Methods to the Madness

Every writer has a different approach to writing, a different method. My writing process, for example, has to involve a pen and paper (at least at first), and a very fragmented style. Meaning, if I get a scene in my head, or even just a line I think sounds good, I write it down. It is never, ever the opening paragraph. Then I’ll get an idea for a different scene, and write that, but it is rarely the scene that directly follows what I just wrote. Eventually they all come together.

There are also linear writers who can’t move on until the opening scene is secure. That, to me, would take forever. I’d be staring at a blank sheet of paper for hours if I was forced to think of beginning before I could continue. But they would probably think my process takes forever, and then we’d both disagree with someone else’s third approach.

Other choices writers are faced with when deciding which method works best for them are usually along the lines of “paper or computer?” “inside or outside?” or “gin or coffee?” But, the process that most fascinates me about writing is revision. You cannot be a writer and not revise. And then revise again. Something unavoidable, like the actual writing of words themselves, often means that it involves an entirely different approach.

I love revising more than I love writing a first draft. I don’t usually finish a first draft before I begin revising what I already wrote. But of course, there are those who loathe the revision process with a passion that rivals our collective disdain of whoever slighted Sandra Bullock this week. What are your methods and opinions on revising? I have a feeling you’re all going to say something different.

Lastly, something else that I’ve been wondering lately, as I ask for revisions, is what do writers prefer to hear from agents or editors? Would “complete re-write” would induce vomiting? Is it better to hear “add more” rather than “delete?” Things to ponder…

Enjoy the hot weekend everyone!

30 thoughts on “Methods to the Madness

  1. I love these questions! I spend so much time writing, and realized lately that I rarely step back from the process to analyze it and I rarely have an opportunity to talk about the actual process of writing. I used to write best with paper and pen, but now I write most effectively when I type on my computer in the quiet of my home office. I think this is a situation of behavioral reinforcement- -I now connect writing with typing on the computer, so that immediately sets the stage for me to begin writing. For short stories and novels, I usually get an idea for the story and envision the beginning and end of it. I write in linear fashion, but don’t outline, and I edit as I write. As I’m creating the short story or novel, it kind of rolls out in front of me inside my head, and I frequently jot down notes for where the story should go next at the end of a writing session. I drink lots of coffee and especially love sipping Starbucks mocha lattes as I write.

    In regard to editing, if I end up writing a lame section in a writing session, I delete it at the beginning of my next writing session, and I constantly edit as I write. I don’t mind doing edits to meet an agent’s suggestions at all, no matter what type of editing is requested. Being asked to do a “complete re-write” would be difficult, although it would still be great to know that an agent’s interested in the basic story. Being asked to “add more” to a story is awesome. The one part of completing a novel that makes me sad is leaving the fictional world I had so much fun developing. Being asked to step back into the world and expand it is wonderful.


  2. I hate revising. Hate it! I know it's needed but it's like going to the dentist.

    My process is similar to yours, pen and paper is a must, and the scenes just flow to me at random in the beginning but eventually, I start writing in linear fashion, more or less. It's not concrete and I can move on if things aren't perfect.

    My first drafts are the bare minimum so I usually have to do a few rewrites. Sigh.


  3. Your method was intriguing. I definitely work in a linear fashion. It's important to me to nail and polish that first line, that first paragraph. It's the foundation for all the rest to me. I have thought of scenes out of sequence and I do write them down, but I still have to get the beggining firm or I feel anxious.

    I'm unpublished, so I haven't had the experience of an agent or editor asking for revisions. A couple of agents are interested in reading my pages and I'm in the midst of revising and editing my first draft to submit formally. I like the revision process.

    I feel more relaxed at this point, knowing my story is complete, the foundation is in place and now I can refine it. I discovered your site via Twitter and I look forward to more of your posts.


  4. For me, revising is something I do as I write. Generally, before I start writing for the day, I go back (especially in the early chapters) and read aloud, nit picking along the way. I think that's why the first draft takes me so long to get through, because I'm always editing as I read, always correcting as I write.

    I have the same approach with research. In the midst of writing, if I come to a name or an image I don't quite have a handle on, I stop and pull out a book or give Google a quick sort. This is not for everyone, but I think that like editing, research needs to be done as you write. Otherwise, you lead yourself to an excuse to procrastinate.

    I also, initially outline, though not many do. Rarely does the original outline end up being what I write, but it does help me to organize my thoughts.

    Great post!


  5. I used to write linear, without any outlining at all. Then I graduated high school.

    I do a lot more outlining now, and it's like the method you described above–a scene or an idea, an exchange of dialogue, and not usually the opening. I write them down on notecards and then spread them across the table so I know where my gaps are. Then I write in other cards to bring the whole thing together. I keep that in front of me when I'm writing, and if I need to revise during the first draft, I make notes on the outline–I don't work on the draft itself.

    After that I'll read through it three or four times and keep sanding the rough spots until it's better. I like revising more than drafting.


  6. While I'm sleeping ideas happen. Unconscious notes appear throughout gray matter. While sitting with my Inspiron 1525, my fingers type, spewing sentences across Microsoft Word pages. Write, revise, write more, revise, detailing Hemingway's concise style and Steve Berry's breadth. Using linear structure, sometimes disconnected scenes and surprise character's happen, which spurs fragmentation but helps restructuring processes.

