Episode 007 | The 5 Stages of Writing
When people think of writing, they often think of something like a scene from the movies or television. You know the one: a writer sits alone, oftentimes with just their computer, typewriter, or notepad and their brilliant, brilliant genius words, which either flow out of them or won’t come at all. When the burst of brilliance is over, they are left happily typing “The End” onto a masterpiece, which their agent and/or publisher awaits with bated breath.
Like usual, TV and movies are presenting the phony baloney version.
Come peek behind the curtain, new and aspiring writers, and get to know the five stages of writing. More experienced writers, remind yourself which stage your current project is in and proceed appropriately. It’s so easy to slip back into old habits. Reminding yourself which stage you’re in and which draft you’re working on will save you a lot of time and trouble. For instance, when that siren’s song urges you to polish your first chapter until it’s “right” or “ready” before you move onto chapter two, you will safely stop your ears from hearing any such nonsense. Let’s get to it!
1PREWRITING – It’s at this stage that you ruminate, research, sketch, start a vision board, write a sloppy, galloping synopsis, or even (Dare I say? Dare! Dare!) outline. Whatever helps you start putting this story together! Do whatever makes sense to you. Author Gwen Hayes does something called a “Spark Sheet” where she writes down everything she knows about the story before she starts to write it. This stage can last for a little while or a long while. There is no one-size-fits-all with this or any other stage of writing. It will look different if you’re a “pantser” (someone who prefers to follow the muse and “write by the seat of their pants”) or more of a “plotter.” At one end of the spectrum, an extreme pantser may have as little as a single object or picture that sits on their desk to remind them of how they came up with the original story idea. At the other end of the spectrum, an extreme plotter may have a detailed synopsis that goes on for fifty pages or an elaborate spreadsheet with a scene-by-scene outline, along with notebooks full of notes and research on characters and settings, timelines, and the like. Most people live somewhere in between these two extremes. There is no right way to prewrite. There is simply your way to prewrite. BUT, no matter how you approach it: PLEASE 1) take a minute to look at your calendar and start thinking about how you’re going to make space for this project and 2) designate one place that you’re going to keep all of your notes and materials on this project. No writing project can thrive without enough resources (time, space, etc.) to keep it moving forward.
Prewriting Tips and Tools:
My Favorite Software/App: I love the Story Planner App, like a lot and a lot. I have it on my phone and my computer and they talk to one another. It is designed for fiction writers and it does exactly what I need it to do. I can organize notes and research on characters and settings, as well as map out the plot of my story. Love it. (I’m not 100% sure, but I think this may be for Apple products only. But take heart, at the bottom of the page, I include links to lists created by other writers that include apps and software for Apple, Android, and PCs.) If you don’t have access to Story Planner, I would suggest creating a base in the free online site Airtable. It allows you to organize the same things. Check out this base already created and shared in their Free Universe by AetherPie called “Story and Character Development.” Why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to? You can also use the tools that I recommend in the drafting section, Scrivener and Storyist. More on them soon!
My Favorite Low Tech Solution: A Tabbed/Divided Disc Notebook or 3-Ring Binder so that I can easily organize any printed materials relevant to the book. Each of the following categories has its own section: 1. Plots & Subplots (includes synopsis and outline), 2. Characters, 3. Setting & Timeline, 4. Themes, Symbolism, & Dialogue Snippets, 5. Misc. Notes (e.g. dedications, ideas for quotes for the beginning of the book AKA epigraphs, etc.). I also would recommend a set of notecards to jot down scene basics (who/what happens/when/where/why) as they come to you.
2 DRAFTING – If you’re a diehard pantser, you may have just started here. If you’re more of a plotter, you may have felt like this day would never come. Either way, here you are now! This is a lot like the part they show in the movies. The fingers flying over the keys or the writer furiously scribbling in the notebook. It’s Go Time! And once you get started, please do your level best to keep going until you cross the finish line, even if you’re just shuffling or crawling by the end. While some people like to edit while they write, I would urge you to strongly consider just plowing forward through this part. Forward motion is everything! When the inner editor pops by your desk for a visit, just keep repeating the mantra, “First drafts are crap” until they go away. I’ve seen too many people get stuck in the first half of what may have turned out to be a great novel if they’d ever let themselves finish it instead of endlessly polishing their first chapters.
Drafting Tips and Tools:
My Favorite Software/App: I like both Storyist and Scrivener more than Word, Pages, or Google Docs. They all have their pros and cons, but both Storyist and Scrivener are designed for writers, and it shows. You’ve probably heard of Scrivener. It shows up at the very top of just about every “Recommended Tools for Writers” list and for good reason. It really makes it easy for you to see the big picture of your story and provides you with a responsive program in which to do the actual writing. It’s amazing, with so many tools that the book almost (but not quite) writes itself. Storyist is a bit of a stripped down version that makes it a little easier to see how your book will look once formatted, so I’ve been enjoying that one slightly more lately. But you can’t go wrong with either of these.
Favorite Low Tech Solution: I don’t handwrite first drafts. If I did, I would definitely recommend the disc notebook or 3-ring binder again, so you can move things around easily while still keeping them organized. As I finish chapters, I do print them off and put them in with tabbed dividers for each chapter. It makes life easier when I get to Stage 3.
