Writing guides Writing Process

Writing process: From discovery to done (complete guide)

The writing process has many stages, from discovery and investigation to publication. Read authors’ insights on finding ideas, revision and more, and tips and methods to find the process that works for you.

The writing process is a complex, not always linear creative process. From ‘plotters’ vs ‘pantsers’ (to ‘bashers’ vs ‘swoopers’), this guide unpacks stages of the writing process, what authors have said about the practices and habits of writing, and more. Use the links above to jump to the section that interests you now.

Writing process stages: 7 areas of practice

Some writing schools and authors divide writing into four stages, some five. Yet these seven see a story from first idea to publication:

  1. Discovery. Before you can draft, you need an idea, a premise. This is the investigative stage of finding the seed for a story with the most potential.
  2. Prewriting. The preparation to write before drafting begins. Depending on whether you’re a ‘plotter’ or ‘pantser’ (more on this below), this may include outlining, brainstorming, freewriting, or other common prewriting techniques.
  3. Drafting. You write narration, exposition, scenes, chapters (depending on your story’s format). Drafting may be fast or slow, depending on your preferred methods. Try different approaches and techniques to shake up your usual writing habits.
  4. Writing feedback and story development. Once you are comfortable to share your work-in-progress (WIP), you may share early drafts with a trusted friend, writing coach or critique circle for perspective and insight.
  5. Revision. The process of reviewing what you’ve written, deciding what to keep (and which ‘darlings’ to ‘kill’).
  6. Editing. While revision entails making decisions about the content of your story, editing involves making decisions about the presentation of that content – how best to make the story more impactful and polished.
  7. Publication (and promotion). Isn’t the writing process over at this stage? Not at all – your query letters, story pitches, blurbs, review requests and other matter will be some of the most important material of the entire writing process. This is the writing that puts the story you’ve labored over in the right hands.

Keep reading for tips, methods and ideas about each of these stages, supplemented by reading from the Now Novel blog.

Writing process stages infographic - discovery, prewriting, drafting, feedback, revision, editing, publication
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Sometimes we fail for a week, a month, a year, a decade. And then we come back, circle the fire. Our lives are not linear. We get lost, then we get found. Patience is important, and a large tolerance for our mistakes.
We don’t become anything overnight.

Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing (2013), p. 58.

Discovery: Finding and investigating writing ideas

The writing process may start from an idea that arrives like a soothsayer. A flash of inspiration, insight, wisdom – a dream, unexpected connection, some kind of beguiling chance encounter or happenstance that makes you say, ‘I’ve got an idea’.

Yet the idea-finding process may equally be deliberate, even robotic. Consistently trying your hand at writing prompts until an idea niggles away at your waking mind, for example, persistently saying, ‘pick me’.

Finding and developing writing ideas is a skill you develop like any part of the writing process. That way you can make an idea come, not just for a first book, but a second, third (if with a little coaxing).

Essayist and cultural theorist Walter Benjamin said of the writing process:

Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one, where it is composed; an architectural one, where it is constructed; and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.

Walter Benjamin, quote via Goodreads.

Before you make a picture with those threads, you need the wool you spin into finer thread: The fluffy stuff of an idea.

Writing process methods: Ways to find ideas

There are many ways to find ideas and find joy in the discovery stage of writing process.

Discovery and investigation may include a little or a lot of research, depending on what you need to know. The seed of an idea may come from multiple sources at once, as Toni Morrison says of her Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved:

Beloved originated as a general question, and was launched by a newspaper clipping. The general question (remember, this was the early eighties) centered on how – other than equal rights, access, pay, etc. – does the women’s movement define the freedom being sought?

Toni Morrison, ‘On Beloved‘ in Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, p. 281.