    Editing is an extraordinary experience. To create movement, spacing and leverage as well as sharp and edgy dialog, I purge dead words and passive connections. Search for unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, the ones that end with ly and delete most of them. You'll see how unnecessary they were. I search and destroy then streamline plotting for emotional impact.

    From an agent or editor I would prefer to hear edit out: there was – there were – they were – was being – were being – had become – has been – ly. But of course that would not be necessary, I would have already accomplished that.

    Thanks for asking, Sarah.


  7. I usually go for whatever I'm in the mood for. Like you, sometimes I revise a bit before the first draft is complete, like if there was something irking me in one scene and I want to jump to it to see what's going on. I've never written in a linear fashion, but I'd be interested in seeing if it was something I could do.

    As for agent feedback, sure, I'd be a bit sad to hear “complete rewrite” but I'd get over it. One of my betas did that for me a few months back and she was absolutely right (heh, I wrote “write” at first… Puns are punny…). Tough love, Sarah, tough love!


  8. My first book was linear. This one started as assorted scenes, and now I'm taking the linear approach to fill in between them. I much prefer revising to first drafting, although this book is more stream of consciousness so it's a little easier to draft.

    Re. “complete rewrite” versus “add” or “delete”… I'd rather hear whatever gives me the most direction– and of course they're all better than “no thanks,” right? 🙂


  9. My computer draft is linear but I keep a notebook with those random scenes, lines and ideas. As I get to that part in the mss, I pull out the notebook, tweak the idea to fit with the linear story and go from there. The only part of the revision process I haven't liked is the first chapter because it has changed so many times and I've been hyper-critical with is, so I'm kinda burned out.
    I wouldn't mind agent feedback at all though – hearing “total rewrite” probably would be disheartening, but if it's not from an agent I've signed with, I would suspect that that person just sin't the write agent for my work (assuming I'd gotten through countless beta reads without similar feedback).


  10. I have to see the big picture. I imagine the whole thing, draw a graph reminiscent of Himalayas and plan an out line to match. I find photographs of my characters and write pen sketches. Then I write. I revise and edit from the moment I have more than two sentences joined together. I also start getting feed back from Beta readers of the right age.
    Getting meaningful input that improves the end product has got to be a good thing.


  11. What I'd like to hear from agents and editors is what works and what doesn't–both specifically and globally. Not every little thing, but just in general with enough specifics thrown in so I understand. My now-agent, Stephen Fraser, on reading the first two chapters of the ms I submitted, told me I had a tendency to slip into banalities. Didn't want that! So once I understood what he meant, I took another pass. And for that, I thank you Stephen! My first novel is now on submission!!!


  12. I used to start out with a pen and paper, but I'm a much faster typist than I am a longhand writer, so I'm almost exclusively on my Macbook or my Alphasmart these days.

    As far as editing, I've learned to like (though not love) the revision process. First drafting is my favorite part, but revision is exhilarating in its own way, I think. I like to do a couple of passes through the manuscript, each time focusing on a different set of issues. It's cool to see the pages start to come together gradually, even though on most days I'd still rather be first-drafting.

    I haven't received any revision requests from agents, so I don't know what I'd prefer to see. I'd really just like to get some revision requests that would make the book better, you know? I think a well-informed critique would really show me that the agent “got” my book, which would be freaking awesome.

    Of course, if someone asked for a complete re-write, I probably would want to vomit. 🙂 Maybe more than once.


  13. I also start revising before finishing my first draft- but its usually just to get me back in the 'flow' if i've been away from it for awhile. Once the first draft is down, I leave it alone for a few weeks before doing a 'rapid reread' and making notes on the big things, and yeah, I'll edit as I go. Then it comes down to the chapter by chapter. Then I send it off to my crits group before rethinking/revising the chapters again. Since I have two very very different ms (different genres, styles, word counts, etc) I've had to learn different ways of revising as well. 'cut cut cut' isn't always whats best for a shorter ms but more 'reword' or 'flesh out'. It's all been very enlightening. Feels like I learned alot this year. But the biggest thing I've learned is that the editing and revising process is pretty much never-ending. It can always be better:)


  14. I start out writing with a pen and paper as well. For some reason the blinking cursor stifles my thoughts. When revising I go page by page, I end up going through the manuscript a countless number of times. As far as agents/editors telling me my work needs revising. It doesn't matter which way to me. If there is a way to make the work better I'm all for it.


  15. I just told a writer Your concept and first four chapters are great – but you need to set the rest aside and start over. I don't think there would have been a gentler way to say that. (But this writer sort of knew this anyway.)


  16. I'm one of those writers who gets tired of revising and editing. It's really a chore which has to be done.

    So how do I edit?

    One suggestion I've received in the past is to read aloud the passages while editing. I totally agree it helps. Typos, misused words, and stale areas are more prominent when read out loud. However, I find myself falling back into the silent read mode without even knowing I'm doing it.

    I found a great solution to that–text to speech software. It makes a huge difference not just because it's consistent. But also it reads what is there rather than what I expect to be there.

    As far as hearing from an agent or editor my work needs revisions? Honestly, I really don't care which. As an unpublished/unrepresented author, I just want to hear feedback so I know where I need to improve. Though I might get a little bummed my current work didn't work for them, it's very, VERY encouraging they see enough in my project to offer me a chance to revise and resubmit.

    Add or delete? I tend to delete passages, scenes, and even chapters in one big swoop. However, I add details and introspection to what remains. As far as word count, I think it ends up being a wash.


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