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.

Diagram of interrelated writing elements

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

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.

11 thoughts on “Coping with the Complexity of Writing

  1. Interesting post, Thomas. I adopt something of a hybrid approach myself: I usually plan works in some detail, but I can’t imagine ever sticking to an outline too rigidly. When I’m actually writing, I often find that I’m immersed in the story to such an extent, mentally and imaginatively, that things often look rather different to when I was going through the more remote planning stage. I have to allow myself latitude to work with that. The ramifications can indeed be hideous, but it’s all part of the process…

    Having said that, I’d say that there are probably as many methods of writing as there are writers in the world. We’re nothing if not an individualistic lot!

  2. Computers are essential to this process. By randomly eliminating whole versions and treasured sections of various drafts, the computer has added an entire new dimension to my creative process. It has also been the inspiration of my new hobby, drinking to excess.

  3. As someone who has slowly come to grips with the idea of ‘patience’ in this writing game, your article had me nodding my head. With my current novel in progress, it’s the first time that I’ve deliberately held myself back from just getting on with it.

    Every day that I spend researching, taking notes and tweaking my outline, I encounter at least one moment where my notion of how the story would unfold changes for the better and I say to myself, “I’m glad I’m not rushing things.”

    In the end, there are obviously many ways to reach the destination of a completed manuscript. Some are just less rocky than others. Though who’s to say taking the rocky path doesn’t teach us some valuable things we may miss on the paved highway!

  4. Very interested to hear your thoughts on this issue, Mari. When I read and reviewed your novel, *The Quickening*, I guessed from the solid feel of the book that you had started with some sort of plan. The story has a nice balanced feel to the pace and a satisfying sense of steady character revelation as Julia hurtles toward madness. The setting is well developed and enhances the tale in numerous ways. These are all hallmarks of intelligent design somewhere in the writing process.

    I think the singularity of writers’ methods arises precisely from the complexity of writing. Each writer wrestles with the difficulties of keeping it all together according to the strengths and limitations of their character and their degree of sophistication when it comes to the craft of writing. It takes a long time to make a writer, and a lot happens along the way that is unique to each writer’s development.

  5. Evan, you sound like a natural for garnering fresh insights into chaos theory. Not to mention a thorough understanding of alternate realities. Perhaps your vanishing files will spawn an entirely new (well-lubricated) writing genre!

  6. Phillip, your development as a writer sounds a lot like mine. I have learned that patient outlining enables me to see interesting possibilities in a story idea that I would have missed had I simply plunged in or quickly thrown together a rough and ready outline. It is amazing how much you can elaborate on an idea if you give yourself some time to play around with it.

    Working on a lengthier outline allows me to spot foreshadowing opportunities and the timeliest places to include backstory, character revelation, and plot developments. Since I am working with an overview, I can look for ways to integrate setting with other story elements. The story’s structure is far easier to comprehend and strengthen. All of this provides my work with greater subtlety, depth, and substance. I am exploiting ramification in a constructive way rather than permitting it to harness me to the heavy revision plough.

    Outlining provides an assurance of stability throughout the actual writing process. This means the foreshadowing I have included cannot dead end since things will indeed play out that way. The plot will not change and so on. When immersed in the actual writing, I can concentrate on the quality of the prose rather than constantly having to interrupt myself to work on the development of the story.

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