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A Complete Guide to the Writing Process: 6 Stages of Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 10 min read

Every writer works in a different way. Some writers work straight through from beginning to end. Others work in pieces they arrange later, while others work from sentence to sentence. Understanding how and why you write the way you do allows you to treat your writing like the job it is, while allowing your creativity to run wild.



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What Is the Writing Process?

There’s a natural organization to the process of writing that brings an idea from conception to final draft, and most writers may not even realize the way they create falls into a fairly standard terminology. Generally, the writing process encompasses a project’s throughline in its entirety: from brainstorming and planning to revision and eventual publishing.

The 6 Stages of the Writing Process

Here’s a step by step guide to the writing process. Keep what works for you and discard the rest. Your material and process will guide you to your own set of rules.

1. Prewriting

“I will always jot down things, little ideas. I may never go back to them. I may never see them again. But once they’re jotted down, they’re rotting away, usefully, on the compost heap of my imagination. And they’re there if I need them.”—Neil Gaiman

Brainstorming can be a response to a half-formed thought you had while riding the subway, or to a writing assignment like a prompt that kick-starts your writing one day. Either way, the writing process often looks very much like an iceberg: thinking about characters and plot, daydreaming about the world where your story is set takes up more time than most people realize. Some stories take years to coalesce.

Make a habit of writing down the things that have captured your attention in the past week or month. These may become the source motivators of your writing, maybe of your career. Any writing project will require a sustained interest, so be sure to fill this page with your truth: What interests you? This can be anything: a word, a movie, a person, an event, so long as it inspired you. It can be subjects (cactus species, muscle cars, a voyage to Mars) or people/types of people (therapists, spies, your Aunt Germaine). Try to include things from other arts—for example, foods, music, or movies.

When it comes to building an idea for a novel, create a specialized subset of your compost heap, which is a lexicon devoted exclusively to your novel. For example, if you’re writing about Greenland, gather all the words you can about snow, ice, flora and fauna, geologic formations, or weather occurrences. Research history and arts and science. Write down all of the words you love and that you think could go into your novel.

It’s all about turning a thought over in your mind like a little piece of grit. When you have something that looks vaguely like a pearl, it’s time to sketch out a plan.

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2. Planning

“I don’t like outlining either. But now I can’t work without one. I have to have it. I have my whole plan.”—R.L. Stine

Common wisdom holds that there are two types of writers. Plotters are those who meticulously plan every book before they write it, and pantsers are those who fly by the seat of their pants, setting off into a novel without a clear map. There are benefits to both styles, and both types can get stuck at any point in their writing. For plotters, problems arise when their characters decide to do something they weren’t expecting. It can be difficult to accept that your story isn’t what you thought it would be, and there’s often a tendency to force your way forward. Pantsers incline toward a different problem: they get lost, usually in the middle section of their work, because they haven’t got a clear enough idea of where they’re going. Plotters will benefit from a re-thinking of their story structure, and pantsers will often benefit by building some of the architecture their story needs.

New writers in particular find it helpful to have a road map, because it can be challenging to create a cohesive plot that remains interesting from start to finish. This is why it may be necessary to build a detailed outline before you start writing. A strong outline lets you stay in control of the narrative as you establish the world of your story, and that can be as vague or exhaustive as you’d like.

If you put enough work into your outline, the most difficult part of writing your book is finished. Doing so allows you to be relaxed as you write and confident of the direction you are headed. It makes the writing process more enjoyable. Here’s an example of a short outline format:

  • A plot synopsis giving a high-level summary of your story. This shouldn’t be longer than a few paragraphs, and should feel a bit like a thesis statement
  • The main characters (don’t worry about adding too much detail, that will come later)
  • The central conflict
  • A brief description of each scene
  • Clear definition of the beginning, middle, and end

3. Drafting

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“Completing your first draft shows you can do it. No matter what trouble you have later on, you know you can do it, no matter what.”—R.L. Stine

Time to let the words flow. Enjoy the process of creating your first draft. Focus on getting through it from start to finish, and remember that you can always go back and change things later. If a novel feels too intimidating, try writing a short story instead. (Of course, short stories can be deceivingly more difficult to write than novels, since they require a concise and extremely economical narrative containing all the elements of a novel—in a fraction of the space.)

