No One Right Way

In the open floor last week, a thread developed on how to tell if that idea you have is a story or a kumquat. There was discussion about how to develop the idea, writing, etc. I want to thank everyone who commented and talked about their process. One thing became clear reading the thread, everyone writes differently and that’s the important thing to remember. Too often, writers (especially new writers) feel like they’re doing something wrong because their process isn’t the same as others they talk with or study. So here is probably the most important rule you can ever learn in writing: quit worrying about how someone else creates and do what works for you.

This is a lesson Sarah and Kate brought home to me in the early days of my career. We were talking one day and I was lamenting how I had this story idea and I couldn’t get it out of my head. But I also couldn’t manage to get an outline written. So that had to mean it wasn’t really a story idea, right? It was my subconscious telling me to move on to something else.

Sarah shook her head and Kate laughed a touch hysterically. Then they looked at one another and one of them nodded. It was time to school the new writer into the dangers of reading all those “how-to” books and believing they were the only ways to create.

They explained to me there are basically three types of writers: the plotter, the pantser and the hybrid of the two. Then they went on to explain how they work.

The reason Kate laughed a touch hysterically is because she’s a pantser. She sits down at the keyboard and waits. The story comes to her and she is merely the vessel for her muse. Oh, she might have an idea about where the story is going but there’s not outline and certainly no detailed notes about the plot. She writes it as it comes to her.

And she is damned good at it. Damned good.

Sarah is a plotter. Oh, not to the degree of someone like Dave Drake who, from what I understand, writes a very detailed draft. But she will write out notes on a project. That may be a quick outline before she gets started or notes for the next three chapters at the end of her writing day. But she gives herself a road map of sorts.

There are strengths and weaknesses to all three approaches. The strength of being a pantser is you can follow the muse. You aren’t going to find yourself fighting her when she suddenly decides to take the plot off in a direction you didn’t anticipate. The weakness is panters are often close to stream-of-consciousness writers. You write what comes and, if you aren’t a good structural editor (or have on you work with), you can leave plot points hanging or have contradictions you wouldn’t necessarily have if you had an outline. But, if you are a vivid visualizer as you write, your descriptions can fly because you aren’t worried about making sure you hit all the points in your outline.

Being an outliner means you have a road map for your story. You know what your characters are going to do and where they are going to do it. You see the flow of the story and know the main plot points and the sub-plots you want to develop. Outliners might have a line or two, or more, for each chapter. Others might just write a detailed synopsis of the story. I’ve seen a two page “outline” for an 80k word manuscript and I’ve seen a 30k word “outline” where every scene had been described in detail.

The problem some writers have when they outline in any detail is that once the outline is finished, they don’t want to write the book. Why? Because they feel they already have. (Been there, done that.) If they wrote a very detailed outline, they basically have. Oh, the dialog might not be there and some setting development might be needed but all the “guts” of the book have been written. In those few instances where I’ve worked from that sort of an outline, the only thing I’ve been able to do when that feeling hit was walk away for a month or two–or more–and then come back to the story. Then it was either toss out the outline (not really, but I didn’t look at it as I wrote) or look at it as a very rough draft in need of heaving rewrites.

Then there’s the hybrid writer. The one who does a little bit of outlining and a little bit of pantsing. If I had to choose which category I fall into, it would be this. I tend to make a page of notes, usually longhand, before starting a new story. Think of it as an expanded blurb. Those few paragraphs hit the main plot arc and possibly the sub-plots I want to include. Once that’s done, I tend to sit down and start writing. Several times during the writing process, I’ll usually stop and “outline” the next few chapters. This usually happens when I’m having a problem moving forward. As with my preliminary notes, this is usually done with pen and paper. There’s something about going old-school that sparks my creative juices.

However–and this is important to note–that process changes. Sometimes it changes from one project to another. Sometimes it changes after several books. It depends on what I’m writing. A new book, set in a “universe” I haven’t written in before (or in a long time) usually means more notes than one I’m currently very familiar with. Those notes might not all be plot-related. In fact, a lot of my outline notes have to deal with setting, character development, etc.

So here’s what it all boils down to. Find a process that works for you and don’t freak out when that process changes from one project to another. And remember, what works for one writer might not work for you. There is no one true way except for the one that works for you.

Until later!


Image by skeeze from Pixabay  License.


