Have you tried writing a book but failed to finish it? Do you wish you could have some writing success, but each time you set out on an idea, something stops you?
Do you have a writing system?
Having writing skills are only half the battle. If you want to be a successful writer, it helps to establish a solid, reliable writing system that evaluates your writing process. To do this, you need to experiment with three key steps to designing the best system for you.
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No Writing System = No Books
Let me tell you about the book I didn't finish.
And that other book I didn't finish.
And that other other book I didn't finish.
That's not counting the outlines I half started, or the ideas I jotted down then lost.
Before I had a system, I started every book in a different way. Sometimes I tried to dive right in. Sometimes I tried to make an outline. Sometimes I tried to use a template to create a synopsis. Before having a system, I finished a total of one book. It took three years and was a complete mess. I left it for long periods of time and had to re-find my way around the plot every time I returned to it.
Since finding my system, I've finished four books, three of those within the past year and a half. Having a system has completed changed how I write and allows me to approach each book in a consistent, easy, and predictable manner. It removed uncertainty and guesswork and as a result, my success rate has shot way up.
What is a Writing System?
The word “system” tends to make people think of computers, programs, and a lot of scary, technical things that have very little to do with creativity. But that’s a misconception. Systems are actually very important and useful to writers. They make it possible for them to churn out a solid first draft—and do it more than once.
So what is a system?
The technical definition of a system is a set of rules, an arrangement of things, or a group of related things that work toward a common goal. What does this mean exactly? Well, to put it in simpler terms, it means a set of steps you can take to achieve consistent results. A good writing system is useful to a wide range of writing levels and has several traits:
- Generic: It can be applied to different projects and still produce similar results. In this case, it means you can apply it to any genre or writing project with minimal variation.
- Repeatable: You can use the same steps over and over without having to reinvent the wheel each time.
- Well-defined: It has clear, well-defined steps and tasks that you can start and complete.
- Accessible: It can be used anytime, anywhere, with minimal restriction on access and tools.
- Easy: It's not difficult to implement. It should reinforce and organize the habits you have, not force new ones. Effective writing comes from effective systems, and more importantly, easy systems.
When a writer defines their writing system, they set themselves up to actually finish a book—and enjoy their writing process.
3 Steps to Design Your Writing System
We all want the same thing: to be able to write a good book and then to be able to do it again.
We want to be able to effortlessly translate what’s in our minds into stories. Well, it will never be truly effortless, but it can certainly be easier once you design a system that works for you.
Believe it or not, creating a system is a learning process in of itself. Let’s take a look at the three steps to design a writing system that works for you.
1. Define your needs
Before you can create a system, you have to know what you’re looking for.
Here are some critical questions to ask yourself:
- Am I more of a pantser or a plotter?
- What is something I do every time I start writing? Do I outline? Research? Sit down and just start writing?
- What is my approach to writing?
- What essential elements do I value most? For example, is it plot? Theme? Character?
- What are my writing habits? Do I need time tracking? Motivation? Reward system?
Knowing the kind of writer you are will help you identify the key elements of your system. By answering these questions, you know what your system needs to help you accomplish every time you start a new story.
For example, the following is how I would answer these questions:
- I am a plotter. My system needs an easy-to-use plotting tool.
- I tend to start my book with an outline. My system would benefit from including a consistent format for outlining.
- I write in multiple phases, usually with two to three drafts. My system should have a good way to track different versions of the book.
- I do well having a consistent word count goal, both over a period of time and on a daily basis.
Your system must be: repeatable, accessible, easy, and reinforce what you already do rather than force you into something completely new.
2. Evaluate Your Options
Of course, just because you know what you need doesn’t mean what is available out there will match everything on your list. Nothing ticks all the boxes.
It’s not unusual for a new writer to feel like they need to fit their writing method into an existing tool, especially if the tool is popular and well-known. I made this mistake with Scrivener. While I am by no means knocking Scrivener, which has helped many writers write their books, it’s not for me. Its many tools and features felt overwhelming when I tried to use it, and I gave it up quickly after a brief stint and sought out something simpler.
In my opinion, it’s best to mix and match your options rather than forcing yourself to stick to one. There are two components to consider: methods and tools.
Methods are ways you approach writing. This is where the plotter/pantser philosopher comes in. Check out this article to figure out the kind of writer you are.
Tools are what assist you in your method. Here is where it gets a little tricky, but it’s easy to be dazzled by all the tools available out there. Remember that you absolutely do not have to use them all or even any of them. They are only here to help your writing method.
Tools come in different categories:
These help you plan your book. It’s worth it to explore options based on how much detail you want to go into when you plan. Keep in mind that it’s okay not to use any of them if they don’t suit you. Some writers prefer to pants without plotting at all, or just writing a simple outline in Word.
Here are a few plotting tools to get you started:
These are what you use to write your book. Tools like Scrivener and Novel Factory also offer space to do the actual writing and give you the option to separate scenes and chapters, but some people, like me, prefer to keep the book together on something simple like Word.
