Prewriting: Useful preparatory writing processes
Prewriting is the processes before you start drafting a story which help you prepare.
There are many kinds of prewriting. Because the writing process is not linear, you might come back to one or more of these methods at some stage of drafting:
Common prewriting steps and methods
- Picking a premise. If you have multiple ideas, go with the idea that pulls you most and (if you want a marketable book) the one you know has the better market potential.
- Choosing a genre or subgenre. This goes hand in hand with picking a premise, since if you set your book in outer space and explore future technology, chances are you’ll be shelved with sci-fi.
- Brainstorming. A process of generating ideas, whether you use mind maps, answer prompts and questionnaires, or churn out every idea you can think of in scenario- or topic-driven lists.
- Creating a story outline. This may be a meticulous, detailed outline, or a cursory collection of notes. The more complete your outline, the more handrails you’ll have. This prevents wandering off into irrelevancies, plot holes and impossible paradoxes, and so on.
- Creating initial summary material. Summary material includes things like character profiles or IDs, scene summaries, or a one-page synopsis of what your story is about (also a useful exercise in the Publication and promotion stage of process).
- Freewriting. Before more structured drafting, you might explore a topic or scenario with freewriting. Set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes and just write whatever comes into your head about a topic you think will be important to your book. It might spawn scene, chapter, or character ideas.
- Research. This may overlap with the discovery/investigation stage, as your idea may also need a little research to solidify what you want to write about. It might include fiction set in a similar era or place, making a bibliography of potentially helpful non-fiction, speaking to subject exploring films and documentaries, or visiting physical or digital archives.
- Interviewing. This is especially pertinent for types of writing such as historical fiction, non-fiction, memoir. Interviews with subject experts, people who lived through specific events or an era, could provide helpful nuance, context, and ideas for relevant story details.
You don’t necessarily need to do every kind of prewriting. Some authors favor ‘just-in-time’ research (an idea Bujold spoke about in relation to fantasy worldbuilding).
Authors on prewriting and whether or not to plan stories
The prewriting perspectives below show there are many way to skin (or rather save) a cat. Try different methods and find what works for you.
Loose story outlining
Author Scott King gives this reminder that prewriting (planning, creating structure, organizing) should serve the needs of your story, and stay adaptable to its unique needs:
An outline is a map of your story. It’s not set in stone. Even when you work from an outline, you will discover new twists and turns as you progress. The outline is there to remind you of where you are going so you can’t ever get too far from where you need to be.
Since I was working under pressure, I didn’t want to get crazy with how I structured Ameriguns. I defaulted to a three act structure, the kind you’d use in a screenplay, but altered it to fit the needs of the story.
Scott King, ‘Outline’ in The 5 Day Novel, 2016, p. 58.
Pullman on how establishing rules is part of play
More broadly, Philip Pullman, in ‘The Practice of Writing’, talks about how having some rules at the start of creative process gives paradoxical freedom to play. He compares guidelines such as rules (or outlines) to choosing where touchdown lies for a football game:
And as we know about all games, it’s much more satisfying to play with rules than without them. If we’re going to enjoy a game of football in the playground, we need to know where the touchline is, and agree on what we’re going to regard as the goalposts. Then we can get on with playing, because the complete freedom of our play is held together and protected by this armature of rules. The first and last and only discovery that the victims of anarchy can make is: no rules, no freedom.
Philip Pullman, ‘The Practice of Writing’ in Daemon Voices, pp. 18-19
‘Plotting’ vs ‘Pantsing’: Find your balance between prewriting and drafting
So much has been written and said about whether you should plan stories in detail in advance (‘plotting’), or go where imagination takes you (‘pantsing’, after the expression ‘to fly by the seat of your pants’ or work with instinct and gut more than organized knowledge).
Your writing process may change to suit your project
Author K.M. Weiland raises the useful reminder that your writing process doesn’t need to ape a famous writer’s approach, or be the same across every story you tell:
Each author must discover for himself what methods work best for him. Just because Margaret Atwood does X and Stephen King does Y is no reason to blindly follow suit. Read widely, learn all you can about what works for other authors, and experiment to discover which methods will offer you the best results.
K.M. Weiland, ‘Chapter One: Should You Outline?’ in Outlining your Novel: Map your way to success, p. 11.
Planning stories helps character development
Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing, said of the space and planning deeper characterization requires:
Type, general character, may be set forth in a few strokes, but the progression, the unfolding of personality […] if the actors in the tale are to retain their individuality for [the reader] through a succession of changing circumstances—this slow but continuous growth requires space, and therefore belongs by definition to a larger, a symphonic plan.
Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction: The classic guide to the art of the short story and the novel (1925), p. 33.
Not planning, creative freedom and excitement
Author Lee Child, on the other hand, extolls the benefits of not planning (and not being as pedantic about the marks you hit as an editor or publisher might be):
I write without a plan or an outline. The way I picture my process is this: The novel is a movie stuntman, about to get pushed off a sixty-story building. The prop guys have a square fire-department airbag ready on the sidewalk below. One corner is marked Mystery, one Thriller, one Crime Fiction, and one Suspense. The stuntman is going to land on the bag. (I hope.) But probably not dead-on. Probably somewhat off center. But biased toward which corner? I don’t know yet. And I really don’t mind. I’m excited to find out.
Lee Child, ‘Introduction’ in How to Write a Mystery: A handbook from Mystery Writers of America
🗣️ What is your preferred prewriting method? Or do you pants it all the way, or pants a little then switch to planning? Tell us in the comments.