Do you even have one? Have you thought about it much, if at all?

First off, if you are writing—if you’re making words appear on a page, and they are pretty good words put into an interesting order… if you’re actually finishing things: a novel, a short story, a poem, an essay… whatever—that means your writing process is working.

If you’re feeling anything that might be described as writer’s block, if you’re struggling to get any words out at all, if you haven’t really finished anything in a while, or in any other way feel stagnant or disconnected from your muse, that could mean your writing process is not working.

So what do I mean by “process”? When that word comes up it’s often tied to the spurious distinction between “plotters” (people who write some form of an outline first) and “pantsers” (mythical creatures who just start writing and keep writing until they’ve finished a novel without thinking ahead), but please tell me that, by now, we’ve all moved past that to recognize that everyone does some degree of plotting and some degree of pantsting. Anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m asking is, what does the physical act of writing look like for you? Do you write longhandor always on a computer? Is that computer a laptop, sitting on a comfy chair, or at a desk? Do you have a private space or office you go to to write in? Do you listen to music while you’re writing? Do you (at least pre-COVID) sit in a Starbucks and write, or at some other remote locale? If you write by hand or dictate into some recording app, when and how does that eventually get into a Word document? What do you do with your rough draft? Do you revise the last chapter you wrote then write the next? I tend to do that, and it’s worked for me. I’ve tried some version of all these things, too, by the way, except dictating, and I should try that, too.

Have you thought about it?

In an interview with the Paris Review, Truman Capote succinctly described his writing process in one paragraph:

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand… Then I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper. No, I don’t get out of bed to do this. I balance the machine on my knees. Sure, it works fine; I can manage a hundred words a minute. Well, when the yellow draft is finished, I put the manuscript away for a while, a week, a month, sometimes longer. When I take it out again, I read it as coldly as possible, then read it aloud to a friend or two, and decide what changes I want to make and whether or not I want to publish it. I’ve thrown away rather a few short stories, an entire novel, and half of another. But if all goes well, I type the final version on white paper and that’s that.

How would you describe your writing process in one paragraph? Can you?

This exercise might feel pointless—and probably is—if you’re generating text that pleases you in both quantity and quality. If that’s true, then yeah, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But even if you aren’t “struggling” with your writing, per se, but feel you could be writing more and/or better, think about how you’re actually making words appear. The process of thinking through that and trying to write it down might just reveal the problem.

Maybe only writing on weekends isn’t enough time. Maybe having to be alone in complete silence in your special writing nook has stopped being possible with your kids home all day every day while distance learning through the pandemic. Maybe you get some great stuff down in your notebook then balk at the tiresome process of typing that into your computer. We can all easily put up stumbling blocks between ourselves and even things we love to do, and it’s even easier to put a stumbling block between ourselves and a part of something we love that we don’t love as much, that feels like work just to get from good part (the flow state of a rough draft) to good part (the rewarding sense of finishing a polished draft).

Every author’s writing process will be different—at least a little different. Don’t think I’m trying to tell you you have to do exactly what Truman Capote did. That’s just an example of one author’s writing process. And sometimes those things change. After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote essentially stopped writing, and didn’t publish much of note after that. Did his process, described here, fail him? Did his life, his psyche, his situation change so that what worked for him for so long didn’t anymore? If he had shaken up this process, would he have gone back to writing, just taking a different road to get there?

I have no idea, but in any case I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that what worked once will always work, for anyone, across any pursuit. We change, the world around us changes, our circumstances change… all sorts of things intrude on our best laid plans, or our firmly engineered processes. It certainly doesn’t hurt to peek under the hood every once in a while and see if anything needs to be adjusted.

—Philip Athans

Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

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. mjtedin says:

    I always start with an outline. I put together an outline of what I am going to write. If it’s a novel, then I put the chapters in the order I think they will work best. I then fill in the outline as much as I can, including setting, characters, character goals, subtext, etc. As I write previous chapters, I will update later chapters’ outlines. I look at the outline of each chapter well before I write it. I compare it to the chapters around it. When I sit down to write, I know what is going to happen in the chapter. I then mentally put myself in the setting with the characters and start describing what is going on. Of course the editing all comes later.

  2. Dawn Ross says:

    I like Capote’s routine of shifting from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I might implement that in my own routine. I seldom write my stories out on paper, though. I can’t write as fast as my thoughts, but I’m a fast typer. from there, I follow mjtedin’s process indicated in the previous comment–detailed chapter by chapter outline followed by writing followed by editing and reediting, then editing again (and sometimes one more time).

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