Here are fifteen ways to find ideas:

15 ways to find writing ideas and begin the writing process

  1. Try writing prompts such as the step-by-step prompts to find a central story idea in the Now Novel dashboard.
  2. Ask ‘What if…?’ For example, ‘What if a mysterious satellite held captivating mysteries about an alien race?’
  3. Draw from life. What experience could you use/alter for non-fiction or fiction?
  4. Use visual prompts. Use a photo or artwork as your starting point. Free-write a paragraph describing what you see, then continue and keep or turf the opening material.
  5. Play/combine. William S. Burroughs’ famous ‘cut up’ technique reassembles random cuttings from print into new ideas, for example.
  6. Trawl headlines. Google intriguing subjects in the ‘news’ tab. E.g. ‘travel disasters’ brought up ‘How ‘dark tourism’ can pass on the lessons of past tragedies’. Mine your headline for ideas.
  7. Explore myths and legends. Reads stories from world mythologies. You could update an ancient tale with modern touches.
  8. Argue with other stories. Maybe a story’s annoyed you, or you want to explore a secondary character’s viewpoint (from a work now in the public domain). Write back.
  9. Test out ideas in short fiction. Famous novels (such as Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce) began as short story test runs.
  10. Draw inspiration from music. Listen to a song. What ideas, characters, premises do the lyrics evoke?
  11. Try creative constraints. The collective OuLiPo used devices such as writing stories omitting a chosen vowel entirely to find the unexpected.
  12. Browse famous quotes. Take something like ‘Happy families are all alike…’ from Anna Karenina. Where else could it lead?
  13. Join writing groups. Prompts set by members for each other may inspire new ideas.
  14. Research historical figures or eras. You may unearth a riveting idea from the past.
  15. Tap into your subconscious and keep a dream journal or meditate, silence and going inward often brings clarity.

FAQs about the discovery stage of writing

What if my story idea sucks?

Share your idea with trusted people for external perspective. Test it out in a writing group or class. Ask questions about ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘why’ ‘where’ and ‘when’ to finesse a hazy or partial idea into something deeper, fuller.

What if my writing idea is unoriginal?

The varied ways myths and legends are recycled (Thor in Norse mythology becoming Marvel’s popular character) reminds us there are no new ideas. Originality lies in the specifics of voice and execution. Be specific, be yourself and find your voice through practice and intentional execution.

What if my idea doesn’t sell?

This is where it helps to remember the writing process is not linear. The discovery stage is also a good time for research, finding out what is being done (and overdone) in your genre. What agents are looking for (or tired of seeing). Resources listing recent publishing deals give insights into what’s sold recently and book market appetites. To start though, focus on telling a good story. Great stories find their audience.

🗣️ How did you find your last story idea? Let us know in the comments, and keep reading for tips and methods for prewriting, drafting, and more.

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How to Write Scenes Free Guide


Read a guide to writing scenes with purpose that move your story forward.

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Ideas are like fireflies; go hunting for them and they elude you. Sit and enjoy the night, and they appear from out of nowhere. You have to let the ideas come to you. Expand your world, read outside your comfort zone, take walks. The fireflies will come. Just give them the chance.

Sabrina Jeffries in 101 Habits of Highly Successful Novelists: Insider Secrets from Top Writers by Andrew McAleer (2008), p. 69.

Prewriting: Useful preparatory writing processes

Prewriting is the processes before you start drafting a story which help you prepare.

There are many kinds of prewriting. Because the writing process is not linear, you might come back to one or more of these methods at some stage of drafting:

