Every writer has their own process for taking their idea and putting it on paper, and you will often come across some writers who are damned determined to tell you that their process, and theirs alone, is the correct process.
First, there is no such thing as one correct writing process, no matter the medium. I often view the varied ways a writer prepares their project in the same way athletes psych themselves up prior to a game, each with their own, sometimes strange, “good luck” rituals.
The truth is, the only correct writing process is the one that works best for the individual. In the end, no one will care how you got the words down; a studio isn’t going to drop an option because the writer failed to follow a specific outlining process. Any time you come across a writer who insists that “such-and-such” is the correct way to plan and outline a script, you can be sure it’s because that process works best for them, but that doesn’t mean it will work best for you.
So, I thought I would take a bit of time to explain my own writing process, as I have been asked a few times recently what that exactly entails. While this applies mostly to screenwriting, I have followed something very similar when I was working on my novel, so some of the ideas can be crossed over.
There’s nothing more more basic than this. “The Concept” is what starts it all, that one nagging idea in the back of my mind that won’t go away. For me, it will fester for weeks, even months, before I finally decide to sit down and expand on it. It’s usually nothing more than a single thought. For example, what lead me to writing Backstop was the thought that very few films have ever dealt with the subject of cyber-crime realistically. And that was it! No moments of brilliant realization; just an initial thought that lead to the next step.
This is where you’ll often come across the most varying advice about the writing process, as everyone seems to have their own idea of what outlining should consist of. As I said above, there is no wrong method; what helps the author expand on their concept is what matters most. I used to follow a rather rigid outlining structure when I first started out, because that was what worked for me at the time, but that changed over time. Before long, I found myself writing out entire scenes with dialog and action before I had even outlined a full story, or even had an idea of the full story, and this method actually helped in a way, because I could get a better idea of how I wanted to portray the characters right from the start, as opposed to shaping them later on.
Nowadays, I follow a less-specific outlining method. Truth be told, there really isn’t much of a method to my outlining. I’ll start with the basic concept, an idea of who the main players will be, and just dive right into an outline that may be a page long, or thirty pages. I often just go in blind, because I have to start somewhere, and before long the story will start taking shape in front of me.
Once that short outline is finished, I’ll immediately start the first draft of the script. A lot of writers swear by beat sheets, and there is nothing wrong with writing them. However, I usually treat my first draft as a beat sheat, though it’s a cross between that and an actual draft, since it has both the action and dialog. Because everything about the story, and characters, is so new, this entire first draft is still very exploratory, which is why I consider it more as part of the outlining process than I do an actual draft.
The Early Drafts
Once the first draft is complete, I immediately start on the second draft. Despite the planning, my first draft is still almost always just an unedited, raw stream of thoughts and ideas that somewhat resembles a screenplay. It will be full of inconsistent characters, plot holes, and scenes that serve absolutely no purpose. So, while I’m still riding high on having finished the first draft, I jump right back in.
This first real re-edit (which is usually a complete re-write), is usually the longest process in all of this for me. I’ve molded a basic structure for the script, given it some broad details, but now it’s time to add the finer details. I’ll re-read the first draft dozens of times during this process, mentally preparing myself for what needs to be changed. Then, I’ll rewrite scenes, completely cut them out, or add new ones that need to be there. The time it takes to finish the second draft is dependent on what I have going on in my personal life, but I force myself not to rush it, as that is usually what I was doing in the first draft.
Once the second draft is finished is when I’ll start requesting second opinions from friends and family. By this point, I’ve read each draft so many times that everything about the script has lost its initial meaning and impact. I need several other people who have never read it to go through and find anything that needs fixing. This is also one of my favorite parts of the editing process: seeing and hearing the reactions of a potential audience for the first time.
Most of my family and friends aren’t writers, and have no idea how to look for formatting errors, but that’s fine with me, because what I’m looking for most at this point is their gut reactions. The script isn’t polished; it’s still a fairly raw piece of writing. What I need at this point is an idea of what is working for the story, and what isn’t. Does the story make sense? Are the characters relatable? Believable? Does anything come off as forced? Does the story progress naturally, or do the actions seem to only serve pushing the plot forward?
Despite not having any experience writing, these “beta readers” of mine do love movies, so they can usually very easily tell me what’s working and what needs fixing.
After enough time (not something that is set in stone, but more just a gut feeling), I’ll take the thoughts of my friends and family, look at the script as objectively as possible, and filter what thoughts of theirs are right on the nose, or useless for what I’m going for. Then I’ll take that and re-write the script a second time. This time, I’ll try to strike a balance between focusing on correct usage/formatting, while incorporating any fixes that it needs.
Once the third draft is complete, again, I’ll jump right back in, but this time focusing almost exclusively on formatting and polishing the script. If everything has gone to plan up to this point, the story and characters will be at a point where I don’t have to focus on them as much; I’ll be able to make the script look as good as the story and characters (hopefully) are.
Crtiques from Complete Strangers (The Gauntlet)
This is one of the most gut-wrenching aspects of my writing process, but one that I feel is entirely necessary. Unlike friends and family, total strangers on the internet aren’t going to hold back to spare my feelings. While some of the reviews will be incredibly helpful, the rest usually just rip the entire thing apart without offering any kind of alternatives.
It’s important to not get discouraged at this point. People are fantastic at ripping the work of others apart, but only a few are capable of actually offering constructive criticism while they’re doing so. Not taking these critiques personally is just as important as actually taking the good advice seriously.
Like the thoughts from my friends and family, some of these reviews will not be helpful at all. That being said, though, a few will not only be helpful, they can down-right shape future drafts to come, transforming my work from a decent, maybe-passable screenplay into what I was aiming for all along.
I cannot stress how important this part of the process can be, but this is also where most writers will just stop altogether. Random strangers can be, and are, straight-up nasty, just looking to tear something apart, but if you can get through this gauntlet, it will make for stronger drafts to come.
Now comes (what I consider) to be the most important rewrite/edit. I’ve spent a long time getting the script to this point, and this will usually turn out to be the strongest draft to date. It won’t be perfect (as there is no such thing as a perfect script, especially in the writer’s eyes), but by this point, I know the story and characters so well that writing them is essentially second nature. I’ll keep the constructive criticisms very close in hand as I write this draft, and pay an absurd amount of attention to formatting, and ensuring it reads easily.
Shelving the Script
By now, I’ve re-read and re-written the script so many times that I’m sick of it. I don’t want to think about it anymore. In fact, for the time being, I’d be happy never to think about it ever again. This happens to me for every script, and I know it’s not a permanent feeling, so I’ll apply the brakes and just completely ignore the script for an extended period of time.
This serves two purposes. One, when I do come back to it, it won’t be so fresh on my mind that I’ll miss obvious errors, and two, I’ll probably care about it again. However, while I’m waiting to go back, I’ll probably distribute the latest draft to friends and family, as well as online again to get more feedback. I won’t react to these newest criticisms until I’m ready to sit down with the script again, but I will read over them and let them stew in my mind until I do come back.
And there it is! Hopefully this drawn out explanation will help demystify this even more drawn out process.