. In the early stages of conception, I don’t want to harden the possibilities into facts. I want them to breathe, to grow, to go in directions my logical brain isn’t capable of thinking about.

But at a certain point, when the main conflict is starting to gel, I know I’m ready to write down a short, back-cover-blurb-style summary—both to finally give my ideas a set focus and to make sure I don’t forget anything important down the road.

Wayfarer summary

5. Record Early Notes

This is also where I start keeping a file of very sparse early notes. When a good idea comes to me during my dreamzoning sessions, I give it just a little snippet in my note file—just enough to capture the essence of what I saw in my head. I probably won’t use all of these ideas; but I can’t risk forgetting them either.

2. What My Outlining Stage Looks Like

My stories “brew” in the conception stage for a long time—years sometimes. But eventually, there comes a point when I know a story is ready to be written. Partly, this is because I’ve finished up my last book and am looking around for the next thing. And partly, this is because the new story just feels ready.

There is so much I don’t know about the new story yet. All I’m likely to have at this point is a sense of the main characters, the progression of their relationship, their desires and motivations, their world, and the gist of the conflict.

But there’s something else too: the sense that the story is straining against the bounds of my subconscious imagination. It’s ready to burst forth like a butterfly from a cocoon. That’s when I know it’s time to outline. I have, of course, written at length about the specific techniques I use when outlining. So today, here’s what the daily process looks like.

1. Choose Music

Music is integral to my writing, at all stages. During outlining, I tend to prefer music that offers “thinking space,” something with a range of emotions that offers both epic energy and quiet introspection. For example, when I was outlining my portal fantasy sequel work-in-progress Dreambreaker, I returned often to Secret Garden’s Once in a Red Moon, which is mostly lyrical Celtic/New Age instrumentals, with just one or two wistful lyrics.

2. Take Notebook on the Run

I write my outlines longhand in a WriteMind Planner, using an ergonomic pen. I like to take my outlines on the run—away from my computer and, weather permitting, outside.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logoHowever, for those who prefer to write on the computer and/or want a guided approach to the brainstorming process of the outline, this is why we’ve created the Outlining Your Novel Workbook software, based on my own process.

Montage Outlining Your Novel Workbook software

 3. Date/Write/End With Highlights

My daily outlining process begins with dating the page for easy reference later on. And then I just start brainstorming, asking and answering questions, moving through the intuitive set of techniques I’ve evolved over the years to help me understand my story on both the macro and micro levels of plot, character, and theme.

When I’m done for the day, I go back over my notes and use highlighters to mark areas that are “keepers” or that will need to be addressed further in the next outlining session.

4. Transcribe

Because I write my outlines longhand, I’m forced to take the extra step of transcribing pertinent notes. At every logical junction in the outlining process (e.g., after “general sketches” or “character sketches”), I will stop and use Dragon Naturally Speaking to transcribe my “keeper” notes into Scrivener for future reference.

3. What My Researching Stage Looks Like

Depending on what kind of story I’m writing, the outlining process may reveal the need for extensive research. For example, my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer required several months of research into post-Regency London.

Novel Research for Wayfarer by K.M. Weiland

I still count this crucial step as “writing time.” It’s my sole creative focus during this period, and I devote several hours a day to it.

1. Compile Bibliography

My first step is to compile a bibliography of necessary resources. I check my local libraries, but I will order most of what I need from Amazon. I start with a list of the various topics I need to research, then hunt down at least one or two books on each subject.

2. Read/Make Notes

Then I start reading. For at least two hours a day, I will sit down with my pile of books and read steadily, taking notes as necessary. I have a variety of approaches to marking interesting passages.

E-books are great, since I can simply highlight and copy/paste (either from my Kindle highlights or from an email to myself).

Kindle Highlights

With paperback books, sometimes I will use highlighters.

Jane Eyre Highlights

But more likely, to avoid marring the pages, I will use Book Dart bookmarks to note the beginning line of the pertinent passage.

