Developing Your Creative Process as a Writer (Instead of Working Against Yourself)
While the writing process naturally falls into different broad stages, each of us will have a slightly different personal process for moving through and between those stages.
If you try to follow someone else’s creative process, you’re going to run into difficulties. You might have to push against your own inclinations – meaning that you’ll be more reluctant to write, or you’ll take longer to complete pieces (even if the process you’re following is supposedly faster or more efficient). You may even end up wanting to give up on writing altogether.
There’s no “right” way to put together a story, novel, article, blog post, essay, memoir, poem, or any other piece of writing. All published writing begins as nothing at all … and how exactly the author gets from the blank page to the finished, polished piece is going to vary wildly depending on the person and their natural creative process.
A Few Examples of Different Creative Processes
Before we dig further into why writers end up going against their creative process, and how to develop your own process, let’s take a quick look at what a few writers have said about how they write:
Whatever job I had, I was always writing like crazy. All I ever liked about offices was being able to type up stories on the computer when no one was looking. I was never paying much attention in meetings because I was usually scribbling bits of my latest stories in the margins of the pad or thinking up names for my characters. This is a problem when you’re supposed to be taking minutes of the meeting.
– J.K. Rowling, quoted here
Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
– Stephen King, in On Writing
There’s no shame in backtracking. There’s no shame in revision. There’s no shame in realizing that you got it wrong, or that there’s a better thing you can do that’s better than what you have done.
– Margaret Atwood, quoted here
All these writers are talking about different aspects of the process: getting ideas; daydreaming about the story; revising and editing … and each of them has their own unique way of approaching that long journey from blank page to published book. Stephen King and Margaret Atwood both frame their approach as advice to others, but it’s clear they’re basing this on what works for them personally.
These examples are all from well-known published writers … but every writer has some kind of natural creative process, even if it’s not yet fully developed.
For instance, some writers will spend a long time at the pre-writing stage, musing and planning – then produce a clean, organised first draft. Others – like me! – tend to only plan sketchily, then draft fast, before rewriting extensively.
There’s nothing at all wrong with either approach. The problem comes when writers start trying to force themselves into writing in a way that doesn’t mesh with their own innate creativity.
Why Do Writers End Up Working Against Their Own Natural Creative Process?
Sometimes, I’ve wished I was more “efficient” at writing fiction. I wanted to be one of those authors who creates detailed outlines then writes them, without wildly drafting then cutting out huge chunks. But I’ve learnt that those big chunks I cut and change aren’t wasted – writing them was part of my process. I’m not actually faster at writing fiction if I plan in more detail, because I just end up changing my plans (or feeling stuck and not writing at all).
I know I’m not the only writer who’s tried to go against their own natural way of writing. So why does this happen?
The Influence of Writing Experts
Perhaps a writer you admire has detailed how they write … and you think that to emulate their success, you need to follow the exact same process. Some writers will even make it sound like their process is the one true way to do things.
The Influence of Your Writing Peers
Maybe you’re not too swayed by writing gurus, but you belong to a writers’ group where other members talk about their process. If the dismayingly productive writer sitting next to you is a massive fan of dictating their first draft, you might feel that you should be doing likeways.
Feeling Frustrated With the Time Writing Takes
Obviously enough, writing takes time. And when you’re writing something big and complex, like a novel, the process is going to feel messy and inefficient at times. It’s so tempting to think that if only you changed your creative process, you’d be more efficient – getting from blank page to published book faster.
Being Rushed or Pressured (e.g. By a Deadline)
If you have a deadline, or very limited writing time available, you might feel rushed or pressured. Anything in your creative process that seems inefficient (e.g. needing to spend time daydreaming and picturing your scenes before you write) might seem like something that could simply go.
Not Even Realising There Are Options
Many writers will slowly develop some kind of natural creative process as they get interested in writing. But some might not even realise there are lots of options available. Perhaps they were taught to develop their ideas and plans in a particular way (e.g. in a writing class) and it doesn’t occur to them that there might be a different process that’s a better personal fit.