Common prewriting steps and methods

  1. Picking a premise. If you have multiple ideas, go with the idea that pulls you most and (if you want a marketable book) the one you know has the better market potential.
  2. Choosing a genre or subgenre. This goes hand in hand with picking a premise, since if you set your book in outer space and explore future technology, chances are you’ll be shelved with sci-fi.
  3. Brainstorming. A process of generating ideas, whether you use mind maps, answer prompts and questionnaires, or churn out every idea you can think of in scenario- or topic-driven lists.
  4. Creating a story outline. This may be a meticulous, detailed outline, or a cursory collection of notes. The more complete your outline, the more handrails you’ll have. This prevents wandering off into irrelevancies, plot holes and impossible paradoxes, and so on.
  5. Creating initial summary material. Summary material includes things like character profiles or IDs, scene summaries, or a one-page synopsis of what your story is about (also a useful exercise in the Publication and promotion stage of process).
  6. Freewriting. Before more structured drafting, you might explore a topic or scenario with freewriting. Set a timer for 15 to 20 minutes and just write whatever comes into your head about a topic you think will be important to your book. It might spawn scene, chapter, or character ideas.
  7. Research. This may overlap with the discovery/investigation stage, as your idea may also need a little research to solidify what you want to write about. It might include fiction set in a similar era or place, making a bibliography of potentially helpful non-fiction, speaking to subject exploring films and documentaries, or visiting physical or digital archives. For some tips on how to research place when you can’t visit those places, read our tips.
  8. Interviewing. This is especially pertinent for types of writing such as historical fiction, non-fiction, memoir. Interviews with subject experts, people who lived through specific events or an era, could provide helpful nuance, context, and ideas for relevant story details.

You don’t necessarily need to do every kind of prewriting. Some authors favor ‘just-in-time’ research (an idea Bujold spoke about in relation to fantasy worldbuilding).

Authors on prewriting and whether or not to plan stories

The prewriting perspectives below show there are many way to skin (or rather save) a cat. Try different methods and find what works for you.

Loose story outlining

Author Scott King gives this reminder that prewriting (planning, creating structure, organizing) should serve the needs of your story, and stay adaptable to its unique needs:

An outline is a map of your story. It’s not set in stone. Even when you work from an outline, you will discover new twists and turns as you progress. The outline is there to remind you of where you are going so you can’t ever get too far from where you need to be.

Since I was working under pressure, I didn’t want to get crazy with how I structured Ameriguns. I defaulted to a three act structure, the kind you’d use in a screenplay, but altered it to fit the needs of the story.

Scott King, ‘Outline’ in The 5 Day Novel, 2016, p. 58.

Pullman on how establishing rules is part of play

More broadly, Philip Pullman, in ‘The Practice of Writing’, talks about how having some rules at the start of creative process gives paradoxical freedom to play. He compares guidelines such as rules (or outlines) to choosing where touchdown lies for a football game:

And as we know about all games, it’s much more satisfying to play with rules than without them. If we’re going to enjoy a game of football in the playground, we need to know where the touchline is, and agree on what we’re going to regard as the goalposts. Then we can get on with playing, because the complete freedom of our play is held together and protected by this armature of rules. The first and last and only discovery that the victims of anarchy can make is: no rules, no freedom.

Philip Pullman, ‘The Practice of Writing’ in Daemon Voices, pp. 18-19

‘Plotting’ vs ‘Pantsing’: Find your balance between prewriting and drafting

So much has been written and said about whether you should plan stories in detail in advance (‘plotting’), or go where imagination takes you (‘pantsing’, after the expression ‘to fly by the seat of your pants’ or work with instinct and gut more than organized knowledge).

Your writing process may change to suit your project

Author K.M. Weiland raises the useful reminder that your writing process doesn’t need to ape a famous writer’s approach, or be the same across every story you tell:

Each author must discover for himself what methods work best for him. Just because Margaret Atwood does X and Stephen King does Y is no reason to blindly follow suit. Read widely, learn all you can about what works for other authors, and experiment to discover which methods will offer you the best results.

K.M. Weiland, ‘Chapter One: Should You Outline?’ in Outlining your Novel: Map your way to success, p. 11.

Planning stories helps character development

Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing, said of the space and planning deeper characterization requires:

Type, general character, may be set forth in a few strokes, but the progression, the unfolding of personality […] if the actors in the tale are to retain their individuality for [the reader] through a succession of changing circumstances—this slow but continuous growth requires space, and therefore belongs by definition to a larger, a symphonic plan.

Edith Wharton, The Writing of Fiction: The classic guide to the art of the short story and the novel (1925), p. 33.

