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  • Niall Kishtainy

Should you plan before you write?

Writers, especially those of non-fiction, are often told to plan their writing before putting pen to paper. There’s a lot to be said for knowing how your material is going to be organised before you start writing. It makes for a more focused and efficient writing process, and produces a more coherent piece of writing that should need less editing to get it to a decent standard.

But some writers, fiction writers especially, believe that planning cramps their style, and even some non-fiction writers prefer to plunge into a piece of writing without doing too much planning beforehand. According to this view, planning is restrictive, smothers the intuition and puts ideas into a straightjacket before they’ve been allowed to breathe. There’s something to be said for this view, too. It’s wrong to think of writing as a process of transcription of well-formed ideas in the mind to words on the page. The act of writing itself is a powerful tool for exploring and honing ideas, for thinking about your subject. It is a form of thinking. Some writing practices, such as freewriting, take this to an extreme, using sessions of completely open-ended writing as a way of discovering new insights otherwise left buried in the mind of the writer.

If writing is thinking, then an upfront plan is never going to work because it doesn’t allow for the unexpected insights that emerge out of the process of forming sentences and paragraphs on the page. On the other hand, writing without a plan will quickly get bogged down and lose its way.

Good writing practice has to combine upfront planning and harness writing as exploration. Criticisms of planning sometimes assume that plans need to be watertight and that any departures from them negate the idea of planning. In fact, a writing plan should always be seen as provisional, an initial attempt to map out the terrain of a piece of writing that will likely change as you embark on the actual writing. What’s the point of planning, then? To give your writing an initial direction of travel and points of focus that support creation of your text. As you write, new insights will emerge and you’ll see new connections between ideas and new contradictions between them too. You could think of your plan as scaffolding that helps you sustain your effort and achieve the aims you set out to, while allowing things space to develop.

Through writing you’ll find that some material moves much more into the foreground than you had anticipated. Other elements end up taking up less space than you had initially thought they would. New themes may emerge. While being guided by your plan, it's important to allow for the unexpected as you progress through a piece of work. Deviations from the plan are often where the real gold is to be found. But it’s better to consciously deviate from a plan than to write without direction or focus. (If you don’t have a direction or focus, this may mean that you are not quite ready to write and need to go back and do some more reading, thinking and exploring, perhaps even some open-ended freewriting.)

When you’ve finished your piece of writing you’ll have something a lot messier than that projected in your initial plan. A good technique to employ at this point is what’s known as reverse outlining or paragraph replanning. Here is one version of this process:

(1) Take your draft and number each paragraph

(2) Now create a list of paragraphs. Do this in a new document. You’ll need to be able to move them around later, so notecards or post-its stuck up on a wall work really well here.

(3) For each numbered paragraph, summarise the key point or theme of that paragraph in as short a sentence as possible. At this point you’re simply trying to describe what you have produced, not what you think you should have written. Often in an initial draft you will have paragraphs that don’t have a clear point or theme. They may contain several ideas or lack a clear centre of gravity. Do your best to record what that paragraph actually contains, even if it’s just a series of single word prompts. Add a paragraph word count at the end of the sentence.

(4) You now have a skeleton outline of your draft which gives you a bird’s eye view of your structure and the key content contained within that structure. The next step is to analyse it. How does it compare with your initial outline? Have some elements become larger than you initially planned? Have some reduced? Have new elements been introduced? Have some that you’d initially planned been omitted? Try to understand why these changes have happened. Are there good reasons for them (your arguments have shifted slightly, important new points and connections emerged through the writing), or did they get introduced into your draft without a clear rationale? Look closely at long paragraphs. Do these indicate that you need to give more space to some area of your argument, or is it just that the paragraph ran away with you because your writing was too loose? Look at short paragraphs. Do some of these need to be combined?

(5) Having evaluated your outline, create a new one. You will probably need to re-order some points, give more space to some material, reduce or omit other elements, and so on. If you’ve used notecards, move them around and mark them up as needed. Now revisit your overall point or argument. Has this changed in any way?

(6) Finally, reorganise your text based on the revised outline. Move paragraphs as needed, cut ones that you need to cut. Add notes in square brackets indicating places where you need to expand your argument or fill in gaps. After this process you will have a text that superficially looks very rough and ready: because you’ve moved paragraphs around, many of them won’t flow on from each other very nicely, and there’ll be all sorts of gaps and holes that need filling in. But you’ll have a much sounder overall architecture than when you started off, and the points you're trying to make will be much clearer and more persuasive. By planning at the beginning and the end, you’ve written according to a process that creates focus and purpose while still letting the unexpected emerge. It’s a form of planning that allows for the fact that writing is not transcription, but something that itself creates the ideas and arguments.

To use an economic analogy, planning ‘forwards’ before writing is a kind of forecasting process that sets out a direction of travel with a high degree of uncertainty built in. Planning ‘backwards’ after you’ve written is a kind of accounting where you take stock of what you’ve done and how it deviates from your initial plan. You can then alter the structure of your text on the basis of the new things you’ve discovered while writing.

Reverse outlining is a powerful way of beginning a revision process that will eventually lead into editing. Often writers produce an initial draft and then jump straight into line-by-line editing. This is a mistake. Reverse outlining allows you to optimise the overall structure of your writing without getting bogged down in the details. It allows you to see the wood for the trees and to fix the bigger problems first. Starting detailed editing too soon is like trying to furnish a room before the walls have been put up.

Reverse outlining also helps you overcome one common problem with revising a text: when you become too attached to sentences or paragraphs that you laboured over, or which contain striking turns of phrase or insights you're pleased with. But revision involves taking out cherished bits of text that don’t serve the overall purpose of your piece of writing. It’s the requirement for good writing that the British writer and literary critic Arthur Quiller-Couch called ‘Murder your darlings’: cutting out that beautiful metaphor or turn of phrase that you love, but which doesn’t serve your overall point. (A tip if you find this difficult: tell yourself that you are not going to cut that beautiful paragraph, just move it to a new document of temporarily discarded paragraphs, or to a section called discarded paragraphs at the end of your document. By the time you have finished your document, you will usually have forgotten about the paragraph, or got used to the idea that it really does need to go). If you analyse your first draft using an outline of it, it’s much easier to see what needs to go and to make cuts. And you'll end up with a more focussed, better piece of writing.

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