Accessibility is also a factor. I used to write everything in Word, but now I use Google Docs, which allows me to acces the document from anywhere instead of having to email copies to myself back and forth, which also causes confusion from too many versions.
These are the tools that help you put that finishing touch on your book, such as checking your structure, grammar, and word usage. These tools can vary a lot in functionality. Personally, I am still looking for the perfect one.
At The Write Practice, we love ProWritingAid. You can check out the full ProWritingAid review here.
Not sure if ProWritingAid is for you? The Write Practice looked for the best grammar checker, and in this review, we compare the top tools: ProWritingAid, Grammarly, Ginger, and Hemingway.
Something useful to keep in mind is that no editing tool can ever replace the expertise of a professional editor.
Project Management Tools
These are the tools that help you build habits and stay on track.
A lot of people don’t understand how “project management” works. It simply means setting goals and meeting them in a timely fashion. I tend to keep things simple in this department—an excel sheet with four columns. Column A is the date, B is the total words I should have on that date, C is the actual word count, and D is how much I am behind or ahead by.
This method works for me because I’m a fairly seasoned habitual writer by this point. But a year or two ago I needed a little extra push to stay on top of things.
Here are a few tools I tried:
Keep in mind that there’s also nothing wrong with post-it notes and whiteboards to keep yourself on task.
Ultimately, the point of this tool is to keep you on task. There’s no such thing as too simple, too silly, or too weird. If a pretty list or gamifying your goals works for you, then by all means go for it.
3. Compile Your System
A good writing system will carry you from beginning to end every time. While small parts of it can be tweaked to match different projects, you should be able to refer back to your system and make it work for you every time. To achieve this, you should avoid making parts of your system too specific and strive for as generic and flexible as possible.
Here are a few examples:
STEP: List out all chapter titles before writing
This step is too specific and rigid. You may not be able to think up appropriate titles or want to change the titles later. There’s also a possibility you will feel obligated to stick to the chapter titles you came up with, which may compromise your writing pace.
ALTERNATE: List out story arcs before writing
Story arcs are more functional and flexible, and provide you with a better guideline for your writing.
STEP: Write full character bios for every character
A lot of writers do this, but in reality, this is not always doable and in fact may seem daunting, especially to new writers. A lofty task like this may slow you down and make you feel like you’re failing if you don’t complete it.
ALTERNATE: List out at least five key facts about each main cast member
This is a less monumental task and is more likely to be completed quickly.
STEP: Use Scrivener to plot out each book
Restricting yourself to specific tools is never a good idea. Sure, it’s common to find a tool and stick with it, but it’s better to allow yourself room to explore. Avoid naming specific tools in your plan.
ALTERNATE: Use a plotting software to plot out each book
This leaves you room to try out tools and methods without feeling like you have to stick to one.
At the end of the day, a system is what works for you. Tailor and tweak your plan so that it makes life easier rather than something that you feel obligated to stick to. Using your plan should feel freeing and effortless.
If it doesn’t, something needs to be changed.
Example: My Writing System
As a reference, I’d like to share the novel-writing plan that I use. I developed this plan while working on Headspace and it’s carried me through three more books in the past year and a half.
- Determine story idea: I write a one-sentence summary of the story.
- Write story synopsis: I describe the story in one to two pages, focusing on what the core of the story is really about.
- Develop a cast: I don’t do story bios as I prefer to find out who my characters are in the first draft.
- Scene list: I use Hiveword for this; reference this revision list article.
- Write first draft: I usually budget six to eight weeks for this, but no more than three months. This draft is very rough and is mainly used to figure out exactly what happens in the story. I write with Google Docs for easy access.
- Plot treatment: I will address this part in a later post, but essentially this is where I figured out, chapter by chapter, what needs to change from draft one to draft two. This is done with the help of the revision list.
- Write a second draft: This usually takes two to three months. I have the plot treatment and first draft open as I write, and reuse what I can. I also keep a new revision list for this step.
- Repeat the plot treatment/rewrite steps: I repeat steps six and seven until the book is satisfactory.
- Book goes to editor and beta
- Final revision
This is a system that works for me. There might be a better system that works for you. Feel free to experiment as you figure out what your system will be! What steps bring you success? What steps aren't helpful after all?
Your system doesn't have to match mine. It just needs to exist, and it needs to work for you. Remember, having a writing system can determine whether or not you write a book that gets published.
What system of steps do you use to finish a book? Let u know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to start your own writing plan. Start by answering the questions in the Define Your Needs section, then list out three to five writing/planning/editing tools that you use or want to try out.
When you're done, share with us in the comments. And comment on another writer's work—maybe you'll find your next best tool to use!
J. D. Edwin is a daydreamer and writer of fiction both long and short, usually in soft sci-fi or urban fantasy. Sign up for her newsletter for free articles on the writer life and updates on her novel, find her on Facebook and Twitter (@JDEdwinAuthor), or read one of her many short stories on Short Fiction Break literary magazine.