Not planning, creative freedom and excitement

Author Lee Child, on the other hand, extolls the benefits of not planning (and not being as pedantic about the marks you hit as an editor or publisher might be):

I write without a plan or an outline. The way I picture my process is this: The novel is a movie stuntman, about to get pushed off a sixty-story building. The prop guys have a square fire-department airbag ready on the sidewalk below. One corner is marked Mystery, one Thriller, one Crime Fiction, and one Suspense. The stuntman is going to land on the bag. (I hope.) But probably not dead-on. Probably somewhat off center. But biased toward which corner? I don’t know yet. And I really don’t mind. I’m excited to find out.

Lee Child, ‘Introduction’ in How to Write a Mystery: A handbook from Mystery Writers of America

🗣️ What is your preferred prewriting method? Or do you pants it all the way, or pants a little then switch to planning? Tell us in the comments.

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Writing process challenges you may encounter

Before we discuss drafting and the writing process, let’s explore common process challenges (and tips to overcome them):

Common hurdles in creative process

There are challenges in creative process that beginning authors and veterans alike face. You’re not alone if you’ve ever gone rounds in the ring with:

  1. Fear of failure (or success). What happens if a publisher or agent says no? What if reviews or crits are harsh? Or how will you handle sudden public recognition and scrutiny in the event of success?
  2. Procrastination (avoidance behaviors). When writing a story feels hard, it’s easy to put it off (or use not having time or something else as an excuse not to write).
  3. Distractibility. Whether you have a condition such as ADHD that adds further focus challenges or are a social media addict, we live in a highly distracting, ‘always on’ world.
  4. ‘Time Burglars’. There are many thieves of time that take away from the writing process if you don’t make regular writing a top priority.
  5. A harsh inner critic. Many aspiring creative people have harsh inner critics who destroy their work before anyone else can.
  6. Laziness. This is a common reason not to write, too.
  7. Unpreparedness. Many writers find projects spool out and become much harder and more complex than originally anticipated. That can be discouraging.

Overcoming writing process challenges

How can you work with and overcome some of the above procedural challenges in writing?

  • Keep SMART goals: Specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based goals are much easier to track and attain than hazy aims
  • Work on tolerance for your mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes starting out, and seasoned pros do, too
  • Chunk up complex tasks: Struggling to write a chapter a week to schedule? Try write 300 words per day and set a bigger ‘stretch goal’ (an extra target if you make your first easily)
  • Turn off the net if you need to: Put your phone in airplane mode and pause all notifications
  • Remember the difference between procrastination and waiting: It’s fine to wait for maturity, fuller knowledge of your subject, to be in the right frame of mind. It’s not putting off but letting process take its necessary time for this story
  • Get up and move often: The writing process is (for the most part) a sedentary one. It’s easy to forget to move. Stone-like posture may lead to petrified process, even if your mind’s going a hundred miles a minute

The accountability of working with a writing coach or joining a crit circle that meets regularly helps (in Now Novel’s experience), too.

Natalie Goldberg writes, on procrastination vs waiting:

Waiting is something full-bodied. Perhaps waiting isn’t even a good word for it. Pregnant is better. You’ve worked on something for a while. You are excited by it, even happy, but you are wise and step back. You take a walk, but this walk isn’t to avoid the writing on your desk. It is a walk full of your writing. It is also full of the trees you pass, the river, the sky. You are letting writing work on you.

Natalie Goldberg, ‘Procrastination and Waiting’, in Wild Mind: Living the writer’s life, p. 210.

How to nurture your writing process and avoid common pitfalls

We asked Now Novel’s writing coaches their best advice on the writing process, and about patterns they see in beginning writers (and ways to overcome destructive habits).

Romance author and writing coach Romy Sommer on remembering why you’re telling your story:

Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer

Writing is hard work. Probably harder than you thought it would be when inspiration first struck and you decided to write a novel. So find the joy in what you are writing. Remind yourself daily of WHY you are writing this story. Remember that spark that first inspired you to sit down and write, because that is what will keep you going when the going gets tough.

