writing process

How to Create the Perfect Writing Process for You

5 steps to create your perfect writing processRemember the good ol’ days when your idea of a “writing process” was as simple as 1, 2, 3?

1. Sit down. 2. Put your hands to the keyboard. 3. Write.

For most writers, that quaint little take on the writing process died on the day they stalled out on #2, with hands poised receptively above the keyboard—and no words.

If you recognize that experience in any measure, then your next step—same as mine—was probably to start madly researching your way toward the perfect writing process. Like me, you probably read all the articles and interviews, eating up the words of famous and successful writers whose writing processes included a wide range of routines, superstitions, absolutist claims, and sometimes downright confusing contradictions.

You probably started experimenting, trying on first Stephen King’s writing routine, then Joyce Carol Oates’, then Brandon Sanderson’s. Undoubtedly, what you found was that what works for one writer—however brilliant—won’t necessarily work for you.

So you started borrowing bits here and bits there. And, slowly, your own unique take on the writing process started to emerge. Finding the right writing process is as simple—and complex—as that.

Unlike other aspects of the craft (e.g., the actual techniques and theories that build a story), the writing process is inimitably personal to each and every writer. Some writers, like myself, create processes that optimize upfront outlining and planning. Others find this utterly stifling to their abilities. Some writers require solitude and silence; others need the static noise of crowds or even TV in the background. Some writers crank out tens of thousands of words in a sit-down; others piece together only a few sentences a day.

Writers sometimes resist the idea that creativity can be confined by rulesWhile this resistance is largely futile and self-defeating when it comes to the actual craft of writing, it’s absolutely worthwhile when it comes to the necessary individuality of the writing process.

Actually, there is one rule for writing processes, and this is it: Nobody can tell you or show you the right writing process for you. Every writer’s process will be slightly different, depending on any number of unique factors, ranging from personality to lifestyle. It can take time to create a writing process that will put you in the right place every time your fingers approach the keyboard. Likely, it is a process you will tweak for the rest of your life. As you evolve as a person and a writer, so too will your process evolve. Staying in tune with your personal needs and rhythms is the most important step in optimizing your entire life to help you write your best work.

Recognizing Writing as the Marriage of Order and Chaos

Much of the discussion about writing process comes down to whether or not an author finds it more comfortable to outline a novel upfront, or not. There’s a reason this argument is front and center. Within it lies one of the most foundational dichotomies of the creative life.

Chaos and order.

This everlasting, swirling dichotomy of power and control is one with which all writers are intimately familiar. Indeed, the best writing inevitably emerges from the tension point between chaos and order.

Creativity is the child of chaos; art is the child of order.

Raw inspiration is the intuitive understanding that funnels straight up from the subconscious. It is a chaotic experience. It is beyond our control, largely even beyond our comprehension. It’s a blinding swirl of light and color, images and feelings. It comes to us as little more than an unformed, inexplicable understanding. It’s often so fleeting we can barely grasp it on a conscious level. So many of these wild ideas fly away from us, like midnight dreams, almost before we remember they belonged to us at all. But in instances of great fortune, we hold the magic before our conscious mind’s eye long enough to capture it on paper.

In those moments, what we are struggling to do is bring order to chaos. We are taking the most ephemeral pantings of the human mind and confining them within the physicality of paper and ink. We are hammering them into the tiny, ever-tightening specificity of words. What begins as only the electric firings of our brains now becomes characters, plots, structures, stories.

This explains the almost unavoidable phenomenon Gail Carson Levine references:

Ideas are ideas, and words on paper are words on paper; they’re not the same thing, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves.

But both—the chaos of creativity and the order of art—are necessary if we want to create a book. Finding and balancing upon the tension point between them is where each writer’s personal writing process becomes crucial. For each of us, our best route to this end goal will be different—because for each of us, our respective relationships with order and chaos are different.

How to Upgrade Your Writing Process by Hacking Your Brain

Our brains all develop a little differently. We’re all wired in slightly—or, sometimes, dramatically—different ways. This is reflected in our personalities and, on an even deeper level, in our natural propensities and even skills.

Some writers will find themselves naturally wired to orient more naturally with the artistic order side of the coin, while others lean more freely into the chaos of creativity.

I daresay “order” writers are those who gravitate more naturally to  the idea of incorporating upfront planning and outlining in their processes, while “chaos” writers are those who prefer to lean full-on into creativity’s wild ride, only straightening up their art later on.

Although you may instinctively know which approach best suits you, it’s not always so clear in the beginning. When trying to figure out your natural strengths, start by keeping in mind these two facts:

Fact #1: Neither is better than the other.

Both arrive at the same end goal, after all. To me, it seems possible that “chaos” writers more naturally retain the purity of their creativity, while “order” writers have a comparatively easier time getting their ideas into working order. Obviously, both approaches have inherent strengths and weaknesses.