Book Darts Patrick O'Brian Truelove

3. File Notes

At the end of each day’s research session, I will review my notes, type them up if necessary, and organize them by subject. Within my Scrivener project, I create folders for various topics, such as Clothing, Language, and Social Mores.

Scrivener_Wayfarer_Research

Typing up the notes not only provides me an easily searchable database, but by further organizing my findings by subject, I’m left with an easy way to quickly locate any pertinent fact without bringing my writing to abrupt halt during the first draft.

4. What My Writing Stage Looks Like

And now the main event! I used to have all kinds of little magic rituals to get myself into the right head space for writing. But the longer I adhere to good writing habits, day in and day out, the less I have to psyche myself out. These days, my daily writing process is very simple.

1. Provide Time to Prepare

Perhaps one of the most important things I’m doing right now is giving myself a little space before writing. I used to jump immediately from project to project—usually, from email or social media right into writing. This was one of the reasons I needed all those “warm-ups” to shift my brain from work mode to writing mode.

Now, I try to schedule things better. I stop whatever I’m doing thirty minutes before writing. This gives me plenty of time to tie off any loose ends as I close down the previous project. Then I’ll go for a quick walk to clear my head, do a full-body stretch, and brew coffee.

2. Choose Music

Another thing that has changed in my writing process is the way I choose music. I used to keep a list of inspiring instrumental albums (mostly movie scores), and I’d just cycle through the list, in order. Even if the music didn’t perfectly jibe with what I was I writing, I liked that it might bring out interesting elements I wouldn’t otherwise have found (don’t believe me? try writing a romantic scene to “The Battle” on the Gladiator score).

However, I now prefer to take more conscious control of my background inspiration—which, actually, can be dangerous, since it means I have to sit and think about my scene’s mood and then perhaps experiment with a couple albums before finding the right one. I’ll stick with the same album for the entirety of a chapter before choosing something new.

Unlike outlining, my musical preferences for writing lean toward the more amped. I like albums with lots of power and adrenaline. I want music that not only informs what I’m writing, but that keeps me pumped and my fingers flying over the keyboard. I cannot just sit and daydream while listening to Two Steps From Hell’s Skyworld or the Pacific Rim score—and that’s a good thing.

3. Reread Previous Session

The one “warm-up” exercise that remains steady in my daily writing process is re-reading my previous session’s writings. I fire up the music and dive in. It’s important to me to start the music right away, even though I’m not writing yet, since the continuity of background energy makes it easy to transition from reading the last line to writing the next one.

At this stage, I’m rereading primarily to get myself back into the same head space as yesterday’s writing session, but I also take the opportunity to do a little bit of editing—typo-correcting and sentence-straightening as I go.

>>Click here to have me walk you through a “real-time” edit of a day’s writing.

4. Write

Finally, I write my first draft into Scrivener. And that’s pretty much all there is to it. I feel the music, shut out the outside world, and dive in as deep as I can. I type quickly, trying to keep the words flowing. I do censor as I go, quickly replacing words, reading over what I have to make sure the flow is working. But I keep moving. My goal is to write at least 300 words every 15 minutes—although I don’t always rigorously chart the word count unless I feel I’m slipping into procrastination or inertia.

Generally, I give my writing process two hours of my day. Late morning and late afternoon are my two favorite times to write. That way, either I get to start my day with a rush of creativity, or I get to save my favorite activity as something to look forward to while I work through less enjoyable tasks.

I’ve found that two hours is a good balance for me. It’s long enough to allow me to really sink into my creative zone and complete a sizable chunk of work. But it’s not so long that it eats up my day. Any longer than two hours, and I find the intensity of sustained concentration completely zaps my mental and emotional energy.

5. What My Revising Stage Looks Like

Once I’ve finished the first draft, it’s time to revise. This step is the most interrupted of any part of my writing process. I let long chunks of time—months, even—pass between edits, both to give my betas a chance to return their opinions, and also to allow my own brain to distance itself and gain objectivity.

1. Read on the Computer

After finishing the first draft, I will do my initial revision on the computer. Since this is likely to be my most intensive edit, I like the instant flexibility of making corrections on the computer. I can change large chunks of text and move things around with the least amount of effort.