  1. Definitely a bit of a hybrid, but my outlines are very sketchy seven points or scenes that I want to tell a story around. At the end of the day there are only two rules for writing.

    1. Do what works.
    2. Don’t do what doesn’t work.

    The skill/craft of writing is learning what does and doesn’t work. Only way I know how to do this is practice.

    1. Absolutely. I’ll add in being able to adapt. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve discovered that the process that worked for the previous book didn’t work for the next. It might be as simple as changing rooms, or even chairs. It might mean pantsing instead of outlining. It might mean writing at least part of the draft longhand. It can be frustrating but it is something that I’ve learned is all part of my process.

  2. “So here is probably the most important rule you can ever learn in writing: quit worrying about how someone else creates and do what works for you.”

    That was one that was pretty hard for me to learn. I do it so weird that it can’t be right. Someone I respect read what I had and told me “You have to finish this right away!”

    So I sat and finished it. The process wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t quick. But it worked, and now George McIntyre has a whole series of misadventures to brag about. Unpublished as yet, and I don’t know how they will be received, but snippets posted here are getting polite interest, so I’ve got -something- going anyway.

    That thing they say about practice making perfect? Sadly, its true. I had to write a whole ton to get things working right. Or in my case, right-ish. Close enough, anyway. It isn’t a process so much as “I wonder what Alice is doing right now?” Alice is a shit magnet, so she’s usually doing something interesting.

    1. My recommendation? Get yourself half a dozen or so beta readers and send the first volume out to them. Tell them what you are looking for and make sure they understand you want not only those questions answered but also you want to know if they enjoyed the book and why or why not. The only way you are going to know how something works is for more than three people read it and comment.

      1. I’m about at four readers right now Amanda, one of them was a fourteen year old who spent most of the time giggling, so I think I’m good. I take giggling and not going “This is BORING!!!” as a good sign. I asked people to tell me where they got bored, and they didn’t get bored at all, so that’s all I really wanted to know. They rolled right over the mistakes and the too-big words.

        I also discovered something not-awesome about myself, I don’t take criticism well. I reacted amazingly badly to a well-intentioned critique. Full fight-or-flight engagement. It was horrible. (But I did not yell at or be mean to the reviewer, I hasten to add. My reaction is -my- problem, not theirs. They behaved 100% correctly.)

        On the other hand one reviewer didn’t engage with a central theme of the book because it was outside their belief system. Weirdly, I was completely fine with that. Its fiction after all, not everybody will agree with this thing I made up. They still didn’t get bored, so that was A-ok.

        For safety’s sake I plan to bumble along learning things the hard way and not reading any of the less-than-5-star reviews (if there are any).

        Tell you one thing that surprised me, it is really hard to find anyone to read a book for you. All the people I know who I thought would be excited to do it pooped out on me. Interestingly, other people I barely know were quite happy to give me extensive reviews and discus things.

        Probably those who know me don’t want to trigger the monster. ~:D

        1. “I don’t take criticism well”
          I suspect, my dear, that is a flaw a great many of us have. 😉

          I tend to yell back at the screen, “what do you mean it doesn’t make sense” or similar such whines. At which point I walk away for a period of time, come back and re-read the comments. Once I get over the snit, I usually see what they are saying. Don’t mean I agree, but I can kinda see the point.

          I’m getting better, but I still have to beat down the urge to throw my hands up in despair and toss the work into the virtual trash bin.

          1. Yeah. Growing a thick skin is a necessity for a writer. Not that you don’t accept criticism, but that you evaluate it logically and determine if it has merit. And sometimes what a critic says is not quite what you’re getting from hearing or reading, and you have to try and figure out what they really meant.

          2. Taking notes helps, I find. I’m not figuring out what is right or wrong, I’m just trying to distill what the criticism said. Lends some distance.

            Also, if you have several critics, count how many times someone says something. Memory can be misleading.

        2. None of us take criticism well, especially not when we are first starting out. It’s like having someone tell us our baby is ugly. Regarding reviews, I’d recommend not reading any of them. Have someone you trust take a look at all of them. There is a danger in completely avoiding reviews just as there is a danger in only looking at the 5-star ones. If you completely ignore them, you don’t get to see there are folks out there who like your work. If you only read the 5-star ones, you risk missing someone pointing out something you need to know and, yes, that does happen from time to time. So find yourself someone you trust to read them and tell you if there is something you need to know.

