A Case for Pre-Writing

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For as often as writers discuss their favorite methods and tricks of pre-writing (that stage before a draft that’s dominated by researching, brainstorming, and outlining), a lot of writing advice stresses the importance of just writing. That’s the entire point of being a writer, after all—getting stuck in constant planning eventually becomes a procrastination tool or a safe place to hide from the reality (and fear) of what comes once writing commences. Just as often, writers are admonished to write bad first drafts—just write, and you can edit and fix the problems later. Just write. Just write. Just write.

I don’t disagree with the underlying meaning of this advice. It is easy to get caught up in pre-writing to the point where the story is never written. How many people have said “I would love to write a novel!” but never do it? Pre-writing is the perfect stage to soothe our innermost fears, giving us the illusion that we’re making progress, or even being a way for us to make real progress, without having to put ourselves and our prose or poetry out into the real world. But I also see some danger in how this advice can go too far the other way. Pre-writing itself is not the enemy of productivity or an excuse to procrastinate. Pre-writing is part of the writing process, not just a precursor to the main event. Pre-writing, when actively utilized, has more benefits than drawbacks, and can save us time and prepare us to fully immerse in the later stages of writing (both the actual writing and the revising/editing/rewriting). Specifically, I can think of five great benefits of (active) pre-writing:

 

Pre-writing clarifies your vision

I know that some writers lean more to the side of “exploratory writing”—that the only way they can really get a sense of your plot, setting, or characters is to actually write scenes or chapters. If you’re made that way, there’s no sense fighting against it. However, for those of us (like me) who aren’t geared that way, exploratory writing has its limitations; I’d even venture to say that a little pre-writing, even informally, can help the most exploratory writers out there.

Pre-writing involves activities like research, brainstorming, and outlining. These activities clarify the vision of your story in your mind, and the clearer that vision is, the better and faster it comes out on the page. This can be as simple as asking yourself “what’s the main purpose of this scene/chapter?” and coming up with a clear goal, or as complex as researching the full progression of a disease or developing a fictional culture’s birthday celebrations. Whatever the case, a healthy measure of thought before action ensures that your action will be more accurate and less likely to end in failure (or needing to redraft a scene ten times).

 

Pre-writing helps you avoid obvious story problems

If you’re thinking about your story beforehand, regardless of how detailed you go, you’re going to be far more likely to catch large, obvious problems or gaps before you’ve written yourself into a corner. Say for instance that you need to add tension to a scene, so you make your protagonist break their leg during a get-away chase. In that moment, that narrative decision may be fine and provide what you need, but if you haven’t fully thought out the consequences of that action—if you haven’t thought ahead to what the protagonist will need to do in the next scene, or the next chapter—that injury may cause more problems than it’s worth. There may be conflict and drama, but there’s also a huge logistical barrier between them continuing their journey or getting further away from the bad guys, and it’s one that can’t be overcome in a few hours or days. But, if you pause a bit to consider other ways to add tension to that scene, you would be able to a) recognize that you need a different way to add interest or conflict before you go ahead and write the scene and b) be able to more quickly find a viable, dynamic solution. Maybe they break their arm rather than their leg, or their friend gets injured instead of them, or they lose an important item that sets them back in a way that doesn’t limit their mobility. Any of those options would save the hypothetical writer from writing themselves into a hypothetical story corner. There’s no way to avoid every story flaw before you write, but avoiding major ones is vastly preferable to being stuck for days because of a poor plot choice, or having to write an extra draft or two of a piece because you overlooked a plot hole or let an underdeveloped character roam freely.

 

Pre-writing strengthens your actual writing

The entire point of pre-writing is to prepare you, as much as possible, to write your draft. Think of it as getting thorough training before starting a new job: if needed, you could be thrown right into the workforce and learn as you go, but even the shortest orientation about terminology, location of important offices, or contact information for important people can help you adapt to the new environment and succeed more quickly than if you go in blindly. That little bit (or large amount) of brainstorming, research, or outlining is your job orientation; it doesn’t replace on-the-job experience, but it makes that time on the job more beneficial, productive, and meaningful.