SFF and YA author, editor and writing coach Nerine Dorman on allowing yourself to make ‘happy accidents’:

Writing coach and SFF author and editor Nerine Dorman

Many writers I’ve worked with lack confidence in their ability, and tend to focus on those first chapters to the point where they lose the momentum to push forward with the rest of the plot. I give them Bob Ross’s advice of making plenty of ‘happy little accidents’ as we can’t actually work on writing if there’s nothing there to revise. Your first draft can be as messy as you need it to be. The most important thing is to get into the habit of writing as regularly as your schedule allows, and to see your writing as a very personal way to express yourself. Granted, there are the basic building blocks of writing and style, which I aim to teach, but I like to think that we also look at what it means to be a writer – a constantly evolving, growing creative person.

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We have to accept ourselves in order to write. Now none of us does that fully; few of us do it even halfway. Don’t wait for one hundred percent acceptance of yourself before you write, or even eight percent acceptance. Just write. The process of writing is an activity that teaches us about acceptance.

Natalie Goldberg, Wild Mind: Living the writer’s life, p. 61.

Drafting stories: Getting knee-deep in scenes

We could equally call the drafting stage of process ‘discovery’ like the first stage. After all, drafting is where you discover many of the ‘happy accidents’ Nerine describes above. Discoveries that may often depart from your outline (or lead you back into revision-planning).

Learn more about approaches to drafting, what authors say about doing fewer vs multiple drafts, and tips to make this part of process work for you.

Types of draft in the storytelling process

There are many terms authors use to refer to drafting. Numbered (first, second, third) drafts. Even drafts before the first, the so-called ‘draft zero’ (which describes a discovery draft, the purpose of which is just to learn the broad scope of the story and set down some of the material in full).

In one of Now Novel’s live webinars, writing coach, author and editor Hedi Lampert shared a drafting concept by the late author and writing educator Anne Schuster, who hosted women’s writing workshops in Cape Town.

The idea is a simple, three-part drafting process. To paraphrase:

  1. The down draft: The draft where you get your ideas down on the page, with as much messiness or as many placeholders as you need to keep moving.
  2. The up draft: A second draft in which you pick up on details for development, expansion, and color in more of your story.
  3. The dental draft: A third draft in which you polish the work of your first two drafts, paying attention to language and finer detail now the story elements have solidified.

This is a useful concept in that it gives each stage of drafting a proper focus and purpose (and allows for not getting everything ‘right’ straight away).

Authors on the drafting stage of writing process

Will you draft chapters in chronological sequence or out of order? Should you worry about chapters and scene breaks or carve up the text later?

These are some of the questions authors face about drafting. Read authors on drafting and their individual processes. These perspectives show that what works for one person might not work for another. Try different methods until you find what works for your process, or this project.

Toni Morrison on creating chapters and parts in a draft

Toni Morrison describes putting in story segment divisions at a later point in process:

Chapter and part designations, as conventionally used in novels, were never very much help to me in writing. Nor are outlines. (I permit their use for the sake of the designer and for ease in talking about the book. They are usually identified at the last minute.)

Toni Morrison, ‘The Writer Before the Page’, in Mouth Full of Blood: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, p. 266.
Sir Terry Pratchett on the purpose of a first, second and third draft (creative freedom, shaping, addressing detail)

Sir Terry Pratchett said that the first draft is ‘just you telling yourself the story’, and qualified something like a systematic per-draft process when he said:

First draft: let it run. Turn all the knobs up to 11. Second draft: hell. Cut it down and cut it into shape. Third draft: comb its nose and blow its hair. I usually find that most of the book will have handed itself to me on that first draft.

Sir Terry Pratchett, via Goodreads
Colleen McCullough on how many drafts until done: It depends

How many drafts ‘should’ you write? It depends, writing is rewriting as Colleen McCullough describes:

Once I’ve got the first draft down on paper then I do five or six more drafts, the last two of which will be polishing drafts. The ones in between will flesh out the characters and maybe I’ll check my research.

Colleen McCullough, quoted by Writers Write here.

🗣️ What is your drafting process currently? Is there a system, number of drafts or method that works well for you? Share it in the comments.

