How to Develop a Beneficial Writing Process

writing process

Find out how a writing process makes your writing better.

Today I’d like to share a few excerpts from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.

These excerpts are from “Chapter Six: Process,” which examines methods, strategies, and other approaches to developing and fine-tuning a writing process that works for you.

Understanding The Writing Process

“I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day.”
— Ernest Hemingway

A process is a system or series of steps that we take to complete something. When you write, you use a process, even if you’re not aware of it.

There may be a few writers who can sit down and write without any planning or preparation. They go through a different process for each project and don’t really think about it. They just dig in and do the work. While they may not be conscious of their process, these writers will be able to look back and explain the process they went through to finish the work.

But most of us do use a process and we become increasingly aware of it over time. It may vary from project to project, but we know what steps we have to take to get to the finish line.

For most writers, this process develops organically. We start a project, tackle it in whatever way makes sense at the time, and eventually complete it. As we successfully finish more and more projects, we eventually find ourselves using a consistent series of steps to complete our projects. We refine the process a little bit with each project until we have perfected it.

Think about a writing project you have completed. What steps did you take to complete it? Did you attack it without any foresight or did you work your way through a detailed plan? Did you take steps to complete the project that were unnecessary? Were there any steps you didn’t take that would have improved the project?

Tips for Developing a Writing Process

“You have to play a long time to play like yourself.” – Miles Davis

Your writing process can be as simple or as elaborate as you need it to be. I often make a list of everything I need to do for a project. I put the steps in order, but there’s a good chance they will overlap. I might be brainstorming and world building simultaneously. I might pause during a rough draft to go back and rework the character sketches I created during an earlier step.

Be flexible as you develop your writing process, and be willing to try new things, even things that seem counterintuitive. If you like to follow a strict series of steps, then just for one project, try diving in without a plan. If you tend to write freely and without a plan, then try outlining for one project.

  • Start by identifying your current writing process. Make a list of steps you take to get a project done. If you use different processes for different projects, make several lists.
  • Review your current process and determine whether you’re wasting time on unnecessary steps. Are there steps missing that would help improve your process? Look for opportunities to group similar activities together (like conducting research, interviews, etc.).
  • If you’re not sure about your process, think of a project you have planned or recently started and map out a process that you think would work for that project.
  • Consider building deadlines into your process. If you schedule your writing sessions, establish goals using timers or word counts.
  • To determine the effectiveness of the process you’ve developed, try it. Start with shorter projects, like essays, blog posts, or short stories.

We tend to look at certain approaches and think they would never work for us. When I first heard about discovery writing (or pantsing), which is a method where you write without any plan whatsoever, I thought it was interesting but way outside of my personal working style. Then I tried it when I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2008 and was thrilled with the results. In fact, that was the first time I managed to complete a novel that I had started.

Don’t assume that a particular method or process would never work for you; you won’t know for sure until you give it a try.

We don’t have to rely on one writing process. We can have several, and we can adjust the process to accommodate each project’s specific needs so that we’re always going through a series of steps that are best suited to that particular project.

Writing processes are methods we can use to improve our writing. The reason so many writers develop these processes is to be more productive and produce better work. Writing processes and other techniques and strategies can be helpful, but it’s our responsibility to know what works for us personally as individuals and as creative writers.

Now tell us about your writing process. Do you have one? Have you ever thought about it? Do you think that a clear, coherent process would help you produce better writing? Leave a comment and let’s talk about it.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


36 Responses to “How to Develop a Beneficial Writing Process”

  1. Kelvin Kao says:

    If I am writing something long or something with a plot, I would outline first. If it’s something short (like a blog post that’s not particularly well researched), I would just write it. But that’s not to say that there is no structure. There is still an outline, but it’s so short that I can just keep it in my mind.

    Do I have a process? Hm, I would say that I have certain habits. Sometimes there’s a fine line between those.

    • I think Kevin has made an excellent distinction. With blogging I have habits, but they haven’t congealed into a process. With non-fiction, it’s the full-meal deal of research, outline, writing, revision. (Been doing that the longest, and it shows.) However, with fiction, I am a writer in search of a process and habits. My office floor is littered with discarded attempts.

      • A few years ago, I had several notebooks full of discarded attempts at writing a novel. Then, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, hoping it would help. I found that my problem was that I was planning and outlining too much (for me). Once I figured out the whole story, I lost interest and didn’t want to write it. NaNo forced me to give discovery writing a try, and it made me realize that’s the best way for me (writing a story without a plan). Outside of fiction and poetry, I really need a road map.

        I think it’s interesting that you guys are using a process in some of your writing but not blogging — only because the blogs are getting published. I have the most strict processes for my client projects (copywriting) and for blogging because I know for sure that those pieces will be put in front of an audience.