Once again, when I’m in the revision stage, I devote the entirety of my writing session to editing. Just as I do when outlining or writing, I’ll brew my coffee and sit down at my computer for two hours of focused effort.

When editing, I tend to like video-game soundtracks—the more monotonous, the better! They help me sink into concentration, while providing just enough stimulation to keep me going. Ori and the Blind Forest is a favorite right now.

2. Read Hard Copy

For my second edit, I’ll print out a hard copy. Seeing my words on paper gives me an ever-so-slightly different perspective. I’ll either mark up the hard copy with a red pen and make corrections into the computer later—or I might just sit with the hard copy at my desk and make any necessary corrections directly into my manuscript file to save myself the extra step of writing them down.

3-17-16 Editing Wayfarer's First Draft

3. Read on Kindle

My third edit is a proofreading run. I put my manuscript on my Kindle Keyboard and read along while it reads to me. I’m not likely to be making any major changes to plot or prose. I’m just hunting out typos, so I can give my betas a clean copy.

Kindle Keyboard Reading Storming by K.M. Weiland

4. Give to Beta Readers

Then I’m ready to send the manuscript to my first round of beta readers. I let them know of any major concerns or questions I may have—and then forget about the book for a couple months until they get back to me.

5. Organize and Edit/Proof if Necessary

After all of my first-round betas have responded, I will review and organize their notes to create a “revision outline.” Then I’ll go through my manuscript, on the computer, from beginning to end, making changes as necessary.

If it was a particularly extensive revision, I may decide I need to finish with another proofreading round on the Kindle.

6. Repeat

Then I send it off to the second round of betas and repeat Steps 4-5.

***

Your writing process doesn’t have to be glamorous. Indeed, it probably shouldn’t be. You want to create a writing process that is simple, steady, addresses your weaknesses, and provides a solid foundation you can return to with confidence every single day.

It should also be fluid. As you evolve—both as a person and a writer—your process will undoubtedly need to evolve as well. Stay tuned to what grants other writers success. Don’t feel you must mimic their processes to also mimic their results. But be open to stealing any little bit of their process that appeals to you. And have fun!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What does your daily writing process look like? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Hi Katie!

    I found this post very refreshing. Hearing about other’s writing process is always fascinating. I do have a 50k WIP already produced, but that wasn’t even outlined.

    Been in the dreamzone for a while, then I’ll jot down some notes or sketches. I feel like if I don’t have enough information, I can’t write effectively.

  2. K.M., this is super helpful! I don’t even HAVE a writing process yet. But, this gives me something to aim for. Thanks!

  3. Oh I love to read about the writing processes of other writers! And I also love your reminder of finding your own process. I tried too hard to follow others (like waking up earlier to write. Not a good idea for me when I am still feeding a baby at night :P).

    So my writing proces started about a year ago when I found your website. Your outlining method works so well with me. Yet, I had to tweak it to fit my live as a SAHM with the youngest at home.

    So this is it for me right now. I carry a notebook and fountain pen (those are necessary for me because I can write for pages with a fountain pen without hurting my wrists) everywhere en write every 5-10 minutes I can. Somedays it’s 5 minutes in the evening and sometimes an 6×5 minutes.
    I love to have the opportunity to use music, but at this season in my life, that’s quite impossible. And I learned to be ok with that.

    I am still in the outlining phase of my first serious project since highschool, so I am learning along the way. I transcribe some notes to OneNote because I can do that in 5 minutes sessions on my phone. And I think I will write the first draft long hand as well. We’ll see…

    Love from the Netherlands,

    M.M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I tried the whole “wake up at 5AM” thing too. It worked for a couple weeks until I started hitting the snooze button. :p

  4. Saja bo storm says:

    Your writing work ethic is phenomenal. I find that I am more encouraged to write after I read your blog. You offer great information, encouragement and support to writers. It is a solitary existence. You and the other writers provide much needed company. Sometimes I do wonder if its worth it! And then I spot a Scarlet tipped cigarette butt in the middle of the street and visualize an idea for a new story. I think music would be a distraction for me because you can’t type and dance…well, I can’t. I would probably listen to the group, Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans). Its beautiful?Let me know if you like it.