Fact #2: Neither necessarily creates more or less work than the other.

All writers plan and all writers “pants”; all writers must embrace both chaos and order. It’s just that some writers prefer to impose order earlier in the process and others later. Whether you’re doing most of your heavy organizational lifting upfront in an outline or later on in revisions, the workload tends to even out in the long run.

What’s important is recognizing your most natural mode and experimenting with ways you can hack your brain’s personal wiring to create a writing process that will help you get out of your own way, while minimizing distractions and obstacles.

5 Questions to Help You to Create the Perfect Writing Process

Heeding your brain’s natural wiring is the first and most foundational step in creating your own personalized writing process. Once you’ve done that, start paying attention to your work flow and patterns. Take special note of what’s extra hard and what’s extra fun. What makes you most efficient? What helps you produce your best writing?

Slowly, you will be able to refine every part of your approach to optimize it to your own special needs. You can start by asking yourself the following five questions.

1. What Do You Find the Most Challenging Part of Writing?

A well-executed writing process won’t, in itself, make writing easy. But if you can identify the parts you hate most, you can work on minimizing them—and in the process, you’ll chop half your excuses off at the neck.

For example, I hate revisions. Let me say that again: I hate, hate, hate revisions. When writing my early novels, I sometimes had to completely rewrite them. And I loathed every single minute. It was torture. But over the years, I have learned how to optimize my process to eliminate as much of the major revision work as possible by focusing on an extensive outlining process. I spend the time in the beginning to get my story as close to perfect as possible, so I don’t have to put myself through the agony of major revisions later on.

Other writers, however, hate outlining with equal verve. In which case, vive la revision!

2. What Part of the Process Do You Find Most Enjoyable?

Another dichotomy of the writing life is that writing is often equal parts agony and ecstasy. Even as you try to create a writing process that minimizes the parts of writing you find agonizing, you are, of course, trying to maximize the ecstatic parts.

So what’s your favorite? What’s the one part of writing you could do all day, every day—if only you could? Start looking for ways to put that part of the process front and center. If you can figure out how to take care of the heavy lifting in your favorite part, you’ve just killed two birds with one stone.

For example, not so ironically, I adore outlining. It is far and away my favorite part of the process. I love it even more than actually writing the first draft. For me, spending months upfront doing something I love (which, in turn, is going to help me avoid doing something I hate) is no sacrifice.

By contrast, maybe what you enjoy most is drafting or even (gasp) revising. Figure out how you might be able to put the bulk of your efforts into this section of your writing. More time doing the thing you love best is just good for everyone.

3. What Are Your Most Obvious Weaknesses as a Writer?

As writers, we’re all evolving. Whether you’re a greenie just starting out or a certified black belt, you will always be adjusting your understanding of the craft (including the placement of that tension point between chaos and order). In short, you’ll always be learning how to do something better. Fortunately, this is another area in which you can optimize your writing process to help you move forward with the fewest possible obstacles.

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165Look at your body of work—especially your most recent stuff—and examine it as objectively as possible. What do you believe are some of your most prominent weaknesses as a writer? This could be anything from story structure to chapter endings to minor characters to narrative description—or any combination thereof. How can you craft your writing process to help you deliberately focus on and improve these weaknesses?

For example, something I’m working consciously to improve in my stories is the motivations and goals of minor characters, both in the larger story and scene by scene. I have consciously built into my outlining process the need to ask myself questions about all my minor characters. Instead of getting halfway into plotting the story before thinking about my minor characters’ personal agenda in any given scene, I’m trying to address these questions upfront, so not only will I know, but so these revelations have an opportunity to affect the entire story before I start plotting.

Similarly, you might try hacking your process to address weaknesses by outlining your story’s major structural beats or marking all descriptive passages for revision in later drafts.

4. What Is Your Ideal Writing Environment?

Setting up writing habits that include a daily schedule and optimized writing environment will contribute to the overall success of your process.

Once again, this comes down to observing yourself, knowing what triggers your best work, and avoiding what inhibits it. Depending on the circumstances of your home, job, and family, your choices may not always be optimal. But work with what you have. Insofar as writing is important to you, put in the effort to create the best habits possible. Nurture yourself.

Dreamlander K.M. WeilandFor example, although I’m a pretty routine-oriented person (“order” strikes again), I’m getting better at flexing my writing routine when necessary. Right now, as I’m outlining the third book in my Dreamlander trilogy, my favorite writing situation is a low-lighting setting of solitude, away from my desk and computer, with music filling the room. It makes me feel nested into a cocoon of creativity.

1-19 Outlining Dreamlander 3

But others find they can’t write without background noise, even a TV show or movie running in the background. Or maybe you have kids and a day job and find your only opportunity for writing is getting in half an hour before the day’s other demands upon your energy begin. Whatever the case, try to give your creativity its best chance. Work with your life, not against it.