If you’re working from an outline, you can choose to approach your story in any order that feels right for you. If you prefer to write in a linear fashion, begin with the first chapter. You will inevitably make changes to your original plan along the way, and this is a good thing. But remember that once you add an element to you book, such as a surprising new character or some sort of plot twist, you’ll need to go back and establish that character or story element early on in order to prepare your readers for what is coming down the line.

Some authors begin by handwriting because they find it generates an unbroken flow from the brain to the hand to the page. They then transcribe these pages to typed ones, editing as they go. This “rolling barrage” method that allows you to keep what you’ve just written fresh in your mind. Many writing courses will advise what is sometimes described as “downhill skiing”: freewriting as fast as you can, and then going back later to revise (to literally re-“vision”) what you’ve got. Remember: no one gets to see your rough draft but you, so don’t hold back. Don’t edit yourself or criticize your choices. Figure out your own way as you write. You can write straight through a draft, jump around, reread the previous day’s pages, or any combination of these methods.

Sometimes a fear of making mistakes will sabotage your writing process or stop you from putting ideas on the page. It can cause writer's block while you’re in the middle of a project. Keeping speed in mind will help you move past this. If you feel stuck, it’s best to push through and just get something—anything—onto the paper. Everyone has bad writing days, and so will you. Just keep moving forward, and complete the first draft. At this stage, just sit down and have fun. You can be more serious when you go back and start revising your work.

4. Revising

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“The process of doing your second draft is a process of making it look like you knew what you were doing all along.”—Neil Gaiman

As you enter the revising stage, read your manuscript aloud. Your ear will catch awkward patches of sentence structure and infelicities that your eye often won’t. Here you’ll just be looking at language, formatting, and style. One good technique is to identify problem areas that you’d like to improve, then mark all of those areas with a colored highlighter. Set a goal for yourself to get the entire manuscript back to colorless. Look especially for sections where the writing seems different—maybe it’s too sloppy, or something is overwritten—or sequences where someone acted out of character. Search for sections that are too heavy on dialogue, or too dense with exposition, and try to balance them out. Let your instincts guide you to the places where something feels off and go back to them later for correction.

Each section of a novel will have its own challenges, and you may struggle with one more than another. Some writers find that their beginnings are too slow, their middles tend to be shapeless and messy, or their endings lack a satisfying note.

Generating the first draft is an exercise in “getting everything down that you can get down. The second draft is all about finding surprises along the way and starting to tease out the shape of your story. Go deeper into character. Don’t worry too much about the plot yet.

Be careful of falling in love with your story. That will make seeing it objectively difficult, and may get in the way when it’s time to cut or tighten.

5. Editing

“The story is an explosion. And you get to the end of it, and once it’s done, then you get to walk around it and you get to look at the shrapnel and the damage it did. And you get to see who died. And you get to see how it worked.”—Neil Gaiman

There are two kinds of editing: editing as you write, and editing once you’ve finished a draft. It’s a good idea to practice the first type on a daily basis by tightening and proofreading your prose to make it concise and effective. When reviewing the work that you’ve just done, ask yourself if it conveys what you meant it to, if it makes sense, and if the writing feels good.

The second type of editing involves reading an entire manuscript while trying to imagine what a reader will think of it. It’s difficult to edit your own writing without distance. Put the manuscript aside for a few weeks or months. When you go back to the manuscript, try to print out a physical copy. This not only gives you space to take notes on problem areas, it makes a difference in how you read stories.

  • Don’t spend too much time editing the same problem areas over and over. This is a type of procrastination and will generally only augment your feelings of frustration. Try to find a balance: edit to smooth out your writing but don’t edit so much that you ruin the original magic of your novel.
  • Ask what your story is about. The major dramatic question is usually involved the main character’s primary desire. This will often be the driving force in your story. Ask yourself which areas you need to work on to buttress that main story line. What areas are superfluous and distract from it? Does your ending answer the major dramatic question?
  • What areas have problems with pacing? (i.e. too much dialogue, too much exposition, things feel “draggy”)

6. Publishing

A piece of writing may never truly feel complete to its author, but if you’ve made it all the many iterations of your draft, and feel confident that you’ve answered your major dramatic question, you’ve arrived at the last step! Once you’ve finished editing your novel, you have two choices: you can self-publish or sell your book to a publisher. Self-publishing has become more popular with the rise of e-books and the ease with which you can upload your work to online booksellers like Amazon and iTunes—keep in mind this means you’ll have to make all of your own decisions in the publishing process, and this often requires hiring editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, and cover artists.

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