Creative writing, despite the tagline on the cover of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, is not a step-by-step process. But what about after you’ve finished writing?

Time and again I’ve said that if you ask a hundred working authors about their writing process you’ll get at least a hundred different answers, but at the same time I tend to give one piece of advice in terms of writing habits and methods: Write as fast as you can.

You really can’t edit while you write. When you’re “in the zone” and the creative energy is pouring through you, don’t stop. I always turn off as many of the automatic functions of Word or other word processing programs as I can. Never let your computer track your spelling and grammar as you go, and auto formatting and styles are an absolute no-no. Don’t worry even about the standard manuscript format (yet). Just write. Let it out. Explore ideas as you go, misspell stuff, run right past those typos, add in little notes to yourself like [go back and research this] or [find an appropriate gun] and stuff like that. Just keep going. Once you’ve actually finished the story, book, or whatever, you’ll have plenty of time to revise, edit, and format to your heart’s content.

So let’s call that Step One: Actually Writing the Thing.

Step Two: Go Back and Revise.

You still have a largely unformatted file, set up however you want—whatever’s comfortable for you to read, that works best with your computer (a small laptop or netbook screen vs. a widescreen HD desktop, for instance), for your eyesight (the older I get the greater the magnification . . .), and so on.

This revision process is where you research stuff, find the right sort of gun, lock in the hair and eye color of your characters, double check your worldbuilding rules, tweak those rules, and so on. This is where raw or “rough” text becomes a first draft. Still, you don’t need to worry about format.

Now, set it aside for a few days at least. Clear your head. Go do something else entirely. When you feel you’re ready, go back for Step Three: Your Edit.

This is where you clean things up as best you can. Fix those last typos and do your best to get this thing as clean as you can make it with the understanding that no one can edit his or her own writing. And this is the point at which you then reformat the text into the standard manuscript format, keeping in mind, always, the caveat that LESS IS MORE. Don’t get creative in your formatting. Even if you intend to self-publish this, do not format it as an e-book yet. Don’t fiddle with the page size or dump it into a POD service’s template. Keeping it simple means keeping it editable.

Which leads us to Step Four: Get Help.

Especially if you’re intending to self-publish, you need to hire a professional editor. That means that self-publishing isn’t necessarily free. I know, sorry, but the indie book universe is a crowded field now and readers are no longer willing to accept a lack of quality in exchange for ninety-nine-cent short stories.

I bet you’ll find a typo in this blog post. This blog is full of them, in general. Know why? Because I don’t send my blog posts to an editor. I’ve been working as a writer and editor since 1986, and no, folks, I can not edit myself. I make every mistake in my own writing that frustrates me as an editor in other authors’ work. You can not edit yourself, period.

That standard manuscript format, with no embedded styles, no tricky formatting, no weird page sizes, no text or picture boxes, no anything but text, will help your editor do what you need that editor to do, and that’s look at the writing, and only the writing. Let your editor help you with everything from story structure to sentence structure, character to punctuation, but not your formatting, please. Thank you.

Thanks to our modern computer age, formatting text is easy and fast, so there’s no reason to do it too early. Only do that formatting for e-books or POD after you feel you have final, edited text.

That’s Step Five: Format.

Okay, now knock yourself out, at least within the confines of your chosen e-book reseller or POD service’s formatting guidelines. I would suggest you hire a typesetter for your POD books, but that’s a subject for another day.

How your text evolves into a book actually is a step-by-step process and part of being a professional is properly valuing the efforts and process of the other professionals you work with.

One more repeatedly offered bit of advice:

Conserve your creativity for your story and none whatsoever for your formatting.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Abigail says:

    Love it. Just finished your book and it is full of margin scribbles, underlining, ideas, and arrows pointing to other things. I get a lot of hack from other writers for the non-edited-ness of my own blog, but was happy to write (and quote you) in an upcoming post to feel better about my blog writing. Thanks for this and the book. It’s amazing and I am writing more this summer than I have in the last 3 years. Hope to meet you one day!

  2. Pingback: WHY YOU HAVE NO CHOICE ABOUT MS WORD | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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