Six impossible things

Writing methods

One of the questions everybody seems to ask writers – right after “Where do you get your ideas?” – is “Do you have a time of day when you write?” I can’t figure out whether they want me to say “yes,” hoping that writing is the same as any other nine-to-five job so maybe they can do it, or whether they want me to say “no,” confirming that writing is a mysterious and unpredictable process that they can give up on.

What I say, of course, is “It depends on the writer.”

Most would-be writers these days are familiar with the “planners vs. pantsers” work methods – the planners who do lots of prewriting, plotting, character sketches, outlining, etc. and the seat-of-the-pants writers who just wing it, but the variation in working method is wider than that. There’s a second axis, for starters: the time vs. task writers, and each of those has a couple of subgroups. And a third axis, the burst writers vs. the sloggers.  And a fourth, linear vs. nonlinear.

Time-sensitive writers are the ones who work to a schedule. Some know they’re particularly productive at certain times of the day (or night), often 2-4 a.m. (for night owls) or first thing in the morning, so they’re careful to set that time aside for writing. Others find that it doesn’t matter what time of day they pick as long as they stick to it – they’re the ones who say things like “It’s important to always be at your desk at the same time every day, so the Muse will know where to find you.” Still others set themselves a quota in terms of minutes spent working per day, and don’t care whether they’ve produced 50 words in half an hour or 500 words, so long as they got that half-hour of work in.

Task-focused writers, on the other hand, are less concerned with when or how long they write, and more fixated on what or how much. If they set themselves a daily quota, it’s often in terms of word count, and some days they leap right to it, while other days they have to prop their eyelids open with toothpicks in order to finish their required word count before bedtime. Other task-focused writers work by chunks – until they finish a conversation, or a scene, or a chapter, or some other easily identifiable chunk of story.

Sloggers work for a while every day, or at least on some regular schedule, week in and week out. Burst writers get a large chunk of story down very fast, usually working many hours a day, then write nothing at all for a while. (Sometimes “a large chunk of story” is an entire novel produced in two or three weeks; other times, it’s a chapter or a section of story from wherever they last stopped up to the next big revelation or cliffhanger.)

Linear writers start writing at the beginning of the novel and continue on in order through to the end, even if the novel itself is structured non-linearly. That means they write Chapter one first, then Chapter Two, Three, and Four, in that order, even if Chapter One is set in 2010, Chapter Two skips back to the main character’s ancestors in 1753, Chapter Three happens one month before Chapter Two, and Chapter Four goes back to 1754, and so on. The writer may or may not have done a lot of advance thinking and planning about their non-linear structure, but it comes out his/her fingers in the same order that the reader reads it.

Non-linear writers write scenes, conversations, chapters, etc. in whatever order they happen to feel like writing them, even if the novel happens in strict chronological order. A non-linear writer can write the last chapter first, then write Chapter One, then Chapters Twelve and Thirteen, then a scene from Chapter Six, and so on. Some don’t even know what order their scenes will go in; they just write a whole heap of bits and pieces, then somehow assemble them into a novel by moving them around like jigsaw puzzle pieces until they fall into place and make a picture.

What makes this even more complicated is that each axis is independent of the others. That is, some writers are non-linear, time-sensitive pantser-sloggers; others are linear time-sensitive planner-burst writers; still others are task-focused linear pantser-burst writers; etc. There are even more complicated blends of subgroups: the writer who works in scenes (task-focused), but who also finds he’s vastly more productive at 1-4 a.m., who slogs through the first half of his novel at a steady 300 words-per-day but always finishes the last 50,000 words in a three-day sprint, and who does meticulous character sketches in advance but who can’t write a thing if he’s put down more than three words of plot outline.

All this makes recommending a writing method to anyone else a rather fraught proposition. Slogging away on a regular basis works for a lot of writers, and even the most bursty writer I know has occasionally had to slog along for a month or two from time to time, so it’s a pretty safe bet as a place to start…but that still leaves time-vs-task and plan-vs-pants. And it’s not totally clear-cut even then; one can easily be a task-focused writer who prefers to work in chunks…but who is nevertheless most productive in the evening after dinner. (Note that I’m talking here about productivity rate before any additional factors, like the presence of toddlers, is taken into consideration. Anyone who’s responsible for toddlers is an exogenous time-sensitive writer whose best writing time is whenever the kids are napping, regardless of what kind of writer they’d be if the toddler wasn’t around.)

The only way I know to figure out which sort of writer one is, is to experiment with different methods and see how they work. Most people have some idea which way they lean – I, for instance, never had any doubt that I was a linear task-focused slogger-planner. I have a physical biorhythm that has a lot to do with when I prefer to write (a.m. or evening, but not late night or mid-afternoon), but I’ve never noticed any difference in the quantity or quality of the words I produce when, for some reason, I end up working during one of my less-favorite writing times.

