Planning What you Write

This is part one of a 5 part series on Composing and Revising taken from A Writer’s Reference Sixth Edition by Diana Hacker. (

“Writing is not a matter of recording already developed thoughts but a process of figuring out what you think. Since it’s not possible to think about everything all at once, most experienced writers handle a piece of writing in stages. You will generally move from planning to drafting to revising, but be prepared to return to earlier stages as your ideas develop.”

~ Diana Hacker

Planning your ideas develops through stages. The first stage is assessing the writing situation you find yourself in. Who’s your subject? Your audience? What is your purpose? Constraints, such as length, deadlines? Things often change during the writing process, but having at least a basic understanding of these things in the beginning helps save time and headaches.

Here’s a quick checklist for assessing the writing situation:


  • What interest you about your main characters?
  • What questions would you like to explore with each of them?
  • Where is your story taking place? Is it an exotic location, or small town USA?

Sources of Information

  • Where does your information come from? Personal experience? Observation? Research? Interviewing?
  • What source of documentation is required?  Make sure any references to another’s work is acknowledged.

Purpose and Audience

  • Why are you writing: To inform readers? To persuade? To entertain? To call to action? A combination of some or all?
  • Who are your readers? How well informed are they about your subject? How will they benefit from your work?
  • How interested and attentive will your reader be? Will they care about your work?

Length of work and Document design

  • Are you writing a short story? Novella? Novel?
  • What format is required by the agents or publishers you wish to submit to? (Note, for most it is Times New Roman at 12 pt font with one inch margins.)

Reviewers and Deadlines

  • Who is reviewing your draft process? Do you have an agent looking for that next great novel? Or is it a writing buddy or critique group? (Now is a good time, if you’re a first time writer, to think of someone you trust to review your work—after you’ve finished your first draft.)
  • What are your deadlines? If you do not have an agent, self imposed deadlines are always good to consider.  It is imperative that you set aside time, preferably each day, to write.
  • How much time will you need to allow for the various stages of writing, including proofreading?

This checklist, in part, is found on page 5 of A Writer’s Reference

Some modifications have been made to fit out needs as authors

The next step in Planning is: Experiment with ways to explore your subject.

For some, including yours truly, sitting at the computer and simply writing is one way to go. But even those of us who are free spirits, can benefit from talking about your subject and listening to another’s ideas. Jotting down notes about different ideas or clustering is also a good way to think ahead in the world you are creating. Sometimes, coming at your story like a journalist is also helpful. It gets you asking questions you may not have considered.

Whichever technique you chose, it will help you generate a wealth of ideas that will lead to the next question, problem, or issue you wish to explore. At this early stage, DO NOT CENSOR YOURSELF! Often ideas that seem trivial or far-fetched will turn into the plot or reason for the story.

Brainstorming: Talking and Listening

“Since writing is a process of figuring out what you think about a subject, it can be useful to try out your ideas on other people. Conversation can deepen and refine your ideas before you even begin to set them down on paper.” Through talking and listening to others, you can you can develop character point of views and delve deeper into story lines.

You do need to make sure this is done with people you trust, but if you are not comfortable discussing with other writers, your family and friends can help in this step.


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“To cluster ideas, write your topic in the center of a piece of paper, draw a circle around it, and surround that circle with related ideas connected to it with lines. If some of the satellite ideas lead to more specific clusters, write them down as well.” These can turn into major points of interest for your novel. This idea also works to get to know more about your characters.


“In its purest form, freewriting is simply nonstop writing. You set aside ten minutes or so and write whatever comes to you, without pausing to think about word choice, spelling, or even meaning. If you get stuck, you can write about being stuck, but you should keep your fingers moving. If nothing much happens, you have lost only ten minutes. It’s more likely, though, that something interesting will emerge—an eloquent sentence, and honest expression of feeling, or an idea worth further investigation. To explore ideas on a particular topic, consider using a technique called focused freewriting. Again, you write quickly and freely, but this time you focus on a subject and pay attention to the connections among your ideas.”