          As for finding folks to read your work and those you know well not coming through, it is understandable in a way. After all, they might be worried that if they read it and don’t like it you’ll get mad at them. There are very few really good friends or family I show my beta work to. Also, if you haven’t already, consider joining a critique group or writers group of some sort. It may take trying several out before you find one that fits your needs, but it can be well worth it if you are finding it difficult to get constructive feedback.

        3. If there is one valuable thing I took away from my college-level litteratty creative writing courses, it was a thick skin for criticism – learning to say “where is the value in what they’re saying” rather than the knee-jerk “you’re WRONG” that is so very easy to fall into.
          I’m never sure how much value there actually is there, but you might check out They ask for 1 critique a week out of you, which I found took a lot of time and energy (read once for first impressions, put it down for a bit, then read again and give comments), but it is a great place to get feedback – and it’s all through email.

        4. I have that exact same problem, people I thought/they said they would love to read, never finish, or most never even start. I’ve only had one person ever finish reading…So, I don’t know how to get any conversation/feedback. I’m just in the putter along until something gets finished stage. Several years going now, nothing finished….

  3. And I’m of the “What do you mean, there were supposed to be pants??” school of writing… I start with several apparently-unrelated scenes from somewhere in the middle (not necessarily even from the same book), and work out from there in whatever random direction comes to me. Eventually the spattered segments intersect and merge into a coherent story, like a patchwork quilt. Once most of it is there, I’ll do an outline, but it’s really just the reminder timeline for “Meanwhile, back at the planet…” An upfront outline shuts things down hard, cuz if you already know the story, why write it?

    Thus did a scene that seemed to be a rest stop between panics… morph into the worst fright of my MC’s life… when I discovered what was fore and aft of the nominal rest stop. Eeep!

    I also do nearly all my editing on the fly, because when each word begets the next, it’s critical to have the right words in place. Once this becomes a habit, it’s much easier than the alternatives, as there’s no revision needed, other than adding detail (I tend to write too sparely).

    Basically it’s DWS’s “Writing into the Dark” except done in no particular order. Okay, no order whatsoever…

    1. I do that all the time. I’ll get bored of one thing, and wonder what Character B is doing elsewhere. Which leads to another scene, which is out of order. Eh, eventually it comes together.

      1. Yeah, I’ve learned to not worry about it, or even wonder beyond “what comes next?” Sooner or later it’ll all fit together, and it ALL fits.

  4. Too often, writers…feel like they’re doing something wrong because their process isn’t the same as others they talk with or study. So here is probably the most important rule…quit worrying about how someone else creates and do what works for you.

    So true! Most of the writers I hang out with are pantsers. And I’m a hybrid. I need an outline in order to feel relaxed enough to write (a skeletal one, usually a list of bullet points that give the basic arc of the story), even though I usually adjust the later bullet points as the first third of the book develops in the process of writing it.

    But many of my pantser friends are adamant that pantsing is the only way to go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worried that I’m doing it all wrong. In fact, I still think that at times. Even though I’ve tried pure pantsing several times and have not been able to make it work for me. Even though I’ve written 7 novels, 6 novellas, and 15 shorts using my hybrid method.

    It makes me mad that I still question myself every time I read an eloquent blog post on why pantsing is the only way. My way works for me, dash it!

    I will say that the ratio of pantsing to outline is different with every project. But only once have I written the first third of a novel via pure pantsing, and then I stopped and outlined the rest. (And when the first draft was complete, I had to go back and shuffle the scene order in the first third, because it didn’t work in the order I’d written it.)

    Usually I start with my bullet point outline. As I write, I discover that my outline didn’t include a scene or two. But I recognize it when I get to them. I finish a scene, and just know that the next scene on the outline isn’t the next scene in the story. I have to write this other unforeseen scene first. So I do. That happens enough that when I get to the end of the first third or half of the novel I need to adjust the rest of the outline.

    Then I carry on writing, adding unforeseen scenes as they come to me, and making more adjustments to accommodate details that need to change the events I outlined. So far, I always end up at the endpoint that I’d envisioned for the story.

    That process has been pretty consistent for me, the only variation being the amount of pantsing versus planning, the amount of tweaking and adjusting, and the amount of revision needed.