I do keep experimenting with alternative working methods, though, even after thirty years at this. I keep hoping that something will turn out to be ever so much easier than what I’m doing…

  1. Oh how I wish I’d read something like this a year ago. 🙂 I thought I was a linear, time-sensitive planner-burst writer for more than a decade. Particularly for the burst-writer part, I think I’d gotten it stuck in my head that that’s how “real” writers do it. Probably something someone told me when I was eleven, and I never stopped to re-evaluate it when I was older. And it’s true that, when I write in bursts, I generally write faster. The problem is that I found it easy to put off writing, because there were so many other things I could do with my time. I could always say, “I’ll write tomorrow.” I tried to do the “thirty minutes of writing every day” trick, and half the time, I would just stare at the screen for the whole time.

    I’d been keeping a spreadsheet for a couple of years: when I write, for how long, what time of day, and how many words. In January of this year, I did a whole slew of correlation analyses on the data, and was kind of embarrassed to discover of infrequently I was writing. “Quick!” my inner statistician said. “Write more, so I have more data!” So I did: 250 words/day, no matter what. And while I write slower this way on any given day, I’m making a lot more progress overall. A LOT.

    As a side effect of this, I ended up writing by the seat of my pants for a good chunk of the novel, and discovered that I liked writing a lot better when I didn’t have a plot outline railroading me where I no longer wanted to go. Yeah, I know, I wrote the plot outline and so could re-write it. 🙂 I would re-write it, and end up spending more time tweaking the plot outline than writing the darn novel.

    So yeah. I wish I’d had this a few years ago. Maybe I could have saved myself some time on realizing that there isn’t a right way.

  2. You have no idea how hard I laughed when I read this. I’ve been trying to explain this all to my husband for ages. He’s a bit baffled being married to someone with a logical, linear scientific background and all the personality characteristics of an artist.

    I’m a non-linear writer (I just wrote the last scene of one of my current WIP’s yesterday, despite only having 10% of the story written). I’m task oriented (I have my daily word counts). And I’m a mostly pantser, with some characteristics of plotters. I generally have to brainstorm after the first five thousand words, if only so I know what the story won’t be. Like you, I write best in the morning or the evening. Transitioning into writing is difficult, though. I haven’t quite figured out a good trigger for it yet.

    Wish I could be a linear writer. It seems so much more straightforward and less panic-inducing.

  3. Love your analysis and how you bring clarity of thought to a muddled mishmash of creative experience!

    I write 5 days a week, with occasional writing on weekends, so that makes me a slogger.

    Morning is my preferred time to write, early afternoon is impossible, and late afternoon worse. Evening is feasible. But I’ve been known to accomplish words at any time. Guess I’m time-sensitive, but with some flex there.

    My daily minimum is 500 words, but I aim for 1000, and sometimes call it good with a mere 200, if there are mitigating factors. I usually stop for the day at a scene break. So I’m task-oriented.

    I write in order, so I’m linear. But I frequently go back after my first draft and slip in extra scenes wherever they are needed.

    I’m not a pantser, but my planning is very skeletal, and my minimal outline always changes as I write. I update it while I go, because my brain cannot hold it. I must have a line drawn through a scene I eliminated (so I remeber I eliminated it) along with a phrase indicating a new scene that is needed because I changed a plot point (so I don’t forget the new scene).

    Despite all of the above, I still remember the 15,000-word story I wrote in 2 weeks, with the last burst of 4,000 words written all in one day.

    Which is why it’s worth analyzing one’s work habits. The measured daily slog clearly works for me. I’m producing steadily and consistently. But it might be worthwhile to push myself from time to time. Experiment a bit. I might be even more productive (and satisfied with myself) if I added “burst Fridays” twice a month to my schedule, or something even more bizarre.

  4. It’s even more convoluted than you have presented here. The manner in which one writes — linear or non, pantsed or nude, chunky or creamy — varies not just from writer to writer but from project to project for a given writer.

    My muse vacillates unpredictably between OCD and ADD, which makes my writing life… interesting.

    The best advice one can give is whatever works for you *at that given moment* is the best way for you to write.

  5. So so true. And for each writer, the process can change over time. For me, I write when my kiddo is napping, and that’s pretty much the only time I have all day (reeeeaally not looking forward to when he gives up naps because that means I’ll have to start staying up later …).

  6. The thing to watch for in burst writing is ensuring that you do, eventually, come back. If you find you let weeks or months go by, you may need to be a slogger to keep your hand in.

  7. I know I”m a planner/burst/task/linear writer with a circadian clock set VERY firmly to sleep through mornings. Not sure if I’m truly burst writer ‘cus any productive day is part of a string of productive days. Ditto for non-productive days but refusing to be creative is better for jump-starting the issue then trying to force it.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,