Many writers will tell you “there’s no system” to writing a book. They’re right in that the craft of writing can’t be reduced to an assembly line production, at least not unless you wish to churn out cookie-cutter stories and ultimately be incredibly dissatisfied with your passion.
Still, given that writers tend to share several personality traits – such as preferring to work in isolation, a love for the sound of language, introspectiveness, a desire to constantly read – we can draw upon other authors’ processes to inform our own. As an editor and a writer, I’ve discussed this process with many writers and have read hundreds of interviews in which they were asked how they write. Indeed, looking at how published authors of novels and nonfiction books and other writers, such as journalists, there does seem to be a general system that every one of them uses.
It consists of five basic steps – brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, and formatting.
One process but no single way to follow it
Of course, every writer is an individual and so utilizes his or her own approach to those five steps. For example, how much time writers spend on each step and how frequently they switch back and forth between them is entirely unique to each person. It even can change for an author with each story written.
So granted, there’s no single way to write. Sometimes you’re so inspired you can pen a masterpiece with no outline and minimal revising of the first draft. Sometimes you only need a minimal outline to get going. Sometimes you need an overly detailed outlined from which you later must cut scenes. Sometimes you revise the piece dozens of times until it no longer bears any resemblance to the outline. Yet, the majority of the time, most writers still follow the five basic steps.
Thus, you might think of the five-step writing process described on this blog as a recipe. Just as every chef brings his or her own taste and flair to a dish, so each writer will bring his or her proclivities and style to a manuscript.
The pantser myth
Arguably one of the biggest mistakes aspiring authors makes is denying that these steps are necessary or that they even exist. These writers often say they don’t use or need outlines, that they write “from the seat of their pants” and proudly call themselves “pantsers.” Yet, they follow the process by brainstorming and outlining the manuscript in their head a split second before they commit their thoughts to paper. The more successful of these writers have internalized certain basic principles of writing – some novelists might always divide the plot into five parts or always ensure the protagonist is in conflict while trying to solve a goal – and imagination is enough to carry them. They are no different than the chef who bakes a pastry from memory rather than looking at a printed recipe.
So quit living in denial, pantsers.
Simply put, not being self-aware – or being only vaguely so – of one’s writing process is risking disaster. Imagine the chef who just wings it on the recipe’s steps and the ingredient amounts. The cake might turn out fine but probably not. At the very least, it could taste better. Likewise, with very few exceptions, manuscripts written by pantsing tend to require significant amounts of revision (a step, by the way, in the writing process) or even just tossing out the mess and starting over.
Productivity and creativity
Given this, awareness of the writing process helps balance creativity and productivity. Indeed, aspiring authors tend to underestimate the effort needed for their writing project. Because of this, they often feel overwhelmed and lost. A process can help writers break the project into manageable steps and to keep them on the road to completion.
Further, being aware of these five steps can allow you to better reflect on your own writing techniques and to pinpoint how you might possibly improve upon them. Sometimes when stuck on a story, you’ve skipped or not done enough work on one or more of these writing process steps, so an understanding of them can help you break through your block. Other times, these steps can provide a template to help you start and develop a great story idea that you love but feel ill-equipped to turn into a short story, a novel, or a nonfiction book.
Recognizing the uniqueness of each writer, the links below and posts elsewhere at this blog largely speak of the five-step writing process in general terms. When they do get specific, you may or may not find that particular technique useful, just as a chef may not want to add a certain spice or prefers to use a mix of milk and lemon juice rather than buttermilk. That’s all right. The goal here is to expose you to a variety of approaches, many of which you may never have thought of. Give them a try and see if they do work for you.
Here are articles that go in-depth on each of the five steps:
My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.