Writing Myth: I’ll Make Up The Story As I Go

Image courtesy of [David Castillo Dominici] /

I visited my parents yesterday in the suburbs of Chicago and tried to fight the resentment I often feel thinking that I should be sitting in my chair writing, instead of wasting a weekend away from my desk. I often forget the importance of getting out and mingling with other people (especially family and friends) in order to execute real life research for writing later. Connections throughout our lives are important when becoming a true writer, one who experiences the everyday wonders of personal attachments and interactions. It’s funny because I always want to sit at my desk and make things up as I go, but in reality it’s absurd to think that staring at a computer screen will provide the material I need to develop a truly riveting story. Not to mention, research is the most frequented step when building the heart and soul of a short story or novel.

Everyone has their own methods for writing, but writing without a plan, with research and outlining is like a high school quarterback never practicing, and then expecting a Division 1 football scholarship. Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone and exploring the world provides knowledge rarely attainable through just typing and expecting your characters and plot to build themselves. There may be some prodigies out there who can pull it off, but a well rounded exploratory life and work ethic are a must for us normal folk. Here is a step-by-step process that I find helpful when building my stories. This helps me avoid the “Write As I Go” trap that usually ends with a big pile of manure (in the form of paper):

  • Research – This doesn’t always have to entail sitting in the library scouring through piles of books. Research should consist of a healthy combination of reading, checking out libraries, interviews with experts on a subject and most importantly, observing friends, family and strangers around you.
  • Outline – Workflowy is what I use for outlines, but feel free to use other software, a Word document or pen and paper. Jot every chapter down as you see it unfolding. Create another page to begin developing character names and descriptions. I always seem to come up with dialogue that would fit nicely whenever I am outlining, so include this in your outline as well.
  • Character Description and Backgrounds – I use a software called yWriter for organizing my character descriptions and backgrounds. Although many writers still use pen and paper I would at least recommend experimenting with a software that organizes your chapters, characters and plot lines (also great with media for visualizing your settings and characters). You will find that when writing a 5,000 word short story you might be capable of handling all this information, but once you start reaching novella or novel length, your characters and plot lines can be tricky to keep organized. I avoid plot holes and forgetting about characters with software like this.
  • Consult Your Journal – If you don’t have a journal, get one. If you already have one congratulations, this is your best research tool. After all what’s the point of doing all that research if you don’t remember it. I encourage you to consult your journal on occasion during the outline and character building process. Maybe you read a magazine with a picture of a short stocky read head kid and now one of your characters fits that description. Having a picture on hand in your journal will work wonders for painting a true picture of the boy.
  • Research – Do it again. And make it fun!
  • Explore The World – This is really just more research but remember to get out and see the world.
  • Write Without Limits – Once all these steps have been performed I write my butt off. How can I not after acquiring so much information? The story writing process comes fluently when I have a plan.
  • Revise – We all love this part. It may be tedious, but revision is what separates the minor league players from the pros. Good luck and let me know what works for you when planning out your writing.

See ya next time…

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About Joe Warnimont

I am a writer, marketing expert and adventure seeker. I help people write, market their writing, live truthfully and embrace their lives through creativity. You can find me riding my bike around the streets of Chicago. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus.


  1. We suffer from the same troubles. πŸ™‚

    While I’d like to sit at my desk all day and write, that’s just not realistic when you have a family and a full time job. I have certainly learned that every time I step outside it’s an opportunity for inspiration. I love the thrill of the hunt for my next idea, and when it strikes. WATCH OWT!!

    Good luck with your family affairs. I hope they will be equally as inspiring.

  2. Good lord. That’s a whole lotta discipline. Can’t I just drop a whole a bunch of f bombs and post pictures of naked women?

  3. I feel you all too well. My best writing definitely happens when I’m living a varied life that involves plenty of time out of the computer chair. I’m really interested in the links that you’ve posted and am excited to look into them! yWriter sounds especially intriguing.

    • Getting out and exploring what the world has to offer is the best way to find inspiration! Thanks for checking out my blog Jenny and let me know what you think of yWriter.

  4. You should also add in that this helps when you set your work aside for a while (3 months, oops) as I appear to have forgotten a lot bar the basics of my story and I am slowly having to piece together the scraps of evidence from my notebooks (I hate the word journal) and laptop. πŸ™

    • Haha I put away a story for a few months to get away from writing and revise with a clear mind, but I definitely should have been a bit more organized, because it turned into a mess. Thanks for checking out my blog!

  5. Some great tips!

  6. Some of my novels have definitely been written on the fly, but always with some idea of the end. Only one meandered all over, and I set it aside, after killing off characters just to propel the story. I did finish that book, but what a mess. πŸ™‚

    Thanks for following my blog!

    • It always comes to killing of characters doesn’t it? It definitely helps to keep some organization, especially having an idea of what the ending is going to be. At least that helps me! Thanks for checking out my blog Anna.

  7. You definately have some great pointers here Joe. I also like the post about multi-tasking. I am glad you dropped by my site, as I was able to meet you through yours. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  8. I’m guessing you’re a natural outliner, or, at the very least, a hybrid outliner-pantzer. I’m a pure pantzer. My outline and my first draft are the same thing and I piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle.

