Monday, April 02, 2018

How Writing in Chunks Can Make You a More Productive Writer

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When I’m working on a new draft, I like to write in chunks. It’s a way of fast drafting in small sections that keeps my productivity high, but also lets me control the story. The smaller chunks allow for spontaneity, but I never let the story run too far without seeing how it fits in with the rest of the plot.

This has kept me from going off on tangents I’d later have to cut, and given me unexpected ideas that turned into the best parts of the novel. Writing in chunks lets me both plot and pants at the same time, so I get the benefits of both processes in a way that works with my writing style.

(Here’s more on fast drafting your first draft)

After lots of trial and error, I’ve discovered that three chapters is the right size for me—four if I’m writing dual points of view—and I develop those chunks of chapters at the same time. Once they’re at “solid first draft quality,” I move on to the next set.

What you consider “solid first draft quality” will vary, but for me, it’s when the story is sound, the writing is smooth, and the characters feel real. There’s still a lot to tweak and revise, but as a whole, the story works.

Here are four ways writing in chunks can benefit you:

There’s no expectation of perfection with a first draft

This is liberating, especially for writers who feel that urge to make every line perfect from word one. I know when I first draft something it isn’t going to be perfect. I know things are missing, because I need to see how my ideas work on paper before I can best judge how to adjust them. The unexpected always happens and tiny details can carry more story weight than anticipated. But since it’s all rough, it’s easy to change, further develop, or even cut to best serve the larger story.

(Here’s more on what a first draft should look like)

You don’t have to worry about knowing every detail yet

This is the biggest benefit for me in my process. I pants my characters, so it isn’t until I see them dealing with the story’s problems that I see who they truly are. But after a few chapters, I can tell how they react and what they feel, and I can refine those traits and emotions so the characters develop more as I write the first draft. It saves me time overall, because I don’t have to do as much character development on the second draft.

But it works for more than just characters. You can write blank rooms and add the setting after if you know the dialogue first. Or you can describe beautiful settings and then figure out the right conversation for the characters to have in them. You can write what you know about the scene first, then go back and add what’s missing afterward.

You might also discover you need an extra bit of history to really make a scene sing, or some world event or detail, or even something that needs to go into a previous scene. It’s much easier to go back and add that detail or scene when you know exactly where it’s going in the story.

(Here’s more on the freedom of using place holder words)

You don’t have to worry about fitting a certain word count

This won’t affect every writer, but some of us write toward a word-count goal, and when it’s off, we feel compelled to fill those empty words. Writing in chunks takes some of the pressure off, because we know we’re going to come up short until the chapters are done. So when a chapter only has 356 words when we planned for 2,500, we don’t panic. More words will come once we see where the story goes, and we’ll know exactly what we need to add.

(Here’s more on using word counts to your advantage)

It’s keeps your writing momentum going

This is my second-favorite aspect of writing in chunks. Some scenes take more work, and we’re not always ready to deal with them in a writing session. But when we can write down what we know, then just skip ahead to the next scene and come back, it keeps us writing—without feeling like we’re jumping around in the story. By the time I get to the end of the chunk, that hard-to-write scene is much easier to wrangle into shape.

(Here’s more on writing out of order)

Writing in chunks has been an effective tool for me, and it’s developed over the years as I’ve developed as a writer. My process works like this, but feel free to vary it to suit your own needs and personal style:

Draft pass one, I write Chapter A, drafting whatever comes to me based on my outline and chapter summary. Then, I move on to Chapter B, then Chapter C and so on if there’s a Chapter D.

These first passes are fairly rough, though chapters I’ve given a lot of thought to are often more developed. The point of the draft is to get the ideas down and see how they play out. I tend to write dialogue and light stage direction first, so these chapters are pretty heavy in those areas, and light on description and internalization. I’ll also use a lot of placeholder words and phrases, such as “she smiled” or “he frowned” to get down the emotions I’d like at that moment.

Next (optional), I look at my outline and update anything new that came up while writing, and flesh out any ideas that came to me during this rough draft pass. I use my outline as a brainstorming, pre-writing tool, so this is quite helpful to me to work out my story before I write it.

Draft pass two, I start back at Chapter A and work my way to Chapter D, fleshing out whatever I’ve learned about the story while writing those chunks. Often, it’s just a matter of adding more description and internalization, and reinforcing the bare-bones scene I already wrote down. I can better adjust the pacing, because I know where to add more and where to keep it sparse for the best narrative flow.

Usually, two passes is all I need, but occasionally a third or even fourth pass is necessary. When this happens, it’s always always for one of two reasons: one, it’s a major turning point in the plot and these scenes have a lot to accomplish, or two, I’m not really sure what happens at that point in the book and I’m trying to get two plot points to line up.

I just keep developing the chunk until I’m satisfied, then move on to the next chunk. If a chapter is really being a problem, I’ll mark it and come back to it later. Odds are I still need to work something out and it’ll come to me in a later scene.

Writing in chunks is a nice mix of plotter and pantser that pulls the best from both drafting styles. It allows you to be as spontaneous as you want, and or organized as you want, while still maintaining a framework to write in.

Do you write it chunks? Would you consider giving it a try? Why or why not?

Looking to improve your craft? Check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I write in chunks. In reality, I think I do everything in chunks. I hate thinking about millions of possibilities, but I also hate doing one, limited, thing once in a time. I work in chunks, I do housework in chunks. I might be chunk-obssessed, lol

    1. Hey, whatever works for you, works :) Now I have to see if I do other things in chunks as well.

  2. Janice, since I started writing in chunks, I’ve progressed further developing the story. Thought I was a total planner until than. It’s more fun to freely write, then tweak to keep the story flow. Your pst is the first I’ve read about this. Thank you! 📚 Christine

    1. Most welcome! I think it really blends the plotter/pantser style.

  3. Oh, there's a name for how I write. :) Other people even do it too. I don't think I'm quite so organized, but my latest book, at least, seems to be pretty close to what you're describing here.

    1. It sounds more organized when you write it out, lol. Looks like there are a lot of us who do this.

  4. I was so relieved to read this because I tend to write like this! In chunks and out of order. Thank you for this illuminating post.

  5. It seems to me that this method would work for the revision drafts too. I could go through three or four chapters to clean up the grammer and work in the content and development with out losing my place in the process.

    1. Absolutely. I do that, too. Sometimes I'll focus on arcs at a time so I get the full story line.