3 REWRITING – There are significant differences in meaning between the terms “restructuring,” “rewriting” and “revising,” but for our purposes in this episode, we’re going to lump them together. Hopefully, at this stage of the process, you’re sitting with a finished (and most likely highly imperfect) first draft. The degree to which that first draft hangs together structurally will vary a lot depending on whether you’re a pantser or plotter. Plotters tend to have worked out a lot of the story structure questions on the front end, whereas pantsers are more likely to sort those out at this stage. Either is fine. How much fine tuning you have ahead of you will also depend on how much you resisted the urge to edit while you wrote. If you couldn’t resist, you’ll likely have fewer errors, but you may find you spent significant time polishing sections that don’t make it into the final draft. (SIDENOTE: Sometimes we get too attached to stuff that needs to go because of the editing we did along the way. Don’t fall into that trap!) WHATEVER shape your first draft is in, this is the stage where you re-engineer things so that they make sense and you bust your hump trying to bring the story closer to the one you imagined when you sat down to write at the end of the prewriting stage.
Revising Tips and Tools:
My Favorite Software/App: Again, my favorites here are Storyist and Scrivener. I may even bring back in a little Story Planner App when I’m in the rewriting stage, just to help me keep an eye on the big picture.
My Favorite Low Tech Solution: The classic still holds. You can absolutely get things done with a printed copy of your full first draft, a set of pens (including the infamous red pen), and some fresh notecards to jot basic notes about scenes (what order it comes in, what happens, who’s in it, for example). Then get to work looking at the big picture, figuring out how you’re going to change things, and get back to your preferred writing tool. Hopefully, you’re ready to move this party to the computer soon, if you haven’t already.
4 POLISHING – Okay, so you have your new structurally sound draft, possibly the second, possibly the twentieth, or anything in between. Again, it will vary a lot based on how much you plot on the front end, etc. However many drafts it takes, get your story to the point where you feel pretty good about sharing it with other people and getting some feedback. Once you hear back from whoever did you the favor of agreeing to read and comment on it, go through everything and be prepared to fix some things. If several readers say that something just doesn’t work or make sense, you may have to go back to the rewriting stage and address that if it affects your story’s structure. But if after some minor changes, everything still seems ready to roll overall, it’s time to give this baby a spitshine. Now’s when you 100% make sure every comma is in the right spot, every subject-verb is in perfect harmony, etc. You want your manuscript to shine at the end of this stage.
Editing Tips and Tools:
Favorite Software/App: There are three different editing programs I like, and they all do slightly different things: You’ve probably already heard of Grammarly, but also check out Hemingway for help with grammar issues (especially in tandem with Word’s spelling and grammar checks). But first, consider checking in with Autocrit, which takes almost a virtual coaching approach. It bills itself as a “Fiction Writer’s Secret Weapon,” and I would agree.
Favorite Low Tech Solution: Your grammernerdiest friend, a red pen, and possibly some sticky notes. Or this is the point you might hire a copyeditor and you definitely would hire a proofreader.
5 RELEASING – Believe it or not, you should consider this as much a stage of writing as any of the others. This is the moment that you go about doing your best to get it out to your intended audience. In many ways, if you neglect this last step, you render all of the others moot. It takes some work to get your work out into the world. Look for lots more upcoming episodes on traditional, indie, and hybrid approaches to publishing.
Releasing Tips and Tools:
My Favorite Software/App: If you’re thinking about becoming an indie publisher, it’s tough to beat Vellum for formatting your book beautifully and easily. If you’re planning to traditionally publish, you’re going to need to look for agents and agencies, novel contests, and small publishers who accept direct submissions of manuscripts. Look for an upcoming episode where I break down my recommendations on the best websites and other resources for helping you with that process. But for now, do yourself a favor and set up a free account with Submittable. More and more places are using this service to accept submissions. Look for upcoming The Rookie Writer Show episodes with more details on both traditional and indie publishing.
Favorite Low Tech Solution: Bad news for old school folks. Printing off a manuscript on crisp white paper and mailing it to agents and publishers is almost never done anymore. Most places won’t accept them. On the upside, you generally don’t have to wait as long for a response. And think of the trees saved!
“The Three Phases of Creative Writing” by H. Duke
“What are the Different Stages of Writing Process” by Education Help (Medium)
You also can’t go wrong with checking in with Sarra Cannon’s Heartbreathings YouTube channel for her advice on these stages:
Finally, I find the following books especially helpful throughout the writing process:
When you sit down to write, knowing which stage you’re in will help you stave off that condition some people think of as “Writer’s Block.” And remember, if something’s not working, try tweaking your approach or looping back to an earlier writing stage!
For instance, if you plan so much that you freeze yourself up and never get started, give yourself permission to try winging it for a little while. You can always go back and redo it. If you’ve been winging it and you find yourself in the “mushy middle” with no idea what to do next, consider revisiting your prewriting and possibly fleshing out a rough outline.
Just keep at it! I’ll check in with you again on Thursday when we’ll be talking about the people you need in your Writing Squad.
Until then, happy writing. people!