    My weakness is that I can get my character reactions wrong, because I am too aware of what lies ahead of them. They don’t know the future like I do, and so they would feel differently. I love it when I don’t make that mistake. But sometimes I do. And then I have to fix it. Sometimes the fix is easy to do and fits into the manuscript very nicely. Sometimes the fix is really, really challenging, and then I tear my hair out—but I make the fix, because the story demands it, and I want to/have to get it right. 😉

    1. “But many of my pantser friends are adamant that pantsing is the only way to go.”

      I highly recommend nobody try to do what I do. It is probably the worst possible way to go about writing anything. All the other ways are better.

      “My weakness is that I can get my character reactions wrong, because I am too aware of what lies ahead of them.”

      This is usually not a problem for me, because I have no friggin’ idea what’s going to happen. I don’t even know who the bad guy is yet for my work-in-progress.

      Hilariously, a couple of times lately I’ve had the reverse problem where a character is supposed to be guided by foreknowledge. They’re meant to know how everything is going to turn out. But -I- don’t know yet. ~:D

    2. I truly resent those writers who say their way is the only way. It isn’t. Their way may work for them but that doesn’t mean it will work for me. The sooner we all start understanding that the creative process is unique for each person and each project, the better we will all be.

      1. What really gets me is when someone I respect and who has several decades of experience says (essentially): “Every writer is different, and your way may be different from mine and may work for you, but still…you would be a better writer if you pantsed. My pantsing way is best!”

        Aaaaaah! 😉

        1. Gah. No. Just no. A lot of folks who try pantsing just can’t do it. They lose plot threads along the way. The coherence a novel needs becomes muddled because they are not one who can write what amounts to flow of consciousness. Some folks need an outline or at least a general road map. Anyone, I don’t care who they are, who tries that backhanded way of saying “my way’s the one true way” needs to be schooled behind the woodshed. How many writers have been discouraged by such advice?

          1. Pantsing pretty much requires you to remember what’s gone before. You’re holding a whole world and all its characters in your head, then turning them loose on a problem with only the tools they have available.

            This is really hard to do sometimes. I forget names, places, is the safety on a Mark 1 plasma pistol ambidextrous or only for righties… its a hard way to do it. And wondering where this new person came from suddenly and what are their attributes?

            You plotter people and your plots! So easy! 😡

          2. My stories would just peter out without an ending. Outlines are my way of saying to the muse, “Give me the ending if you want me to write the story.”

          3. The work I”m trying to finish this November was outlined, but one problem in weaving together this section is that while I outlined two threads colliding, two more emerged in the writing, and now I’m juggling four where timing matters.

        2. I think what’s usually meant is really, “You’re making things needlessly difficult for yourself by doing what you usually do; I know because I used to do that, and learned an easier way.”

          But being writers, what comes out of our mouths is, “Blah! Eugh! WTF?”

    3. I’ve tried both, and discovered that my characters saw the outline as a challenge to be overcome. *sigh* So I start writing, then make notes of major points I need to cover. For each chapter that I start, I add other notes about what that chapter needs. Chapter done? Notes deleted.

  5. Off Topic, but am I the only one who thought of the line Mercedes Lackey used in her Heralds universe?

    IE “There’s no one right way” (in terms of moral systems)?

    I always thought of that meaning “There’s No Wrong Way in terms of morality”. 😉

    1. “There is no one right way” does not mean that there are no wrong ways. Just that set of “right ways” is not singular. There may be just two or it could be finite yet unbounded.

      Why, yes, I happen to be reading philosophy at the moment. Newton certainly had an influence. I think we’ve gone far too far in the other direction, though. In the same vein as above, just because it’s not a clockwork universe doesn’t mean it’s totally arbitrary, either. For all the blather about “nuance” and “shades of grey”, humans sure like extremes.

  6. Like many here, I am a hybrid. I have a bad habit of stopping in the middle of a project and letting it lie for a while. If I don’t have an outline of some kind, I get forget what I was doing and it never has a chance of getting finished. So I usually have a cast list, notes on the setting and a brief outline of key story points. But, once I put butt in chair and hands on the keyboard, part of the outline may go out the window.

    1. That process seems pretty familiar. Some projects, I’ll outline a bit, then start writing, then outline some more, and so on. Other projects, so long as I have my concept (unicorn knights!) and the inciting incident (sick/poisoned unicorns), I’m good to go. And then there’s my serial, where each chapter suggests the next, and at the end of the book I look at DH and say “so what’s the next adventure?”

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