This works well when you are trying to learn about your characters. We have regular installments of Getting to Know You. Here is a great opportunity to used focused freewriting on the subject matter for the day. We will also on occasion lend you a picture or a line to start off a work for you. In these exercises, you should take the topic, or picture and spend ten minutes freewriting about it. You never know, your next great novel may emerge.

Asking the Journalist’s Questions

“By asking relevant questions, you can generate many ideas—and you can make sure that you have adequately surveyed your subject. When gathering material for a story, journalists routinely ask themselves Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? In addition to helping journalists get started, these questions ensure that they will not overlook an important fact….”

Make sure that these questions are asked often, especially after you finished your first draft and are going though to tighten the story and your writing.

Formulate a Tentative Thesis (or Synopsis)

Try to settle on a tentative central idea or a main character and jot down the most important things to happen to them. “It’s a good idea to formulate a tentative thesis early in the writing process, perhaps by jotting it on scratch paper, by putting it at the head of a rough outline, or by drafting an introductory paragraph that includes it. This tentative thesis will help you shape your thoughts. Don’t worry about the exact wording because your main point many change as you refine your ideas.”

For example, in the latest novel I’m working on, I have two agents who are thrown together in a situation where nether knows the other is working for the same team. Both are undercover and are trying to maintain that cover while dealing with emerging feelings of desire and a mutual caring for each other. Neither wants to lie, but they find they have little choice at the beginning. This, of course, leads to a major conflict when they discover who the other is. During the course of the novel, they must learn to trust each other and work together to bring down two large drug/arms dealers, and thwart a plan to ruin one of them.

That is the plot in a nutshell, from that, I can come up with the subplots and details. It also makes it easier when it is time to write the synopsis and query to have this basic storyline knowledge.

Testing a Tentative Thesis

  • Is the thesis too obvious? If you cannot come up with interpretations that oppose your own, consider revision your thesis. (For me, this means that your thought process should not limit itself to areas which you are comfortable with. Remember conflict and contradictions is what makes your story interesting.)
  • Can you support you thesis with evidence available? (Okay, this isn’t a college course, but if your story is based on the real world, make sure that as much that can be true, is.)
  • Does your thesis require an essay’s worth of development? Or will you run out of points too quickly? (Here, this can help you decide if you are writing a short story or a novel. If your idea will only carry a short story or novella, then that is what you should write. Don’t force a story to be longer than it is.)
  • Can you explain why readers will want to read your work? (Again, a knowledge of who will read this and why comes in handy when searching for an agent and or publisher.)

Sketch a Plan

“Once you have generated some ideas and formulated a tentative thesis, you might want to sketch an informal outline to see how you will support your thesis and to begin to structure your ideas. Informal outlines can take many forms. Perhaps the most common is simply the thesis followed by a list of major ideas.

If you began by jotting down a list of ideas or drawing a clustering diagram, you may be able to turn that list or diagram into a rough outline by crossing out some ideas, adding others, and putting the ideas in a logical order.”

Each of these ideas can be used separately or together. What works best for one story might not work as well for another. The same can be said for individual writers. So find what works best for you and your story.

All of these points are taken from the first section of A Writer’s Reference, pages 3-13.

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Sarah Jensen
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Sarah is writer looking for an agent. She is currently working on novel # 4, editing novels 2 and 3, and querying novel # 1. For more insight to her work, visit: or

3 Comments so far
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Awesome post! I’m going to bookmark this!!
.-= Annarkie´s last blog ..On Waiting. =-.


I love Hacker. Exceptional reference. Have her book right behind my on my shelf, I do. Thanks for this valuable post.


(That should read, “…right behind ME on my shelf…”)
.-= insidethewritersstudio´s last blog ..Caroline Leavitt loves Paper Rats! =-.


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