At this point you may be thinking: I outline and research and brainstorm but, once I write, I end up changing most of what I plan. It all seems like a waste in the end in those cases, doesn’t it? Except that’s a narrow view of what pre-writing does for you. Say that you wrote an outline for your story, but about five chapters in, a change in dialogue takes your story on a completely different course. Is all that outlining in vain? Hardly—though you have to re-work your plans, the time you spend outlining gave you a) more clarity about what you may want your story to be, b) more insight into character motivations and potential arcs, and c) more information about the story world, so that when you do change plot points, you can quickly figure out better options. It’s the difference between taking a detour and having to buy a whole new car.

Another, albeit more technical, benefit of pre-writing is that it can often improve your actual prose style—things like descriptions, word choices, storyworld-specific terminology, and dialogue. Those aren’t the most important elements of a first draft, but a measure of improvement in that area is nevertheless a good thing.

 

Pre-writing saves editing & revising time

Naturally, if pre-writing makes your actual writing stronger, that stronger first or second draft is going to make it easier when you edit and revise. Rather than fixing obvious plot holes, you can focus on smaller plot details, making things tighter and more efficient or expanding a sub-plot to add more meaning; rather than having to redo all the dialogue with a character because their personality changes, you can focus on their individual arc, how they interact with others, and how you can polish the dialogue to be the most compelling; rather than wondering about whether your story has a theme or not, you can find your story’s hidden meaning more easily, and begin to figure out how to ask the most meaningful questions; rather than having to redo all of your setting descriptions, you can simply polish what you have, perhaps adding or subtracting words or sentences but not needing to completely redo paragraphs as often.

There’s no guarantee that a stronger first or second draft means you can edit or revise quickly—sometimes, despite all your best efforts, you still have to make major changes to your story. Some stories just take a long time, and that process includes lots of drafts and re-writes. But, even in those cases, all of the small building blocks that you laid at the foundation of the writing process do add up once the house is built. You don’t have to completely rework the foundation if you pay attention to it at the beginning.

 

Pre-writing reminds us that our first ideas are never our best

Perhaps most of all, the biggest reason I advocate for thorough pre-writing is because it reminds us that our first ideas are never our best. That sounds quite harsh—sometimes initial ideas are good, and if they’re good, why not run with them? But, even in cases where an initial burst of inspiration or character is compelling, that initial idea is not enough for a story. Stories need development. Stories need time to mature. If we rush headlong into writing, it’s easy to forget that writing is an endurance activity and a craft that takes years to hone; a writer is never done honing their craft, even once they become “good” at it, even after they create good, successful stories. No quantity of experience, even though it’s necessary to grow in the first place, is enough to avoid the hours and days and months and years it requires to write. Writing isn’t just putting words on a page—the stages of pre-writing (brainstorming, planning) and post-writing (editing, revising) are also part of the package. This is true whether a person writes fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose. In a way, disregarding the pre-writing stage is disregarding the writing process. It’s unlikely that a person would forgo researching their area of study before starting their master’s thesis, so why treat fiction writing any differently? There is joy to be had in all of the stages, and while sometimes it feels as if the pre-writing stage is taking far too long, it’s important not to dismiss it or unfairly compare it to writing or revising. All three are important and necessary.

But, I think pre-writing in particular is the best stage to learn about how to improve our initial ideas. In the pre-writing phase, our ideas are new, easy to mold, and freer of attachments; if we always wait to make serious changes to our characters, plot, theme, or storyworld, it will be so much harder to see our story clearly. We’re likely to be attached enough to an idea or character that we aren’t willing to change it, cut it, or allow it to develop into a better idea. Catching potential weak areas or flaws early gives us the time—and the mental and emotional space—to allow stories to change and grow. And, allowing ourselves to let our stories grow as much as they can before we write them also makes it easier to make changes later, whether that means deviating from your outline or cutting a treasured scene during editing. Pre-writing may be practice for the real thing, but it’s what you do as you practice—the habits your form—that determine how well you perform when the time comes. It’s not so much a matter of how you pre-write, since every writer’s brain works differently, but that you give active attention to that pre-writing time and get the most out of it that you can.

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