How would you describe the way you plan your writing projects? Do you love research and outlining? Hate it? Get stuck at this phase?
If you struggle to start, maybe the problem is with your process, not the project.
Practical tips for every planner
Fiction writers describe themselves as plotters or pantsers. Plotters create the plot before drafting, and pantsers see where the story takes them. (They write by the seat of their pants.)
Nonfiction authors tend to plan first, as the writing often builds on supporting research, interviews, and stories. Book proposals include a well-developed plan and outline. The plan precedes the work.
The nonfiction authors I work with bring their own personalities and preferences to the outlining and planning process. There is no single, ‘right’ way. Each has risks and trade-offs.
Advice for planning enthusiasts
Some people relish planning and outlining. They love experimenting with systems, getting things organized, and making order out of chaos.
It’s great to love planning. The danger is that you can love it too much.
Planning feels fun and safe. If writing seems scarier, you may avoid it. Or, you might spend so much time planning that by the time you’re ready to write, you’ve lost all enthusiasm for the project.
How do you know if your love of planning has strayed into procrastination? Here are a few clues:
- You spend more time tinkering with outlining systems than outlining.
- Your desk is cluttered with color-coded note cards, sticky notes, and storyboards for projects that you’ve never started.
One author shared with me her 12-month plan for writing a book. She reserved the first two months for researching tools that she might use to write her book. That felt like procrastination, not planning.
💡 Planning extends beyond outlining.
A plan sketches a path to the completed work. Map out the outline, line up the research, and schedule the writing—keeping your planning enthusiasm in line with the project!
Advice for perfectionists
Some people want everything completely structured, outlined, and mapped out, point-by-point, before writing. In writing, perfectionism can cause more problems than it solves.
The risks: I’ve known authors to delay writing for a year or more while they gather more interviews, more stories, and a better framework. When the year is done, they don’t find starting any easier. The outline is never good enough, complete enough, compelling enough.
I shudder to think how many great works have never come to fruition because the writer was waiting for a perfect plan or bullet-proof proposal.
💡 Structure often reveals itself during writing
The best outline is like a flexible travel itinerary. It gets you on the road and safely home again, while giving you the chance to explore and discover new territories.
In my survey of nonfiction authors, only four percent said their finished work precisely matched their starting outline. (Those four percent are probably true planning perfectionists!) The rest let the process reveal better paths.
Your outline needs to be good enough to get you safely on the road, while leaving room to explore.
Advice for creative freestylers
Perhaps you identify with the pantsers of fiction—you like to see where the writing takes you. Maybe planning seems dull or stifling.
The risks: This approach can lead writers into all kinds of trouble—including getting stuck 70,000 words into a draft going nowhere. It’s hard to write an effective book (especially a nonfiction one) without structure.
One blog reader sent me this question:
When working between writing the story and planning the story, in that cloudy gray area, how do you balance the two objectives — giving the planning equal weight to the actual writing? (Without throwing your keyboard across the room, that is.)
You can hear the frustration of the creative spirit there!
💡 Planning is itself creative
Treat planning as part of the creative process. Do whatever you need to do to get that creativity flowing: conversations, coaching, deep thought, and of course, writing. Ask questions. For example:
- How can you approach your subject differently?
- What structure will reveal levels of meaning to the reader?
- Can you find a foundational metaphor that connects with people?
If it helps, think of yourself as an impressionist painter, like Claude Monet working on a giant canvas of Water Lilies. Up close, he layers on more paint with short brushstrokes. Then, he steps back and sees if it’s working and matching his vision.
Perhaps you commit to stepping back every 2000 words or every chapter to survey the structure and vision. Embrace it as part of your process.
If you’re stuck in the planning, identify your own tendencies. Try working against your usual type and see if it frees up the work or gets you unstuck.
More about planning
Planning is only one step in the writing process. Download a seven-step “writing recipe” from The Writer’s Process.
Read the blog pot Research or Procrastination?
Rather watch a video? Find this post on my YouTube channel.