Before you even sit down to type the first word of your novel, there’s some groundwork you need to do first.
You need to spend time developing your characters, world, plot, and doing lots (and lots) of research. This is known as the pre-writing stage, and it’s something we don’t talk about often enough as writers.
“But I don’t want to do more work!” you lament.
Shhhh. Just accept it now and it will make your life loads easier. Trust me. What I’ve discovered after several novels and years of writing is that the time you invest in your pre-writing stage will determine how smoothly the writing process goes. And you want it to go as smoothly as possible, right? (Hint: just say yes).
I feel like a lot of new writers think that you come up with some ideas and then just dive right into your story. I mean, sure, you could do it that way. But you’re just making things harder on yourself.
“But I’m an artist! I can’t be constrained by notes and outlines!”
Did Michelangelo take a paintbrush to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and just go crazy with artistic expression? No way! He sketched out every figure before he ever added paint. He had a plan. Likewise, you need to sketch out your story before you start adding words!
Let’s explore the wonderful benefits of the pre-writing stage. Want a little more structure? Download this free pre-writing worksheet, and let's get started!
When you invest time up-front organizing your story and developing the details, you create a handy little blueprint to help you write. You know where you’re going with this crazy thing, so if you get lost you can glance back at it and see just what the heck you’re trying to build. Outlining your plot can help you avoid getting stuck, and keep you from writing countless pointless scenes or writing yourself into a corner. Not to mention, it can save you from having to write a heap of drafts.
Even if you hate outlines and you’re a “pantser,” I feel you should at least know your hero’s goal. That way, you have a sense of direction for where the story needs to go. This sort of focus will make a huge difference in your story! This doesn’t mean you can’t change anything while writing (you should always stay flexible!) but it helps you stay on track.
In the pre-writing stage you’ve also done the bulk of the research, so you’re less likely to discover facts while writing that could derail or blow a hole in your plot (Do not let this happen to you! You’re smarter than that, right?). And, bonus, your research probably gave you some pretty awesome ideas!
I love pre-writing because I know the more work I put into it the less I’ll have to do while I’m actually writing, which gives me more time to, you know, actually write. I’m not constantly stopping to figure out something (though of course hitting road blocks is inevitable).
You don’t have to stop to research everything or figure out your story world because you’ve already done most of that. And you don’t have to stop to scratch your head over your characters because you’ve already spent time getting to know them. Sure they may still surprise you or you might end up changing them, but you’ll know who most of them are and have a great foundation.
If you try to do all of these things while you’re writing, it’s going to take you 3x as long to write your story and the constant pausing will kill your writer groove. If you try to do it after, you’re going to have a mess on your hands. Read: a stack of drafts that’s 2x higher than it could be.
Please don’t put yourself through that torture. Of course, even if you pre-write you’ll still have details you need to figure out and questions that arise as you write, but these instances will be drastically fewer.
If you don’t lay a foundation to build your novel upon, you’re going to end up writing blind. This means writing unnecessary scenes or subplots that veer from your hero’s goal. So not only do you waste time writing these scenes/subplots, but you’ll have to spend even more time re-writing them if they can’t be deleted without any damage (which is very rarely the case as everything tends to be so intertwined in a novel).
Once, I let a subplot get so out of hand that I wrote over 20,000 words of unnecessary story. I didn’t understand the importance of my hero’s goal and didn’t use it to guide my plot. The story became such a mess that I didn’t know what to do with it, and after months of re-writing/editing to no avail, I abandoned it.
If you don’t have a plan (or at least your hero’s goal), you’re likely to end up having to do heavy re-writes. This can lead to frustration, and ultimately you may give up on your story. I don’t want you to make more work for yourself—or give up! Learn from my mistakes and write smart.
Start Reaping the Benefits
Have I convinced you to start taking your pre-writing seriously? Yes, high five! I promise it will make your life so much easier. If you need help with your pre-writing development or keeping track of all the details, you can check out my epic Story Binder. It will make keeping your story info organized a breeze.
Everyone writes differently—some thrive on structure and others hate it. Some like to pre-plan and others like to figure things out as they go. There’s no wrong way to write! But after trying different methods, I do believe that pre-writing is beneficial. I know when you have an idea for a story you can get impatient with excitement, but don’t put the cart before the horse, so to speak. Be patient and invest your time in planning, and you will be rewarded.
A huge thank you to Kaitlin for stopping by to share her wisdom with us today! Are there any other benefits to pre-writing that you'd like to share? What does your pre-writing process look like? Share with us in the comments below!
Kaitlin Hillerich is a Young Adult writer with a BFA in Creative Writing/History. She helps educate writers on her blog, Ink and Quills, and develops the resources they need to tell their best story.
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!