Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Develop Your Writing Process

"Creativity is the child of chaos; art is the child of order."

K.M. Weiland

Writing always feels chaotic to me, at least at first. Whether I'm writing an email or blog post, there's a bit of tension in my body before I get my words down on paper (or screen): anticipation, self-critique, brain fog, analysis paralysis, all standing in my way. But if I can just get my fingers moving, I'm off to the races! When I'm finished, I look for a way to replicate the process, so I can do it again -- but better - next time. Keep in mind I've been writing professionally for almost 15 years. 

But as I write this blog post, I am still cementing my own writing process. So, how's it looking? It isn't too dissimilar from screenwriter and script coordinator Marc Gaffen's. We interviewed Marc on the topic, and it's a question we love to ask writers of all kinds: What does your writing process look like, and why? It's not an answer that comes easy for beginner writers because most are still learning what works best for them. But once you're a more experienced writer and you have a few projects under your belt, it's easier to tell what works and what doesn't. And that looks different for everyone. It may even change depending on the type of writing you're working on. Traditional screenplays, for example, are very formulaic, but poetry, not as much. 

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There are a few strategies that I hear time and time again when I ask this question, however, which makes me think there's something to them. If you haven't cemented a writing process of your own yet, you may consider trying these ones on for size. I'm going to start with Marc's process because it is the most popular one I hear about when it comes to just about any writing format, whether you write screenplays, comic books, novels, or even nonfiction and academic writing. But know that there is no correct answer here except the one that helps you get words on paper. Some writers find outlining a creativity-killer, and others can't start without one; some writers can crank out a screenplay in just a few days, while others toil for months or even years. All of those options are the "right" way to write because they ultimately resulted in a finished piece of writing.

Writing Process 1: Outlining

"Now, everyone's writing process is different," Marc began. "For me, I have to outline. Outlining is so important because I need a roadmap. If I don't have a roadmap, then I'm just basically flailing around, not really coming up with anything productive. Or I'll come to a pause, and I'll look on the internet just to waste time."

Like Marc, I outline my writing projects first. For starters, it helps me remember my initial ideas and clears room in my brain for actual writing. It also either confirms to me or reveals that the direction of said writing project makes sense. Did I cover all the topics I wanted? Are they ordered in a way that makes things easy for the reader? If you're writing a story, this is your chance to make sure you're hitting all of the traditional storytelling beats. Lastly, as Marc laments, it keeps me in the writing zone rather than the Instagram zone. 

However, there are cons to this approach if you're a planner like me. Once I have a plan in place, you'll be hard-pressed to make me change it. Outlining can lead to rigidity and make creativity harder to come by if you aren't flexible. Think of an outline as a guide, not a rulebook. 

Writing Process 2: Vomit Drafting

Some writers work out an entire story in their heads. And what's impressive to me is that they can remember it! I am not that person, so the prospect of a vomit draft is way too intimidating for me. Alas, plenty of very famous writers make it work for them. 

A vomit draft is named as such because you are less worried about how the first draft looks and more concerned with just quickly getting it out on the page. Some people write vomit drafts and go back to work out exact beats later. 

The appeal of the vomit drafting process is that you quickly have a really good starting place. You won't be staring at a perfect screenplay at the end, but you also won't be staring at a blank page. The vomit draft process bumps you right into the action, and it can feel so satisfying to see pages upon pages to work with. 

The danger of vomit drafting is that your vomit, errr ... runs out. 

"When I first started writing, I didn't use a roadmap,' Marc told us about his early vomit drafting process. "I basically just free-flowed, and whatever would come would come. But I never got anything good out of it. I'd always fall short when it comes to the mid-point in act two because I had no idea where I was going. So, I basically had ten to twelve scripts that were half-written, which was a big waste of time."

The vomit draft process works best for writers who know where they're going, and most importantly, how the story ends. 

Writing Process 3: Ending First 

Other than the second act, many writers tell me that the most challenging part of their project to write is the ending. So, why not write the ending first? Some writers start their stories backward, allowing them to reverse engineer all of the points leading up to the final pages of act three. 

I've also heard from writers who only had the ending worked out in their mind; maybe a brilliant idea came to them in the shower, so now they have to figure out the rest of the story. 

Like outlining first, writing your ending first gives you a starting place by giving you an ending place. If you don't know where you're going, how do you know how to get there?

Formalize Your Writing Process

The formal, traditional way to write anything includes prewriting (brainstorming, outlining, research, character development), drafting, revising (taking passes at plot, dialogue, characters, etc. usually after feedback and notes), and polishing (a technical pass to check for format, grammar, continuity, and other errors not integral to the story), in that order. To finish a writing project, you can't really skip any of these steps, but they don't need to happen this linearly. Ultimately, every writer needs to optimize their approach to getting through the steps in a way that works for them. 

"The way I get into it, I come up with an idea, let's take the graphic novel "Tuskers" for example," Marc explained. "I know the basic idea. You have an elephant, a baby elephant, that watches its family poached, so that's the first starting point. I know that they're going to be brought into a nursery, so I just write down "nursery." They're moving to a different country because poachers are after them, so that's another point. And I know, pretty much, what the ending is, so now I have five points on my roadmap that I now have to reach to. From there, I start by doing research. I read a lot. And anytime I read something that intrigues me or is an interesting bit, I copy it, and I paste it into somewhere in that roadmap where I think it would fit. And so, by the end of doing my research, I have this roadmap of all these little facts or figures or little story ideas. And then, like a thread, I start weaving from beat to beat to beat, trying to make them make sense." 

Marc repeats this process on every new story idea or writing assignment because, for him, it works.  

But, much like a diet, the only process that will work for you is the one that is sustainable long term. When developing an effective writing process, try interviewing yourself first about your writing skills:

  • What are your writing weaknesses?

    Set up your process to tackle these in a way that works for you. Try not to leave any challenging parts of your storytelling process up to chance - know how you're going to get through them, and that might mean tackling the hard stuff first. 

  • What are your writing strengths?

    Consider setting up your storytelling process in a way that puts any of the "easy" stuff at the end, so you can reserve your brainpower for the parts of the writing process that are most difficult. 

  • What does your ideal writing schedule and space look like?

    More than just process, think about how you'll build time and an environment that's conducive to doing your best work. 

  • What's feasible?

    Life is not ideal, so give yourself room in your writing process for circumstances beyond your control. How often can you really write? If you don't usually wake up at 5 a.m., don't think that magically you'll become a morning person who can write every day before the sun comes up. If you've never finished a writing project in less than a month, then don't build out a calendar that gives you 21 days to write a screenplay. Be honest with yourself and your abilities, time, and goals. 

 "It's a very laborious process the way I do it, but I need to do it that way because that's what I find works best for me," Marc concluded. "And I found that out only by writing, writing, writing all the time." 

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 Trust your creative process,

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