Plan your writing project, part 1

Martina Tyrrell
May 28, 2024

Whether you’re writing an essay, a memoir, or a novel – plan, plan, plan!

One of my roles as an academic was to help my students to develop their writing skills. Whether I was supporting a first-year undergrad writing their first university-level essay or a post-grad writing up two or more year’s-worth of research into a 100,000-word dissertation, my advice was always, above all else, PLAN. As a book doctor, editor, and someone who guides writers through the writing process, my advice is exactly the same.

I’m a reasonably decent baker. I wasn’t always. My scones used to be dense, my Victoria sponges flat and airless, my bread hard enough to break teeth (or kill an unsuspecting duck, a là About a Boy). At some point, I realized that, unlike cooking savoury dishes, which relies a lot on tasting and adding flavours as you go, baking is more of an exact science. Follow the recipe, and your scones, sponges, and breads will be divine; don’t follow the recipe, and they’ll end up in the bin.

When I discovered this secret to successful baking, I realized that the writing process is the same. I used to share this analogy with my students. Now I want to share it with you.

Your Writing Recipe

When you write, it helps to first gather together all your ingredients, then devise a method to assemble and combine those ingredients, and then follow that method, adding your own flair and personal touch.

Ingredients: These are all your great ideas. If you’re writing a non-fiction or academic book, they’re your research data; if you’re writing a memoir, they’re the stories you want to share; and if you’re writing a novel, they are the ideas that will form the basis of your story. It doesn’t matter if your writing long form or short form – your writing is still made up of basic ingredients/idea. But what do you do with all those ingredients? What order do you assemble them? And in what quantities? You need a method, of course.

Method: Now that you have assembled all your ingredients, you need to figure out what to do with them. In what order do you assemble them? In what quantities? Your method is a step-by-step guide to put the all the ingredients together. Look in any cookbook. While Ingredients is a list, the Method is much more detailed, instructing you exactly how to combine those ingredients at exactly what point in the process. Your method will have a number of distinct steps (chapters or sections), and each step will have a number of instructions (sections and subsections within chapters, character and plot development, the point-by-point of your storytelling arc).

It can take some time to get your method right. Don’t expect to get it right on the first attempt. As you plan your writing project in this way, you will discover mistakes, repetition, poor character development, narrative dead ends, mixed up plot lines, and so on. So, you rework your method, shift it around, add and subtract ingredients or quantities of ingredients. You keep doing that until it feels right.

It is now time to combine all those ingredients in the manner set out in the methods and, as Sue and Mel used to say on Great British Bake-Off, BAKE or, in your case, WRITE.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • Make planning an integral part of your writing process. Don’t rush it. Start with a wide overview of the big picture and plan inwards. In my next newsletter, I’ll cover some specifics of planning and some tools to help you plan.
  • Planning an 80,000-word manuscript could take weeks or even months and have multiple iterations as you start to see challenges, problems, repetition, dead ends. Don’t cut your planning time short in your urge to get writing.
  • Planning allows you to manage your writing time better [include link to previous blog]. You might only have half an hour to work on your writing today. If you’ve got a plan already worked out and you’ve ironed out any structural issues at the planning stage, then you will know exactly what you want to write during those 30 minutes.

But what about spontaneity, I hear you ask. Spontaneity is all well and good for writing your morning pages or for exploring a new idea, but if you want to get a serious amount of writing done – a novel, say, or a memoir, or a dissertation, or you are writing to a deadline – an essay, or magazine article, then planning frees you from writing in circles, repeating yourself, or tying your characters, your narrative, or your theory in knots. Most importantly, it frees you to concentrate on crafting the words to tell your story. A good plan releases you from dwelling on what to write and allows you to concentrate all of your creative attention on how you to write.

Next time, I’ll delve into some practical approaches to planning. In the meantime, drop me a line and tell me if you’re a planner or if you write by the seat of your pants.

Photo by Alex Lvrs on Unsplash



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