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Advice for Writers: The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

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There are three major questions I often hear from new writers. 1. Do I need to outline my whole story before I start or can I just figure it out as I go? 2. Should I periodically stop and edit my work as I go, or can I just let the words flow and come back to it later? 3. Should I write on a computer or could I physically write it all down first?

 

The truth is there’s no right or wrong answer to these questions. Your own style and personality will determine how you actually write, when you edit, and so on. So, as to the first question - 1. Do I need to outline my whole story before I start or can I just figure it out as I go?

Some people like to plot out their entire story before they begin writing it. These people usually create some type of formal outline in the process. The outline then, is their guidebook, their map to follow. They can write following the outline and be assured that their story ends up where they want it to. The advantage to this style is that you have organization, structure, and goals. It’s all very logical, but some writers think that this is a wrong way of going about it. They believe that this way of writing squashes creativity and puts the writer in a narrow creative box. The outline, once created, limits what a writer can do. Stephen King once described the process of writing this way: “Create interesting characters, put them in a situation, then see where it goes.” I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that’s the gist of it. He and other writers prefer to let a story develop organically. They like to be surprised by the twists and turns of the story, of how characters develop in unintended ways. They like to let their imagination, and the story, run where it will. The advantage is freedom and creativity.

Each of these styles have been used very successfully by hundreds of authors. When you begin to write, you’ll probably find out almost immediately which way you lean. If you find you can’t start without an outline, there’s your answer. If you just want to start writing and see what happens, you’re probably in the second camp. You might start out one way and find that you’re more comfortable doing things the other way. You might make the world’s best outline. Halfway through your story you might decided to throw away the outline and go a totally different direction. Maybe you make a new outline, maybe you throw caution to the wind.

The point is to start writing. Find your own style. If you decide you need more structure in the process, you can go that way. If the outline gets in your way, scrap it.

 

2. Should I periodically stop and edit my work as I go, or can I just let the words flow and come back to it later?

The second question is also a matter of personal style. Some people like to write a chapter, or paragraph, or a certain number of words, then stop and proofread and edit it before moving on. They like to know that their work is somewhat correct and refined before continuing. Other authors like to let the words and ideas flow. Sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become chapters, and so on. These people revisit their work later, maybe not until the entire draft is finished. They feel that mistakes happen, grammar will need to be corrected, parts re-written, dialogue corrected, etc. In their world all this can be done later. To stop during the writing process and proof/edit would break their flow and interrupt their thought process. They believe (correctly) that writing and editing require two different skill sets, two different mind sets. They prefer to work in one or the other, without having to switch.

Personal preference. See which works for you. Whatever you do, don’t get too concerned with fixing mistakes as you go. Write, without being too critical or nitpicking. Tell your inner critic to shut up until the first draft is done. There may be a few glaring errors that you correct while you write, but let most of them go. Later, you’ll need to re-read and edit your work a few times, at least. That is the time to look at it critically, to scan for mistakes and necessary changes. that’s the time to let your inner critic speak.

 

  1. 3. Should I write on a computer or could I physically write it all down first?

Some people write their first drafts in longhand on a big legal pad. Others use Word, or a host of other specialized word processing programs. Writers used to type their stories on actual typewriters. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as it gets done. That being said, There are things that can make the process easier. 

There are programs and apps designed specifically for writers. I write using a program called Scrivener. It has many advantages that I find handy. For one, Scrivener makes it easy to organize your work by chapters and/or scenes. You can import all your research, web links, photos, documents, etc. into your project and keep it all together. It’s also easy to compile your work, when finished, into whatever format you need: standard paperback, kindle e-book, script/screenplay, and more. The list of benefits goes on and on, but the bottom line is that I use that program because it works for me. 

 

If you use word processing documents in the rest of your life, you’ll probably use one for writing. Check in writers’ groups to see what people recommend. Many apps have free trial periods so you can see if they work for you. One bit of advice that is worth mentioning: many new writers get intimidated by the all functions and features of some of these writing programs.They end up not using them, thinking they are too complicated. A better way to look at these programs is to learn the basic functions first. Most work, on a basic level, just like any other word processing program. For this they are fairly easy and intuitive. Approach them as just another word processor. Then, when you’re comfortable with those functions, you can start looking at what else the program can do for you. Check out the higher functions little by little, adding one or two as you see the need or benefit. Just because a program has the ability to instantly translate and format your work in Klingon doesn’t mean you have to use that function.

 

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