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How to Organize Ideas for Your Novel in 5 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 14, 2020 • 3 min read

The book-writing process can be daunting. Even bestselling authors may experience writer’s block as they try to come up with their next book idea. However, sometimes the opposite happens: You have so many ideas for your short story, non-fiction book, or other creative writing projects that you can’t even figure out your starting point. Nonfiction authors and fiction writers alike can save a lot of time, energy, and headaches by learning how to organize their ideas before writing their first draft.



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5 Steps for Organizing Ideas for Your Novel

There can certainly be a learning curve when it comes to novel organization, but there are some tried-and-true writing tools that can assist you in arranging and structuring your scattered ideas. Here are some writing tips to help you organize your latest book project:

  1. Begin with written brainstorming: Before you can organize your ideas, you’ll need to come up with the ideas in the first place. Set aside plenty of writing time each day, and come up with daily word count goals for yourself—then write down whatever ideas come to mind. Find a calm, distraction-free writing space to brainstorm, such as a coffee shop, library, or home office. Treat your writing sessions like a job: Keep consistent hours and try to hit predetermined performance benchmarks. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, you can try to jumpstart your creative process by freewriting, following writing prompts, or using a visual mind map.
  2. Put your ideas down on note cards. By now, you should have a notebook or computer document filled with ideas. It’s time to transition away from brainstorming and note-taking and begin organizing. Take all of your ideas—whether they’re scenes, character needs, or plotlines—and write them down on individual index cards or sticky notes. If an idea is too complex to fit on a notecard, reduce it down to keywords to represent the important points. Continue this method until all of your novel’s main points, important scenes, and random ideas are copied onto note cards.
  3. Arrange the cards in roughly chronological order. Once all of your ideas are on notecards, it’s time to put them in order. Lay all your note cards out on a table (or the floor, depending on how many you have) and start arranging them in chronological order. If certain notecards don’t seem to fit in with the broader scope of the story, place them off to the side for now. With all your cards laid out, you should start to get a big picture sense of how your story looks.
  4. Fill in the holes. Seeing all your ideas laid out in order will likely make you realize that there’s a lot of work left to do. Don’t worry: That’s part of the process. Based on your notecard outline, ask yourself: Which characters need to be further developed? Which subplots need to be fleshed out? Which storylines need to be reworked? Focus on making sure your characters have strong motivations and that your plot moves are earned. Seeing your novel laid out in notecard form should help you visually identify what still needs to be done in order for your story to track.
  5. Transfer your outline back to paper. By now, you should have a bunch of notecards that form the rough outline of your story. Copy the scene ideas back onto paper or a Word document, so that your outline is all in one place. As you read over your new, condensed outline, you’ll likely have new ideas for scenes and characters. You’ll also likely begin to see the big picture thematic ideas of the novel as a whole. Whether you’re self-publishing your first book or writing the latest entry in a long series, you should have the roadmap you need to start writing.

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