  5. Hey Katie, this may seem like a random/weird/totally-unrelated-to-this-post question, but when you approach creating a scene’s list, what do you aim to achieve with the descriptions of the scenes? What do you consider important? What do you choose to include and why? I know that a scenes list is probably important but am unsure why it is.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The scene-list section of my outline is pretty in-depth. I focus first on scene structure (goal/conflict/disaster/reaction/dilemma/decision) and then on hashing out the mechanics of the scene, so the dispersal of information will be as straightforward for me as possible when I actually start writing. You can view a complete transcript of one of my outlines, including the scene list, here.

  6. I love Two Steps from Hell for writing music as well. Epic scores that really dramatic scenes. I found them after listening to a YouTube compilation titled, appropriately, Epic Scores. Great look at your process, thank you!

  7. directornoah says:

    Wow, some very interesting writing methods there, K.M. I love how you describe the conception of ideas and scenes as ‘dreamzoning’. I think it perfectly sums up that space where writers first create the organic magic of stories.

    Point 5 of your conception stage is exactly like mine. When good random ideas come to me whilst thinking about my story, I try to jot them all down, to capture the scene or concept I’d envisioned in my head. Even though I may change or not use all of them, I have this terrible fear of forgetting something brilliant before I had a chance to write it down.

    I agree wholeheartedly, that music really does help you discover new elements or even imagine whole scenes for your novel, and any others you’ve got stored in your head. I find the best way to do this, is by imagining you are watching a movie trailer to your story with the music.
    For me, dramatic epic music like Two Steps from Hell, Audiomachine, Hi-Finesse, and other movie and video game music, contains the excitement that conjures powerful scenes and images for my ‘movie’ based on the mood and energy of the music I’m hearing. After reading your post, I must try this for when I write scenes in the first draft of my current WIP as well, even though I usually prefer silence.

    I find the speed and energy at which I write the first draft is unbelievable. I become so absorbed and engrossed in the story’s flow, it’s difficult to tear myself away. You just can’t stop yourself from spilling the words onto the page. Typically on a first draft, I spend from two to five hours constantly writing, by the end of which I’m exhausted, mentally and emotionally.

    I’m afraid I’m yet to be as organized and scheduled with my daily writing process as you are. I am working on it however, as I have eliminated most non-creative distractions. I guess I’ll just have to concentrate my time even more, on developing a strict writing routine for each day. ☺

  8. M.L. Bull says:

    Great blog! 😀 I like your writing process. It’s nice to see how different writers come up with their ideas and organize them. For my book series, I use categories of folders in Scrivener too. I usually start off with two “topics” (the crucial situations involved in the plots) and “themes” (the messages/lessons the characters learn during the plot or story arc). Knowing what I’m writing about and the overall message helps me to build the storyline summaries for my main plot and subplots.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Theme and plot are integral to one another, but still separate “concepts,” so that’s a great way to approach them!

  9. Thank you for such an insightful post! Wow. You are so disciplined. Between all the content you produce for this site, social media, and life, I don’t even know how you carve out that time to write. You seem so efficient; you don’t waste time. I’m like the bizarro version of you. There’s at least a 3-hour period today I can’t account for. I have a writing process, but I would have a hella time trying to document it. Perhaps doing so would force me to formalize it…
    The link to your 2015 post on your actual line edits is something people should have to pay to see. Highly recommend everyone revisit that one. Real nitty-gritty, in the weeds writing stuff. Thank you for that pearl.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Everybody’s different. Process is very much a personality thing. We have to take our strengths and hack them to overcome our weaknesses.

  10. Hi. Great article. Could you kindly tell me how you put a draft of your manuscript on a kindle keyboard? Do you have to publish it? I would love to do this so I can see my work properly formatted like a book. Would be really helpful. Thanks.