    • I would agree that there’s a fine line between processes and habits. But I view habits as a bit broader — how often and how much we write, where we write, which genres and forms we read and write. I think of process strictly as the steps we take when writing. I guess one’s writing process is a habit but not all habits are processes.

  2. Christine says:

    I’ve always thought of my writing as a building process, I work on it layer by layer. I like the term “laying track” coined by Julia Cameron as it describes my own process very well. I just write and write and write free flowing content, than I work my way back, rewriting and reorganzing and building on parts that need more development. It works for me. I like having something solid to work with before tackling any editing and organization.

    • This sounds a lot like how I write, especially when I’m working on copywriting projects. It’s like the writing is clay and I’m constantly kneading and reforming it, over and over, until it becomes a sculpture.

  3. Janice Hardy says:

    I spent years trying to figure out my writing process, and I probably tried just about everything out there. What finally worked for me was a loose outline that provided structure to keep me on track, but allowed for spontaneity. I also write in layers, getting the story and plot down first, then adding internalization, motives, description, etc. Doing a separate pass for each component per chapter really helps me pay attention to what I want to achieve and I don’t get sidetracked as often. The layers also means I can keep writing and don’t get bogged down trying to find the right word or phrase.

    A few years ago I started blogging about writing, and that made me pay close attention to what I was doing. (I needed ideas for topics after all) I was amazed at how many things I did without really understanding why. It wasn’t until I started looking that I saw how my process worked and why I made craft-specific decisions. Studying books we love is good advice, but studying your own work to see why you did what you did is also a great tool for figuring out how you write.

    • Hi Janice, I’ve found that blogging about writing has taught me a lot about my own processes, too. I love your layer method of writing. That’s similar to what I’m trying to do with a project I recently started. Right now, I’m working on the world and the characters, then I will start discovery writing the story and keep adding layers to add the details that give any good book extra pizazz. Thanks for sharing your process!

    • Jess says:

      Layer writing sounds wonderful. I suppose I do a bit of that with story writing, but I’ve only ever thought of it as adding details. Your approach even makes adding the details a bit more thorough and less overwhelming.

      • I first found out about discovery writing back in 2008, but it wasn’t until recently that I came across the term “discovery writing.” I wonder if “layer writing” is an official (or unofficial) term used for this technique. If not, maybe it should be!

  4. Lane Poor says:

    I find that I’m so inherently scattered that writing down sentences, be they topical or not, on 3×5 blank index cards is very useful. I end up with a stack that’s kind of like a library card file box. Then I start to sort, oh where does this go, is it the topic sentence for this group or an addendum for another. The factual ones are easy, it’s the circularity of where and what to start “it” with and where to stop “it” that gets fleshed out having to make grouping “it” decisions.

    • I love my 3×5 note cards! They’re great for outlining chapters or organizing themes and ideas.

    • Jess says:

      I love using 3X5 cards to organize my thoughts, especially on a bigger project.

      • Me too! I keep a couple of stacks of index cards in my desk drawer because I also use them to jot down temporary notes and reminders. I can easily clip them to my notebook or tuck them into a folder pocket. They’re awesome for organizing ideas and information. And as an added benefit, they require writing in longhand rather than on the computer, which I find boosts my creativity (for some unknown reason).

  5. Rose Mattax says:

    When I write shorter, nonfiction pieces I find using a “bubble chart” helps me. A traditional outline doesn’t because it is too linear. But a “bubble chart” (ie a bubble in the middle with the title or subject and “bubbles” extending from them I fill with info) lets me see my who process at once. It helps me to pull things together I might not have noticed otherwise.

    But on a large project, I am more like Christine. I write and write and write and write and write. Then I go back and find the story.

    Also, I find the largest part of my process comes from being in a writer’s group, where I can get feedback on a regular basis.

    • Hi Rose, Another name for your bubble chart might be mind map — it sounds like the same method of organizing ideas and brainstorming. If you Google “mind maps,” you will find some beautiful examples. Some of them are works of art!

  6. Jess says:

    For research papers, I’ve retained much of the sixth grade process. Take notes and include resources. Make groups of notes based on topic. Arrange topics in logical order. Write an outline. Insert quotes into outline. Write it into one, fluid paper.

    For story telling fiction, I usually jot some notes down about character ideas and a basic plot. Then, I discovery write, letting the characters tell me what happens next. I sometimes go back to add in details and improve descriptions. I always go back to make sure the story would make sense to others.

    For story telling non-fiction, I write down what I remember. Writing a few key events down usually leads to more remembering, and more remembering leads to more details. Eventually I feel like I’ve gotten out of memory everything that will come out, and I edit.

