Writers’ conferences are interesting animals. Picture the anxious, eager young writer wielding a notebook/voice recording device. Every word spoken by the sage is truth and golden and pure. Every joke is funny. Every poignant example brings a tear.

And if the sage says: plan, then plan we will, by Shakespeare’s quill!

But SHOULD you? And should YOU?


How Detailed the Plan?

Planning depends on:

  • Who you are.
  • What you are writing.


Who Are YOU?

In terms of planning, writers can generally be divided into three groups:

  • Those who plan everything to the comma and the caps;
  • Those who plan vaguely and meander along; and
  • Those who swear that planning steals the creative soul.

Let’s see how planning can be managed by the two extremes: the over-planner and the free spirit.


Are You an Over-Planner?

If you are an over-planner, then NOT planning would scare the living daylights and the shining moonlight out of you and leave you adrift as a tiger on a boat.

So. If you are a natural planner: do go ahead and plan. (You will do it, regardless of permissions or prohibitions.)

But –

do place a limit on the planning.

Because planners tend to get lost in the very act of planning. Any (rehabilitating) planner will know that the very deed of sitting down and creating schedules, calendars, lists and tasks, makes rainbows and sunshine and happy faces appear.

Tell yourself something cruel, such as: “I will plan the following week’s work on a Friday afternoon for two hours. And that’s it. I will do no further planning. I will not amend the present planning. I will not do anything but think about the writing until such time as I sit down and do the actual writing. I will do the writing, not the planning, until the Friday afternoon planning time slot.” Then you can wear your happy clothes and make a special tea and plan to your heart’s content for two solid hours.


Are You a Free Spirit?

As a free spirit, you firmly believe that nothing good comes from planning. But maybe you should give it a try. Do some rough planning. Do some crazy planning. Do some scary planning. But do it, regardless of your convictions, and see if it makes a difference.

If you are writing a novel, go ahead and splurge your story down on paper as if you are trying to convince an agent at a party that you have something worth reading. Don’t think too much, just write as fast as your brain can move and your fingers can keep up.

If you are writing non-fiction, write down all the headings and subheadings. Think of this as giving someone a peep into the table of contents of your completed book. Don’t think too much, just write as fast as your brain can move and your fingers can keep up.


Now put some spaces in there, create some paragraphs and highlight some important plot twists or main headings.


You have just planned.


WHAT Are You Writing?

As a young writer you would have read “how-to-write”-articles and “why-I-am-such-a-great-writer”-interviews. And maybe you would have reached the conclusion that there really is no secret. Sometimes lots of planning works, sometimes it doesn’t. For some people it works, for others not.


Should You Plan a Work of Fiction?

Usually planning helps create structure and plot. Characters tend to grow as you nurture them, but you still need to make a note somewhere that the guy’s eyes are blue and not green. Because you might forget it seventeen chapters later and make a silly mistake. Consistency is always a strength.

If you create a basic outline of your plot, then it makes it easier to see where the strengths and weaknesses lie. You can then say: “On this day everything changed” anywhere in this storyline and add a great twist.

Or you can see, quite early on, that you have a great deal of action or deep inner struggles, but you actually have no plot at all. That is an important thing to realise at the start of the book, rather than 50 000 words into the book.

You might want to make your characters more rounded. If the hero is shining too much, add a bit of dirt. If the minor character seems to take over – maybe the hero isn’t the hero at all? Or you might have to “kill your darlings” and put a minor character back into the background.


Should You Plan Non-Fiction?

Writing non-fiction without creating some sort of guideline makes for scary writing. Non-fiction, especially online writing, is all about the structure: the headings, the paragraphs, the white spaces, the bullets.

If you write monologues, then maybe you could use some structure? The easiest way is first create the outline and then flesh it out with examples and more detailed content.

You will often find that planning a bit, or a lot, makes for better time management. Once you start writing, you know what you want to say, and the only thing left is the saying of it.

Maybe you have the kind of brain that already thinks in paragraphs and headings. If so, go ahead and write without a structure. But make sure you check and change after you have done that.



The first draft often is like a sexual encounter: all passion and energy and dripping with sweat.

But thereafter the baby needs time and energy and food in order to grow.  What does this mean? Simple: if you don’t edit, then nothing will be borne.


  1. Such a good piece. Planning, in my experience, is a double-edged sword, for a couple of reasons.

    The most important reason is that the planning can consume you. It’s so easy to get caught up in the planning (ask me, I know) that you never get to the actual writing.

    On the other hand, absconding your planning can, as you have pointed out, lead to very sticky situations, where you have to re-read your entire novel to pick up nuanced details, or worse – rewrite it all because you’ve changed your mind.

    In my experience I’ve found that planning is necessary – but not the be-all and end-all. My personal preference is to do my planning in three phases.

    Phase 1: World-building (yes, I write fantasy :D)
    It’s important to understand the world you’re making. What are the politics like? Are there countries, city-states, empires, or what? What is the geography like? Mountains? Rivers? We can’t have the hero cross a river and in the next paragraph express his undying thirst, now can we?

    For fantasy, it’s also important to understand the history. Even if you never, not once, make reference to it; it’s imperative that you, as the author, understand why things are the way they are. It gives authenticity to the novel (see Lord of the Rings versus The Silmarillion).

    Phase 2: Character sheets
    This is my most valuable creation, other than the manuscript itself. A quick, easy-to-access sheet with all the imperative information of each character: parents, surname, eye colour, training, skills, etc.

    Phase 3: Plot
    Now, it’s easy to get caught up in Phase 1. I’ve done it numerous times. And by all means, indulge yourself. But you need to look at the future, too. That’s what you’ll be writing. So figure out the plot – perhaps from a ‘historical’ point of view – and then colour it in.

    Then, of course, write, write, write. It’s jolly good fun once you start doing it!

    Sorry for the long comment – it’s always fun to engage with a fellow writer 🙂

  2. You make so many valid points that I don’t mind if you write a book doing so! (undying thirst … LOL)

    I fully agree with you regarding the character sheet. One of my future blogs will deal with that in more detail. Both my parents were published authors, but they were opposites in many ways: one was an early riser, the other a night owl; one was very definitely right-brained and the other more left-brained. But both wrote with their planning always on their desks.

    My mom wrote in the days of typewriters and she had this fold-open, sticky-taped sheet of paper with lots of columns with exactly that: eye colour, likes and dislikes, relationships, backgrounds, quirks.

    I was always fascinated by the way in which this piece of paper with its many little blocks and penciled entries, represented the nearly-alive characters that always seem to glow so much on paper.

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