5. What Does Sustainability Look Like for You?

Recently, I read a brilliant quote on a sustainable lifestyle blog (not sure which one, unfortunately), which, paraphrased, applies equally to creating the optimal writing routine:

You’re not trying to be a perfect writer for a week; you’re trying to be an imperfect writer for the rest of your life.

Sometimes it can be easy to look at a famous writer’s book-stuffed writing nook, read their summary of their simple and seemingly effortless writing routine, and think, I should do that! I could totally do that! 

And maybe you could pull it off for one day or even a couple weeks. If, however, the routine hasn’t been optimized to your individual needs as a creative person, it won’t be the long-term answer you need. Nurturing a personal writing routine is a lifelong pursuit.

Don’t guilt yourself into believing writing routines are a one-size-fits-all hand-me-down from the geniuses who have gone before. The first step is realizing this is your routine and, quite literally, no one else’s. Knowing this gives you the freedom to do what is best for you and only you.

How awesome is that? How often does life give you that kind of carte blanche?

Optimized writing routines don’t make writing easy, but they do make writing easier. So have fun. Embrace the chaos. Respect the order. Observe your own brain. Cultivate the ultimate space for enjoying your creativity and making your art.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is one thing you can think of that would make your writing process work even better for you? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing. I have saved the link so that I can come back and read this again in the moments when I wonder what on earth I am doing. I especially appreciated your suggestion that every writer is both a planner and a panster. That brought me great consolation.

    When I sat down last year to start what I thought was a holiday distraction, a one-time opportunity to revisit my childhood dream to be a writer, writing came easy. I had an idea and I sat and typed as the words flooded from me. It was only when I was almost finished what obviously wanted to become the first book in a series of novels that I started to research how REAL authors approached their writing.

    A whole new world of jargon, theories and strategies, rules and guidelines. I made the quick decision that I must be a panster. Then halfway through the second manuscript, I sat down to outline the final chapters. At first, I thought I was letting pride take me into foreign territory, but when everything went back to the normal I-don’t-know-where-this-scene-is-taking-me craziness to wrap up the story, I thought the outlining phenomenon was a glitch, and tried to forget…

    Today, I discovered that is okay to be both. I’m not breaking any rules. I”m just like every other hopeful writer, trying to find a way to bring the story forward )i(

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A common idea among writers is the idea of “serving the story.” Ultimately, that’s all any of us is trying to do in finding a successful process.

  2. Abigail Welborn says:

    Thank you for another great article! I enjoy your blog (and books). I had a question about your process… You have mentioned that you do most of your brainstorming and a lot of outlining by hand with an ergonomic pen. I also love freewriting by hand—I find it’s one of the best ways I brainstorm—but my pencil grip is abominable. My hand cramps up after only an hour. (College was exciting, let me tell you, and I got those cushioned pens that were supposed to help but since I hold them wrong, they didn’t really.) How long did it take you to adjust to a new grip, as the ergonomic pen would seem to require? I try fixing my grip sometimes, and I can tell that it’s way more comfortable for my hand, but my handwriting in that grip looks like a kid’s! I get so frustrated that I give up and say it’s too late to change. 😛 (I have always been a prolific writer, including a ton of journaling and note-taking from like 4th grade through college, so I have SO MANY HOURS of practice doing it wrong.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The pen I use is basically just a cradle for your forefinger, so it mimics “normal” pen posture about 90%. The difference is that you’re using the weight of your hand to hold and control the pen rather than squeezing it.

      • Abigail Welborn says:

        Gotcha. Thanks! At least if I have to learn a new (i.e., the correct) grip I can do it ergonomically. 😉

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s really pretty easy to adjust to. I will say my handwriting is a little sloppier with it though.

  3. Brenda Williams says:

    I’m simply amazed at your ability to teach me, and I’m getting it. Thanks again

  4. So true. I like the tips thank you. 😀 I find what works for me is that golden time when my son goes to sleep for the night, I’ll have four hours or so of uninterrupted quiet. In those hours I can really crack away at the chapters, let my imagination run wild. It’s almost like my characters are there talking to me, saying “Do this, let’s try that! I don’t want to do that.” Lol. xD

    Early mornings are also nice, If I go to bed early and get up at five am it works too.

    Doesn’t matter if it’s late night or early morning, what does matter is how my notes are organized so I know what has to be done next, or what needs to be fixed. I wish I’d have been this organized when first starting.

    With your help I’ve taken this mess and applyed an outline of the web, it’s not following exactly the outline as some stuff had to be tweaked to fit how I do things, it’s worlds better than what was done before jumping in blind and trying to remember everything in my head. (Oy.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’m really trying to find my golden hours too. I have a feeling I’d enjoy evening writing too, but that’s always been my reading time, and I’m reluctant to give that up.

