To Plan or Not to Plan

self-publishing, writing

To plan or not to plan - make your writing style work for you

There are two kinds of writers.

Well, okay, there are a heck of a lot more than just two kinds of writers (the one who can’t write more than 500 words a day, the marathoner who racks up 7000 words in a single sitting…) but there’s two kinds in particular that I’m talking about here.

Planners versus free writers.

Planners like to get everything sorted out beforehand. They’ll have a  plot outline, a ton of research, drawn maps, got Pinterest boards for their protagonist’s kitchen, character sheets for everyone up to and including that cameo of her best friend in chapter three.

Free writers just write. They’ll start with the germ of an idea, sit down at the keyboard and just go. No planning, nothing more than ‘boy gets a letter saying he’s invited to attend a wizard school’ and go from there.

Of course, few people will reach either end of these extreme, and some writers might do more or less planning on different stories, but you’ll probably see yourself in those descriptions.

Me, I’m a free writer. I get an idea, and start. When I get to a bit that needs research, I’ll either do it there and then (and lose hours to a Wiki adventure) or I’ll skip that bit to come back later. If I’m in the zone, I gotta write. Planning, for me, usually comes later if it’s a big story. Once I’ve got that first ten thousand words out in a frenzy, I’ll sit back, take stock, and look at what I need to do to get this magnificent disaster into shape. Sometimes, I’ll regret not doing more planning, but it’s one of those things that feels unchangeable, like being a night owl or a lark.

Planners will read the above and break into a cold sweat. They need to know where they’re going. They like the plot laid out before they start – where the arcs are, what the characters are doing when, even a chapter breakdown. I think it’s admirable, and I could use a little more of that kind of organisation.

But you know what? I think both types of people can learn from the other. It could improve their writing, and improve their lives. 

As a free writer, all of this lack of planning stresses me out, sometimes. I will be there, fingers tapping away, and then I’ll hit a brick wall. How would this character react to this circumstance? I have no idea, because I’ve not written a character sheet. I can skip that bit and just continue on, but that’s the sort of thing that can mess up the whole story if you continue running headlong into  the dark. Best thing to do? Borrow from the planners. Stop. Think. Go write your character sheet (here’s a good one made for writers, but if you want a bit of fun, try filling in this one made for Dungeons and Dragons players!). Start your plot outline. Whatever it is you need to do to get things under control. Otherwise, you might have ten thousand words of gold, but because everything went to hell after you hit the wall, everything is crap and you junk it.

For planners, the advice is the similar: take a leaf from the free writer’s book. When you plan things so carefully, your writing can get stiff, wooden. Give yourself as much elbow room as you can – maybe instead of plotting things out chapter by chapter, just say Harry goes to see the Weasleys, and from there he goes to the wizard school. Maybe something happens and he can’t go on the train with everyone else? A flying car could work. Or a skeletal horse? Be less prescriptive. Not to mention that some of the greatest joy I’ve ever had when writing is when the characters take the plot in a completely different direction. If you’ve already committed yourself to a plot outline, you might miss out on that, or at least feel guilty about going off script.

And so free writers can add a little planning to their chaotic lives, planners can inject a little excitement and adventure. Everybody wins.

I’m always going to be a night owl, though.