    For poetry, I usually just write. With some prompts it’s less free flow. For some poems, I have an idea of where it’s going from the beginning, but most often I just let it happen.

  7. Sharelle says:

    Perhaps my biggest issue is not having a writing process. I’ve only ever written free-writing journals, or English papers and stories. When I write, I pretty much just write whatever comes to mind, and critique it along the way. This gives me plenty of room for spontaneity, which I adore in my writings. However, it becomes an issue when nothing comes to mind.

    • There’s nothing wrong with keeping a journal or writing whenever you feel like it. When you make a decision to become a professional writer and produce publishable work, that changes. You need to read and practice writing (study the craft) and develop discipline. It also helps to set goals (for example: by the end of the year, I’ll complete a 2000-word personal essay about an experience I had as a teenager, based on some of my journal entries). It sounds to me like your writing adventures are just beginning!

  8. Desley says:

    I learn so much from your website. I am on to my second fiction novel and when I think of where I want a certain character to go, I just type. I get the ideas down. To me it doesn’t matter where that event takes place in the story but it will fit somewhere. I get an idea for one of the characters and I just ramble on. Maybe it will never get used in the book but I keep things like that in another file for the future. After allowing my inspiration to flow and just type, I move the text around to fit in with the storyline later. I write something everyday. I have a whiteboard with all my main characters followed by their families. DOB careers, height, hair colour etc. A flowchart. Then I allow the story and events weave together. I am mindful of my audience at all times. I have a beautiful velvet covered book that I write thoughts and events into, conversations I hear, or sentences using my gold pen. I feel prosperous then. The last fiction novel I wrote I think I re-read it eight times before I was happy with the end result.

  9. Robyn LaRue says:

    Thank you for sharing the excerpts. I’ve been planning to pick up the book (on a budget…aren’t we all?) but this moved it way up the list. 🙂 Thanks!

  10. I’m actually in the midst of revamping my writing process. I tried a full-out pantsing method, and I kept getting stuck a couple chapters in. At present, I’ll write a few pages, maybe a chapter–for inspiration, to get the story started. Then I’ll do character sketches, maybe some research, create an outline so I have somewhat of a plan. So far, it’s working much better, but we’ll see if it sticks.

    • That sounds a lot like what I’m doing with a novel I’m writing. It’s a constant process of tweaking. My hope is that as I write more stories, I’ll get better at outlining and planning so I won’t need to revise as much. Good luck with all your writing!

  11. Nai'lah Carter says:

    This was a great blog. I completely agree. I am a control freak so everything has to be planned out from beginning to end. As I progress from one part, there’s a plan already in place for the next phase. I think it’s important to consciously think about the writing process; you maximize productivity.

    As with most Writers, we have full-time jobs, and famlies to care for. When we’re in the ‘writing world’ we need to write as much as we can. Planning is everything!

    Thanks again for a great post.

  12. Brendan from Now Novel says:

    Some great tips, thanks, I especially like the idea of having numerous fluid processes that you change and adapt as you write. We mentor a lot of writers and we’ve found that there is no one method that works for everyone. Some people are very structured, others find too much structure constricting, so you need to find out what works for you.

  13. Billie Wade says:

    Melissa, thank you for this post. I’m now planning to purchase the book. I’ve struggled with my writing process for some time, and I haven’t developed anything I can replicate. Your tips and strategies, plus those given by readers in the comments, inspire me.

  14. Aaron says:

    I’m still in school but write during my free time, and I usually start a new project by (this is going to sound messed up) sketching out the characters. The way I draw them helps formulate their personalities, and from there I develop the characters and develop a basic plot line. From there I do a little research on certain things essential to the story (my current project required a ton of research on Scotland, Catholicism, and Cancer), and when I’m finished with that I sit down to actually write.

    My actual writing process usually occurs in my first-period class or in the late afternoon at home. I always have a Hershey Bar and a bottle of Green Tea handy, I have a Spotify playlist I listen to that helps me focus, and I always make sure I write at least a chapter (mine are usually about 6-9 pages) a day.

    As for whether this actually works… it depends on the day. Sometimes I’m able to write several chapters and my mind is on a roll; other days I can’t even write a sentence. I’m thinking of trying a new project and just going in it blind, but as for right now I’m going to finish up my current one.

  15. TC says:

    Hi Melissa,

    My supervisor is always having a problem with my English,
    exspecially when come to writing. I told her that English is my second language.! What is the best way to improve my English.

    Please advise

    • Hi TC. You should look into English as a Second Language (ESL) courses and books. Here at Writing Forward, we focus on the craft of writing, not learning English as a language. However, I know there are plenty of ESL websites, classes, books, and other resources out there. Also, reading books in the language you’re trying to learn (and listening to audio books) will help immerse you in the language. Best of luck to you.