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The concept of finishing a piece of writing, taking it through successive drafts, did not yet exist for me. I reveled in the heady pleasure of committing a few words to paper and treasured each like a rare jewel I had dug from the earth with my bare hands. A journal suited my fledgling status as a writer and made me feel serious and important, a real writer, and honored the scant output I produced. In my journal I practiced being a writer in both senses of the word: practiced as in trying out, and practiced as in keeping a daily practice, the way the nuns observed their daily order of prayer services.

Katherine Towler, in Writers and Their Notebooks, edited by Diana M. Raab, pp. 65-66.

Writing feedback and story development

Remember that we said the writing process is not always linear?

When you get writing feedback depends on you. You may want feedback on your story idea or summary, your early chapters. You may prefer not to show your WIP to anyone until you’re at least one or more drafts deep.

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Maybe you move between drafting rounds, and feedback rounds, as you use readers’ perspectives to tweak your story and workshop it.

Why getting feedback is a crucial stage of writing process

When we don’t have critiques, manuscript evaluations, editors or beta readers, we only have our own perspectives to rely upon. You get used to your own mistakes, and nobody knows their own blind spots or the details they hadn’t thought of (that a shrewd second opinion might).

To ensure feedback aids (more than frustrates) your writing process:

  1. Get feedback from writers you trust. You might want input from writers at a similar stage of development to yourself, or editors who have been story doctors for some time.
  2. Take feedback from whence it comes. That crosspatch member of your crit circle who never has a nice word to say? Expect the kind of feedback that person usually gives. If a crit circle or beta reader is harsh or overwhelmingly negative, it’s OK to find a better fit.
  3. Stay open to perspectives and use what’s useful. There’s that saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.’ Don’t get parched just to protect your ego. Reviewers on major platforms could be way harsher if you don’t take time to fix what isn’t working.
  4. Describe what feedback you’re looking for. Now Novel’s critique submission system contains categories you can check off for feedback, such as ‘grammar and language’, ‘characters’, ‘structure and flow’ and ‘dialogue’. Specifying what kind of feedback you want helps readers tailor their feedback to be more relevant to your needs.
  5. Give any necessary context. Nobody knows your writing process or story better than you do. Remember to contextualize anything an editor or beta reader may need to know to have a better understanding of what you’re aiming for (in style, subject matter, tone, characterization, etc.).

Giving feedback also does wonders for many authors’ writing processes – helping others with writing challenges helps you build the tools to solve your own.

Channeling feedback into the writing process

Too much feedback (especially if overly harsh as it can be in poorly moderated communities), especially in the early stages of a story, may inhibit or discourage. When evaluating writing feedback, ask:

  • Is there overlap between what feedback givers are saying? This could signal a real and higher priority issue to address in revision
  • What is higher vs lower priority feedback to implement? Major confusion-bringing issues such as continuity issues or tense drift and head-hopping are naturally a higher priority than minor details that don’t affect whether readers can understand the story, for example

When getting and giving feedback in a crit circle or a beta reading community, it’s easy to compare yourself to other writers. Writing coach Romy Sommer advises against comparisons:

Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer

Do not compare yourself to other writers. We each work differently, we each need to find the writing process that works best for our lives and the way our brains work, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Accepting that took a huge weight off my shoulders and enabled me to embrace my own process.

The development stage of creative process: Comb story’s nose, blow its hair

As Terry Pratchett says, developing a story – later rewrites and drafts – gets into grooming-like detail. Combing a story’s … nose!? You may well find that there are Picasso-like parts, or the princess’s hair is snotty, not sleek.

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At the developmental stage of writing, ask yourself questions an editor would, such as:

  1. Is it clear? Does the reader have sufficient context or clear wording to understand the story and follow along?
  2. Does it have cohesion? Do actions and reactions flow and make sense? When characters converse, does it have the pattern of real call and response or is it like two people with crossed wires?
  3. Is the story ‘colored in’? Is there sufficient description (and are descriptions specific/detailed, not hazy)?
  4. Are events and actions clear and intriguing? Does the procession of events create questions the reader wants answered?
  5. Is there flow between lines, scenes, chapters? Or if the story is non-linear, do the pieces come together to make an interesting, impactful whole?