  5. Mary George says:

    Funny, but I always think of Hemingway: “The most essential gift any writer can have is a built-in, shock-proof sh*t-detector.”
    What I love about that is that Hemingway, one can infer, wrote sh*t. Not unlike Anne Lamott’s “sh*tty first draft” chapter in “Bird by Bird.”
    No one wants to talk about how bad those first drafts can be, and how demoralizing it is to keep revising.
    Only a first novel can nail the point with that.

    (But tweaking that quote above just a bit, I’d like to take out “built-in” and add “editor.”)

    PS. For me, Post-It’s are the best for all those fleeting creative moments, and for getting a new story down. Those, (yellow and pink only, please – green and blue are too dark) and a brand new notebook to slap them into, from beginning, middle to end. They’re so easy to rearrange!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great point about the Post-Its! On a similar note, I finally got a smart phone last year and am finding it great for recording notes.

  6. Greetings from Panamá! I am a huge fan of your podcast. Thanks for putting it out there. It has helped me a ton with my first published novel and I am currently working towards new stuffs. Short stories mostly or maybe a short novel too.

    Regardless, at the moment I am stuck in the process. I recently moved out to a new place and one of the spaces I had to sacrifice for now was my office. Without it I can’t find the calm and solitude I need to concentrate and it’s making me crazy. My inspiration is flowing like a shoal through a broken net. Any advice would be welcomed!

    Anyways, hope you are doing alright in this weather. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I find I’m struggling with that a little bit myself at the moment–more than I realized when I wrote this post. I moved in the last couple months myself, and it’s been… interesting, trying to establish a new writing routine within this new time and place. I’m still working on it, but am giving myself the space to instinctively find the right answers in their own time.

  7. When I was a kid, I used to pants and never look back. Afterwards, I learned about story theory and became obsessed with trying to create something perfect the first time around (which never works out), which led me to attempting heavy outlining via the Snowflake method…basically the opposite of my past approach. While the journey was fascinating and I learned a lot along the way, ultimately copious outlining didn’t work for me because by the time I’d finished an outline, I’d already told the story, so the fun of writing it was gone. However, any stories I tried to pants during this time period also fizzled out because I would lose motivation after the first couple chapters when I realized I didn’t know where the story was going.

    Another huge weakness of mine is worldbuilding. I absolutely hate sitting down and sketching out extensive details about a world without knowing how or why it fits into the plot. This stretches from making maps to building spaceships to even giving the characters names. I think part of it comes down to my constant struggles with understanding space (for someone who got lost in a McDonald’s Play Place once, mapping out the geography of a setting and keeping it consistent is dang hard). But, when I would try to write stories without adequate worldbuilding, I would get frustrated and stop because I was unable to “fake it” hard enough to reach the end of the story.

    I really want to finish the first draft of a novel this year, so I’ve been thinking back on my failures (and my childhood successes) to see how I can keep myself going this time. I’m planning to try a hybrid approach. Using what I’ve learned of story theory, I know the inciting incident and midpoint of the story for sure, and I’m more or less certain about the climax and ending. (The midpoint was actually the first part of this story that I conceived, which is unusual for me.) I’ll expand this outline just far enough so that I have direction while I’m writing, but not so much that I feel I’ve already told the whole story. Same with worldbuilding — while I outline, I’ll see where I have huge gaps and fill them in, but I’ll try not to go crazy, driven by the fear that if I don’t know EVERYTHING, I’ll fall apart.

    I actually enjoy revisions…I like looking at a dumpster fire and trying to make something beautiful from it. But, can’t do that without a dumpster fire to begin with. Knowing that, I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to try to attack novel-writing from a panster-heavy angle again. My other strengths include characters — their motivations, dialogue, quirks, all that fun stuff — and going with the flow. I just like to jump off the rails and have fun sometimes, although I have to be careful because I’ve often written myself into a rut that way.

    Even though looking back on it I maybe should have realized sooner that I’m not a hardcore plotter and probably never will be, I don’t think I would feel nearly as confident about this upcoming novel if I hadn’t tried (and failed) using all sorts of methods in the past. I think that’s a super important thing for writers who don’t know what their process is to realize. Try everything. For each thing you try, part of it probably won’t work, but part of it probably will.

    Anyway, this was long. Even though it seems that our writing processes are very different, I’ve learned so much from your blog posts. (And I LOVE story theory now.) Thanks so much and keep doing what you’re doing!

  8. Another great article! Thank you, Katherine. And “Vive la revision” for a French like me sounds pretty sexy. 🙂

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  1. […] writers. Andrea Merrell reminds us that writing is a process, not an event; K.M. Weiland tells us how to create the perfect writing process for you, and Gabriela Periera shares 4 reasons to include writing prompts in your writing […]

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