How to Develop Your Own Creative Process as a Writer – Organically
How do you develop your own process that works for you – a process that means you can make the most of your time without losing any of the enjoyment of writing?
#1: Understand the General Writing Process (Stages of Writing)
Whatever type of writing you’re doing, you’ll need to go through five different stages:
Prewriting: This is the idea-gathering, researching, and planning phase of writing. It’s what happens before you start actually writing the piece itself.
Drafting: This is the stage where you create the first attempt at your full piece of writing. It won’t be perfect but it should be broadly complete.
Revision: This is where you “re-see” your writing, looking at it with fresh eyes and making any big-scale changes needed.
Editing: This stage is for fine-tuning the details of your piece – rewriting clunky sentences, fixing typos, and so on.
Publishing: Publishing your work simply means putting it out into the world for people to read. That could be on a blog or social media, through self-publishing, by getting it accepted by a publishing house, or any other method.
For more on these, take a look at my article The Writing Process: Five Essential Stages for Anything You’re Working On.
#2: Experiment and Approach Your Process With an Open Mind
While I absolutely don’t want to suggest that you abandon a perfectly good process, I do want to gently encourage you to experiment with your writing process – especially if you don’t feel you’ve quite found a process that suits you.
Your natural writing process may vary depending on what you’re writing. For instance, when I write fiction, I jump into drafting before I have anything like a full outline … but when I write blog posts, I always have a complete outline before I begin writing.
Some things you might want to think about or experiment with in your own process are:
- How do you like to plan? You could try linear planning, spider maps, or even closing your eyes and visualising a scene of your novel.
- Do you like to draft fast or accurately? Personally, I go for “fast” … but you might prefer to take a slower approach that results in a first draft that won’t need too much reworking.
- How do you approach revising your work? You could work linearly, chapter by chapter, or you could tackle bigger changes first, then begin again at Chapter 1, taking care of more minor rewrites.
- At what stage do you find it most helpful to ask someone else to look at your work? Some writers are comfortable with sharing a rough first draft; others want their piece to be as polished as possible.
- When it comes to the actual act of writing, are you someone who likes to write little and often, or do you find it easier to be creative in more sporadic, longer sessions?
#3: Notice How You Feel When You’re Writing
When you work on your blog posts, poems, short stories, novel, memoir, or whatever you’re currently writing, pay attention to how you feel.
We’ll all have moments when the work feels joyful and engaging … and moments when we just want to give up! But in general, how are you feeling when you sit down to write?
If you’re feeling pressured, anxious, rushed, or creatively squashed, then that could be a sign that your process isn’t quite working for you.
For instance, perhaps you feel that you should write 1,000 words per day because you read a writer’s advice to do just that … only it’s not a good fit for your life or your creative process. You might need more time to mull over what you’re writing, instead of pushing yourself forward constantly.
Don’t ignore how you feel. It’s fine and normal to have times when you struggle to focus or when you have doubts about your writing … but you don’t want to turn writing into a tedious chore or a stressful experience.
#4: Record What Works for You
As your writing process develops, and as you try out new things, it’s a good idea to keep a written record of what actually works for you. This can be a useful reminder if you’re tempted to alter your process based on what some other writer does, or if you’re not certain you have a creative process of your own at all.
You might keep notes about different stages of your process, even jotting down how long those stages typically take you. Perhaps you like to spend several months on the pre-writing phase of a novel, musing on your project, scribbling down ideas, and immersing yourself in research. Or maybe you always like to start a fresh draft when you have a longer writing session available to really get into it.
Even little things count here. You might like to listen to a specific album or even one particular track to get you into the writing mood with a particular project. Or maybe you find yourself at your most creative and focused when you re-read over your previous day’s work before you start writing the next few pages.
It can be fun to hear about how other writers work – but don’t be too swayed by other people’s ways of doing things. By all means, try out different ideas and techniques as you develop your process, but don’t be afraid to ditch things that don’t feel like the right fit for you personally. Every writer’s creative process will be unique.
I’d love to hear about your creative process, what’s worked for you, or even what you’ve tried that hasn’t worked. Just drop a comment below.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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