Maps and Railroads: How Much To Plan When Writing

Picturesque, but not for me.

I’m a planner. This has been well established. It’s how I write shit. I don’t plan, nothing gets done. Or, it gets done, but badly. Either way, not a win.

But a common question I get is: how much planning is too much?

Well, the answer depends on the writer. Some like the vaguest idea of where they have to go next; others like every turn planned out.

How do you figure out which way is yours? Simple: plan until you know what you have to do, but stop before it hampers your creativity.

I plan until I don’t have to think about what I’m going to write the following day. I turn up at the desk, open my documents, and, hey, here we are. Next thing I have to write is that scene with the lockpicks and the peanut butter and the bag of medical-grade cocaine. So I dump the characters in that situation and see what they come up with. I know, generally, where it has to go, but I’m not sure how to get there. That’s what the daily creativity is for. I need a map, but not a railroad. I’ll get there when I get there.

Your mileage may vary, of course. You might find that planning every twist and turn is perfect for you; all you need to do during writing time is show up and follow along. I’ve found that very busy people who find it hard to carve out actual in-front-of-the-computer time fall into this category. They can plan in their heads or a notebook or a smartphone, and then get it all out once they get time to do the writing.

Others might find that they like driving in the fog: they only need to see as far as the next turn. Any more than that and they think: what’s the point? I already know what happens, so why bother to write it?

So, how about you? What’s your method? How much do you plan out ahead of time, and how much is on the fly? And how well does that work for you?

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Coffee, Create, Repeat: Planning Chaos

My schedule is not that different from this. I even schedule a nap some days.

I have a daily routine: get up, read articles, drink coffee, get dressed*, write, exercise, lunch, shower, edit. Nearly all of the aforementioned activities are accompanied by music and the occasional caffeinated beverage. It sounds boring. That’s because it is. And that’s by design.

The less random daily shit I have to devote brain power to, the more space gets freed up for actual creativity. In other words, every second I don’t spend deciding if I’m going to read articles before or after my run is a second that I can use to think of reasons why my main villain seemingly devoted his entire life to being a giant douche. You know, the important stuff.

People think creativity is all about chaos: the endless swirl of energy that moves ideas around in your head and makes you spew them out on the page or the canvas or the eight-track**. And, you know, that’s part of it. But only part. Because the secret is to balance chaos with order. Very little gets created when you’re standing in front of the open fridge, wondering if you should have lunch now or later.

And then there’s the matter of time management. If your writing routine consists of ‘sitting down whenever I feel like it and scribbling down a few words before not looking at it for a month’, then you’re not going to produce as much work as someone with a more regular routine. Because of that, what you do produce will likely be of lower quality as well. Not because of talent, but because in order to get better at something you have to work at it consistently. I started a routine a couple of years ago, and the improvements I’ve seen in my writing in that span of time have kicked the living shit out of the improvements I saw in the years before when I was flailing around and figuring things out.

Now, what ‘consistently’ means to you is variable. I have to write five days out of seven, but I often do more because I want to. A lot of weeks I write every day. But not everyone likes to do that, even if they can. Maybe you’re a Saturday writer. And that’s fine. Maybe your routine involves getting up at 2 am to paint yourself with chocolate frosting and run naked through your neighbour’s backyard. And that’s fine, too.*** Whatever your routine is, just make sure it works—i.e., it makes you write.

And don’t forget to break your own rules every now and then. It’s a routine, not a prison sentence.

* I don’t like working in my pyjamas, though since I work from home, I totally could if I wanted to. That’s right: I’m just throwing that opportunity away because I can.
**I know there are artists out there who record on vinyl; is there anyone who’s doing eight-tracks?
***Just stay out of my backyard. I’ve placed bear traps.