Here’s a fuller checklist with 34 story development questions for rewrites and successive drafts:

Story development checklist - 34 questions for later drafts
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Writers have always struggled with the same core issues: getting the work done (productivity) and creating something worth reading (creativity). And, unless you believe that misery is necessary for true art, aim for a third goal: making the process enjoyable, cultivating a fulfilling and happy life that includes writing. Let’s consider this our triple objective: productivity, creativity, and enjoyment. Surely that’s not asking too much?

Anne Janzer, ‘Finding Your Own Process’ in The Writer’s Process: Getting your brain in gear, p. 15

Revision: Seeing again with fresh eyes

The word ‘revision’ says it all. The fifth stage of the writing process is seeing again, reviewing what you’ve written, to make insertions/deletions as needed.

There may be parts of your story that would benefit much from expansion, coloring in. Maybe there are parts that you have to cull, as much as you may feel attached to them.

Revision vs editing: What’s the difference?

Revision is a process of making decisions about the content of your story. It may include:

  • Adding in new scenes, chapters or sections
  • Rearranging scenes, chapters or sections
  • Cutting out subplots or other material that aren’t contributing to the whole sufficiently
  • Trying a different person to determine the effects on POV

That last example touches on an important truth about revision: it’s as creative as drafting, and it can be a fun process of play, of trying out different things.

Editing, on the other hand, is focused on improving the presentation of decisions made about content. Often, you may find that an editor suggests further revisions. This is work that you’ll do, because only you (as the author) are qualified to make this level of creative decision, it being your story.

Authors’ ideas on revision and the writing process

What do authors say about the revision process?

Joyce Carol Oates on revising as you go being arduous

Joyce Carol Oates shared that her writing methods changed over time, as she grew older:

I think that I envy my younger self because I used to write a whole draft of a novel and then go back and rewrite it […] Today, I do a lot of revising as I go along and that seems to be more painful and arduous.

It’s a slow process, almost like putting a mosaic together or weaving things in and out, whereas before it felt more like galloping on a horse and then creating the manuscript. For some reason I’ve become more attuned to the individual sentence and reworking the sentences. I’m not sure why that happened.

Joyce Carol Oates, USA Weekend, quoted by here.

This raises an important decision about revising: When will you stop to review and tweak elements? If you stop every page, prepare for a first draft that may take years! Give yourself the time your process dictates.

Jamaica Kincaid on the internal revision process

Of course, your revision is not only the work you do on paper. Dame Agatha Christie said the best time to plot a novel was while doing the dishes. Jamaica Kincaid, in conversation with Publishers Weekly, says:

I write a lot in my head. The revision goes on internally. It’s not spontaneous and it doesn’t have a schedule. You know how some people write every day at a certain point? I’m not like that. I carry something around for a long time. I weigh the words and the sentences. I weigh the paragraphs. The process is much more meditative for me. So, when I put something down on paper, I’ve already edited a lot.

Jamaica Kincaid, interviewed by Liesel Schwabe, ‘The Age of a Mountain: PW Talks with Jamaica Kincaid’, December 2012.

🗣️ What is your approach to revision? Do you sit with ideas a long time, write at a gallop and then revise, or make painstaking revisions as you go? Share in the comments.

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Editing: The polishing stage of writing process

Editing, the penultimate stage of writing process, is itself made up of several important stages. It’s often a challenging one because there is an even bigger degree of ‘letting go’. Letting someone make tracked changes and suggestions to your manuscript, for example.

When you hand over writing to an editor, you may be getting your first sample of ‘reception’ (if you have been working in private, not with a crit circle). T.S. Eliot drily said, ‘Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.’

Editing is often an immensely enriching process, though, for both editor and author. Earnest discussion and deep thought about a story’s strengths (and how best to serve them) and challenges (and how best to address them) may unearth surprising gems.

