, , , , , , ,

Diagram of interrelated writing elements

Making even small changes in a piece of writing can lead to seemingly endless ramifications. (Image: Thomas Cotterill)

While conceptually simple, in actual practice, writing is a complicated art and all of the approaches involve some considerable degree of complexity. One of the most common reasons why writers fail is the inability to deal with the unforeseen knottiness of writing. To succeed, a writer must find manageable ways of dealing with the endless horrors of ramification or branching. Once a project is underway, any change we make in one place will usually lead to necessary changes in other places – often a great many other places. Since everything in a novel or story must remain consistent from start to finish, we must track down those places and make the needed changes. Then, of course, there is the likelihood that some of these secondary changes will necessitate further alterations of their own; and so on, in what can seem an endless tangle. If no plan is in place to deal effectively with the situation, the work will inevitably bog down – sometimes fatally.

Sadly, no one is so skilled at writing that he or she never has to change anything. Like it or not, we do have to deal with modifications and revisions. So central is the issue that it affects the way we approach writing at a fundamental level. Ultimately, how a given writer thinks about dealing with the need to revise usually determines how he or she puts together a piece of writing.

Revision consumes immense amounts of time, and for many writers, can be excruciatingly boring. The process becomes a dreaded agony tolerated only for the love of the more creative aspects of being a writer. The pain of revision often comes as a shock to novice writers who generally take up writing with an assortment of starry-eyed notions, none of which entail such hard work! So terrible is the “trauma of ramification” that it is usually the catalyst for some extensive soul-searching on the vitally important question of writing extempore vs. working from an outline.

Writers invented outlining specifically to deal with the abominable horrors of ramifications. The strategy here is to work out in advance as many important elements as possible. Making changes to compact outlines is far simpler and since everything is in the rough, there is no need to rewrite carefully composed prose. Anyone who makes many notes will also need a scheme to keep all those useful facts and thoughts tidy and accessible. One method is to add notes directly to the proper place in the outline. Later on, we can expand and integrate them while making a pass over their location. The best philosophy for post-outline changes is “only when absolutely necessary.” In other words, once the outline is complete, we do best by going with what we have. The attitude is common among outliners who believe in planning everything before the actual writing begins.

Those who write extempore or off the cuff (“pantsers,” as they are now known among the self-published) must face the inescapable reality of complex rewrites. Starting at the beginning and working things through can sound seductively simple – until we find ourselves faced with having to make ramifying changes to a full-scale carefully written manuscript. Stephen King has adopted the ruthless philosophy of simply tossing out any draft that needs a lot of rewriting. Abandoning a draft to begin another is drastic, but a second attempt may go considerably more quickly than the first. Some writers jettison select segments of a work that seem unsalvageable, lightly rework the rest, and then write new bridging material.

A great many writers take a hybrid approach, starting with a simple outline, but allowing later ideas to change the work in progress. They often claim that sticking rigidly to an outline limits their creativity. With this method, the outline is just a way in, a way to get started, which can be the hardest part of writing. However, it is important to realize that, after allowing significant changes, the technique amounts to writing extempore.

The most common reason for rejecting outlining is impatience. Writers are always eager to get to the “good stuff” of actually writing up the story. In the short run – before the need to revise raises its ugly head – this can seem much more productive. Even when outlining is the preferred option, there is a tendency to quit the process too soon. Writing starts before all the possibilities of a story idea have presented themselves. When lovely new angles become clear in the midst of writing, outlines go out the cockpit window and the writer is back to flying by the seat of his or her pants. Instead of recognizing the lack of preparation, the notion is advanced that outlines limit creative freedom.

We come back to the issue of coping with complexity in the writing process. Altering a draft manuscript is much harder and more time-consuming than making changes to even the most detailed outline. Since failure to cope with complexity is such a common reason for writers abandoning their craft, it makes sense to ask if impatience is leading us in the wrong direction. This is not to say that everyone should be outliners. It is to say that no one should dismiss outlining because false perceptions make the technique seem slower or because it appears to place limits on creative freedom.