  11. Also is a kindle ereader as good? Or does the kindle keyboard offer more? Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Kindle Keyboard is just an older version of the Kindle. I still own one, which I use for proofreading since (as far as I know) it’s the only version of the Kindle that will read aloud.

      You can load mobi files onto your e-reader by either sideloading it (plugging into the computer and copy/pasting the file) or emailing the file as an attachment to your designated Kindle email address (found in your Amazon account).

      Use can use the free program Calibre (or Scrivener, if you have that) to export your manuscript as a mobi doc.

  12. One of the things I’m struggling with is finding a decent writing routine. Mostly because I have a day job. Granted, I love it. I work at a bookstore and that has all sorts of benefits. But in terms of being able to really crack down on a fluid writing routine, I have mixed results. I have been trying for something everyday, but there are just days that I can’t seem to focus, especially after working 8-9 hour days. I am finding it helps to set aside my days off. Two out of my three days, I write like it’s NaNo. I head to my local coffee shop and part myself there for a few hours. My other day off, I spend with my hubby or relaxing for a bit and then may get a few words in here or there.

    I found that using Pacemaker is very helpful for myself. It allows me to set custom plans for word count, or when I’m outlining, I can select a certain amount of pages, etc. https://www.pacemaker.press/home

    I am still trying to see the best way to really nail down my process. I’m halfway through a manuscript which is the farthest I’ve gotten in a while. I dread the revision phase, mostly because I’ve never gotten through a full revision before, but I’m hoping it won’t be as bad as I think it will.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I always say “write every day,” but that’s disingenuous. What I really mean, of course, is find a consistent process that works for you. Under the circumstances, you might find even greater productivity if you simply chose *not* to write on work days, if the writing (or not-writing, as the case may be) is just causing more stress than its worth. “Writing like NaNo” on off day can certainly make up for lost time.

      • I would love to be able to write every day. I just can’t quite seem to function enough to do so, sadly. But I’m finding that writing a lot during my days off helps quite a bit. I am finding it easier– mostly– to write a lot on my days off. And it actually doesn’t take that much time for me. A couple hours seems to be all I need, so I think I’ve found a good compromise.

        Thanks so much for the advice and the reply.

  13. Joe Long says:

    In my home consulting gig I write a lot of code to produce the data I sell. On the days that I’m home I also have that morning warmup process. First I read email and then a glance over Twitter, all to force my mind to focus. After a shower, I’m ready to do some work – but there’s been a break in the action. What was I working on? I told my wife the other morning, “When I went to bed I told you two things I needed to fix – now I can’t remember what they are.” I’m now forcing myself to write notes to myself as I work. Any new ideas, anything that needs to be fixed, along with all the holdovers – long range development plans and especially what clients are requesting to be added or fixed.

    However, when I tried this past week to get more of the fiction out of my head and written down I ran into a problem. I skipped ahead to the climactic scene because it’s been occupying my brain for too long. I tried to keep the notes general but included dialogue as it came to me. When I went back to check the logical chains I got somewhat confused & overwhelmed comprehending what I had written. I didn’t have the mental picture – it was a bunch of words on the page that were harder to locate and shuffle around. I had to try to clear my mind and pull back, do it again by starting with the key quotes which lead into a set of reactions. Those blocks are what need to be arranged logically and in accordance with goal/conflict/disaster/reaction/dilemma/decision

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve always liked Hemingway’s approach to leaving off a day’s writing in the middle of a sentence–making it easier to pick up where you left off. However, I, too, have learned that I pretty much need to “empty my brain” of a day’s thoughts before quitting, or they’re gone like yesterday.

  14. So, so cool that you use movie soundtracks to stimulate your writing process. I’ve been doing that for a long time now (almost the entirety of my iTunes collection is scores). I also assign specific albums to WIPs so that specific memories get conjured up during the writing process. Memories associated with music are powerful! If anyone wants recommendations, I have some favorites!

    How to Train Your Dragon – sweeping, norse/celtic feel
    (All) Pirates of the Caribbean – adventure and romance abound
    Oblivion – sci-fi, contemplative
    BrunuhVille (YouTuber) – fantasy/medieval music

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