Remember 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 rules. While 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.
Look 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.
For 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.
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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