The main types of fiction editing

The four main types of editing are:

  1. Developmental editing. This examines large-picture aspects such as character and story development, narrative structure and pacing.
  2. Line editing. More detail-oriented, line-level editing that examines issues such as language, style, flow and clarity.
  3. Copy editing: Focuses on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and eliminating errors and residual issues with style or flow that may be left over from (or have crept in after) line editing.
  4. Proofreading: The final stage of editing, catching any final errors before publication (a stage self-publishing authors may be tempted to omit, but do so at risk of excoriating reviews).

Many editing providers, including Now Novel, offer manuscript evaluations. This is often bundled with developmental editing as a part of discovery process (we subtract the cost of an evaluation from developmental editing). A manuscript evaluation produces a reader’s report with actionable recommendations on aspects such as plot and character development, narrative structure, pacing, conflict and more.

Is editing writing process? It is in that it is en route to publication. How much writing you’ll do at this stage depends on how much revision there is to be done.

If you have excellent language faculty and a strong grasp of story, an editor may recommend you proceed straight to copy editing from an evaluation, if there are no large-scale issues.

Recommended reading

Publication and promotion: Writing around your story

Does the writing process end once your work’s edited? Some would say ‘yes’. Yet publication and promotion involve a lot of writing ‘around’ your story, about your story. Press, promotion, selling.

This isn’t a type of writing (and part of process) that’s for everyone (you may want to outsource some of this work – for example writing social media captions – to a marketing agency if or once you can afford it).

Publication and the writing process

Types of writing you’ll do when you’re ready to publish include:

  • Writing query letters or script pitches
  • Writing bios for author pages
  • Writing newsletters, social media captions, and other marketing material
  • Writing speeches or guest blogs about the process of writing your story

Promotion and publication are a whole other side of process that we’ll cover in fuller detail in another complete guide.

See the resources recommended reading below for tips on aspects such as creating your author brand, creating a business plan, and ways to get more reviews.

Helpful resources for publication and promotion writing

Here are several resources that provide tips on publication and promotion as well as useful examples:

🗣️ Is there a book publishing and promo resource you love you don’t see here? Let us know about it in the comments.

Recommended reading

Now Novel provides help with every stage of the writing process. Learn more about membership benefits for serious writers.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

5 replies on “Writing process: From discovery to done (complete guide)”

I’m mostly a pantser, I think. I let the ideas take me where they want to go with an end point in mind. The problem is that I don’t always like the direction, missing that fireman cushion completely. I feel like I’ve given away a piece of my soul to have to start over (I don’t want to say second draft because it feels more like a new zero). I know how important it is to get to the end, but if I truly have a fresh idea I have to go down that road, but I’m so scared it’ll take me straight to Hades… again. Eventually, I’ll be very well versed in writing my own story, I suppose. Lots and lots of practice.

Hi Margriet, thank you for sharing that. It’s very interesting as a method as you do end up doing a lot of review and revision as you go. Have you every thought of having some kind of ‘pantsers compromise’ of maybe outlining one scene ahead? Something Ernest Hemingway said was to the effect of ‘stop for the day when you know what happens next’ which might be one way to keep Hades and his kidnappers at bay 🙂 Thank you for sharing your process!

Thanks for this Jordan – comprehensive doesn’t do it justice!

For me, the difference between being someone who wanted to complete a first draft and actually doing it was definitely when I stopped being a panther and embraced the value of plotting & planning.

I’m still more of a plantser than someone who plots things to the nth degree, but having a very clear idea of at least the first 20-30% of the novel is going to go, with an idea of the way it’s going to end allows me the flexibility and freedom to start the novel with confidence that I’m going to finish, because I have a pretty good map of the journey and the destination.

I know I’m going to get “there”, even if the actual final destination changes along the way, or if I take a few pretty little detours along the way. I’ve used two different plotting approaches to complete 3 first drafts now – so I think it’s not necessarily what plotting style you go for, it’s about having one and making it work.

Hi Mark, it’s a pleasure. Thank you for sharing that. I love the happy accident of ‘panther’ in particular. Because that describes what pantsers are like, pouncing with minimum hesitation. That makes total sense to me; each story will also have its own demands in terms of the mix of research and other stages required so process may have to adapt to the demands of a specific work.

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