General Writing Tips

Plan Ahead or Live Dangerously: When to Prewrite and When to Wing It


After a small hiatus (like, a month, but who’s counting), I’m back. After trying to juggle planning my personal blog posts with my blog posts for work and my chapters for my second novel, I realized that there’s really no getting around it: unless you’re a New York Times bestseller and can live off of your book revenue, you’re going to be juggling your writing with your other tasks. Work, grocery shopping (the first thing I plan to pay somebody else to do if I become rich), cleaning, eating and sleeping will have to be catered to eventually.

Back in college number #1, English majors and Creative Writing minors were one of the most populous identities I would run into on campus. While I was in the lesser-loved History and Anthropology at the time, I had a lot of writing buddies that would give me advice on my writing techniques. I learned very quickly at that college that there are two kinds of writers: those that have a plan before starting and those that do not. Until recently, I was very squarely in the “do not” section. Also until recently, I was unable to finish a story because of the time and unpredictable nature of the grocery shopping and sleeping thing.

Now, before people who hate the idea of planning everything before you write roll their eyes, let me explain that this, like much about the writing process, has no right or wrong side. Everybody has a method that works. Stephen King brags about never prewriting and being as surprised as the reader at where the story goes. Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling has released photos of her notes and charts highlighting her planning of Harry’s adventures from 1st year to 7th. Many successful authors have done both and have had no problems.

The trick to knowing whether you should prewrite or not is to consider a couple of points:

The Relationship between Your Schedule and Your Energy

Back to my earlier point, my schedule is hectic on a good day. Work is from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and consists of being on the phone, helping to build and maintain a new website, having to occasionally run to an embassy to drop off a visa application or pick up the completed product, writing blog posts and answering emails about missing documents and scheduled completion dates. The job requires a lot of time with people, many of whom are stressed while trying to secure last minute travel plans without the proper travel documents. Then there’s the commute back and forth on D.C.’s less-than-relaxing Metrorail. By the time I’m home at 6:30, there’s an angry Bengal mix that is howling because he hasn’t had attention all day, dinner to make and, often, laundry to take down to the basement of the apartment complex. By the time I sit down at my tablet for an hour or two of uninterrupted writing, I’m physical and mentally cashed.

If this sounds familiar, this is where prewriting can be useful. Taking an opportunity to outline my chapters, even if it’s just a sentence or two about them, helps to write them even when I’m exhausted. Having a rough outline gives me a sort of guide rail that I can follow if I’m mentally unable to come up with a creative plot for the chapter. Just having those couple of sentences make all the difference, and even if the finished product is awful, at least it’s done.

Most people have a couple of minutes to write one or two sentences about their chapter. How much you should end up writing depends on you. My outlines can be shortened to keep me on task or very detailed if there are a lot of crucial things that I don’t want to miss while writing. Of course, nothing is saying that you have to adhere to the chapter outline once you’ve written it, but it’s a real lifesaver if you’re trying to write on a busy schedule.

The Relationship Between Your Creativity and Your Planning

While I like to have a loose outline, I don’t like to expound upon much unless there are some important details that I want to remember. The reason for this is because leaving enough vagueness to explore ideas leads to a more fluid, imaginative experience for both the reader and the writer. If I have too much structure, I have a harder time making my plot interesting and unique. Whether it’s in my head or not, rereading what I’ve written tends to sound forced or dull, as though I am just following a script. Not keeping a strict, rigid outline also allows for surprises and redirection of my plot.

If you would like to write with that sort of freedom, I would recommend having an hour or two around the same time to set aside each day. Try to focus on a time that you aren’t too tired or have too much to do right after so that you’re distracted. Most of my “brain drain” comes from trying to write while fighting the thoughts about the responsibilities and piles of to-do items that I need to tackle right after. Generally, I find that the evening time on weekends, after I’ve run my errands for the day, but well before I’m ready for bed, to be the best times.

The Amount of Information You Have

If you read Stephen King stories, you’ll find that most of them stay focused on a central character or two, and the story is told through their eyes. This makes it easier to write without a prewriting session. If your plot is linear and simple, you’ll be able to keep track of it without the need for notes.

If you take a story like anything George R.R. Martin has written, however, you can see where prewriting would be useful. With more than a couple characters and each one in their storyline, you’ll have much more to keep track of while simultaneously trying to weave those stories together.

This all comes together in different ways for different writers. Prewriting can be planning out chapters (like I do), world building, notating important facts in your story, notating important goals for your characters, keeping track of events and timelines. Prewriting should never be done out of a sense of instilled obligation but rather because you need some organization and overview of your story.

So, whether you plan it or wing it, the most important thing to keep in mind is that it’s your writing process, and it has to serve your best interests and help to bring out your best work. Beyond that, whatever you choose is, as with every part of your writing, completely up to you and you alone.

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