    For me, the lifesaver has been Liquid Story Binder, which is something like yWriter, but you do have to pay for it. I name my chapters and I can move them around as I please. There`s usually one file for random cool bits that come to me, so I can just copy and paste them in once I figure out where they fit. One I get the highlights in, I start filling in the bits just before and just after, until finally they meet in the middle. It’s a weird way to work, but it keeps my short attention span in check. πŸ˜›

  9. Hey there! Thanks so much for stopping by and following my blog!!! Your blog is wonderful! I am a high school English teacher and there are definitely some resources here I can use with my students! So many of them just want to go straight to the blank Word document and start writing — no pre-writing, no drafting…nothing. I am hoping that this post might be able to give them a sense of foundation for their writing.

    Thanks again!

  10. I tend to plan out things roughly in my head for the first draft, but then plot them out meticulously from then on. I find a lot out about the characters during the writing process.

  11. Interesting, some of the software sounds useful. In terms of planning, sometimes for me it has backfired in the past, and I’ve spent so much time researching or developing characters that, strangely, whatever it is I’m planning get’s increasingly less involving for me, and I tend to let it fade away. I have no idea why, but mostly it’s because my attention gets pulled away by either the rest of life, or another writing idea that I then leap into instead.
    I’m in the midst of the longest piece of writing (hopefully novel or at least novella material) I’ve done to date. Rather than plan for ages before it though, I had the basic idea, the shape of the main character and a good idea of where the story was going and how it was going to end, and I just set off. The strange thing is that it actually developed as I wrote, new ideas surfacing along the way that fit very nicely and made the story more interesting, and for once I was able to actually write something much longer. I’m not saying that planning isn’t important, but we all have our own ways of doing it. That said, I don’t believe it’s an absolute masterpiece, and there are few problems I need to deal with, but I’ve been happy that I’ve been able to break my cycle of non-productivity and get things down. πŸ™‚

  12. I find that my stories actually turn out better when I mostly write on the fly. Usually, anyway. I have an extremely bare-bones outline, but I never know what I’m going to need to research until I get to that part of the story. (Unless it’s a historical fiction piece.) I tried writing with all the intensive planning, and it just overwhelmed me and stifled the story.

    That’s not to say I run into my writing blind. Usually when I finish one part, I know what’s supposed to happen for the next few parts, and the more I go along, the more planned out it becomes, even if it’s sometimes rough.

    I chalk it all up to the fact that people’s writing processes are different. πŸ™‚

  13. I was just reading about Charles Dickens and how he stored every memory of his life in his head and used it later in his writing. So I’m all about using everyday life as the fodder for writing material. Thanks for stopping by ritaLOVEStoWRITE, btw, and especially for following the blog. Cheers, Rita

  14. Was that sarcasm when you said “we all love this part”? Sometimes I think I’m the only person alive who really enjoys revising and rewriting. There are days when the only way I get through writing a first draft is by reminding myself, “if you don’t have a first draft, you have nothing to revise!”

    I mean, the two years I spent revising one novel may have been excessive, but I had good reasons for that. If I didn’t enjoy it, I think the process would have killed me.

    As far as planning goes, I need a general outline when I start anything (novel or short story) and a really good idea of who my characters are, their motivations, obstacles, etc. I’ll even plan what will happen in each chapter/scene, but I tend to let things really flow from there on in, especially in a first draft (before I get to all of that DELICIOUS revising).

  15. Love the journal idea! I don’t carry one, then I wonder why I cannot remember good ideas for columns later on.

  16. Hi, i have reading out and i will definitely bookmarrk your site, just wanted to say i liked this article.

  17. Hi. Dropping by for a few reasons.
    One, you liked one of my short stories.
    Two, I was curious when I looked at your profile and the word ‘writer’ came up.
    Now I have a third reason. Thanks for stopping in to see me, by the way.

    Anyone who knows ANYTHING about my ‘writing process’ knows that I work almost entirely from the top of my head. I just want to share why I think that works better for me. Not as a refutation, of course. I’m just expressing an opinion.

    First, justification, right?

    I’m a writer… but I have a constantly shifting style. Key elements of it remain the same, but from story to story, I’m still finding a style that is wholly ‘mine’, as it were. Most of that has to do with how I see things.

    I see things in terms of people. For me, a story is not complete unless it has characters. So for my worlds, I build things up character by character. The first question in my head when I start writing is not ‘where is this’ it is ‘WHO is this’. Primarily that’s because my writing stems from first person present tense- that’s the most common theme. I wrote a novel in third person, but I love first person.

    I build my characters on the fly. I decide how they will react to a given situation, store how they reacted and tailor the original reaction if I learn new things about their character later on. But all of that goes on in my head. I never use an outline. I just keep it in my mind. I’ll admit that has its ups and downs- sometimes I miss things. That’s what revision is for though, yes? Even if you write it up in an outline you miss things.

    As to research- if I don’t know for sure about something, I look it up. If it’s relevant to the moment in the story, I look it up. I agree with you there- it’s vital. I don’t research everything about a character before I start writing, though. For me, if I did that, I would lose the fire to write. In essence, I take a more chaotic approach. There’s a fire in me that burns and demands I let a character out, so I do. The character is then built up with a core personality defined by their action at the time- since I generally start characters doing SOMETHING, that could be anything from ‘this character hates the rain’ to ‘this character is running away’ to ‘this character is bleeding and battered’. It all depends on that first moment, that first action. It starts small and grows exponentially.

    The rest of it, what I build up from that, is how the story takes shape. I don’t know if I can be considered a prodigy or a fool, but whichever I am I know for certain I DO get practice. Writing off the top of your head isn’t something you can do without that practice.

    The idea here, though, is that everything I do, everyone I meet, everywhere I GO I put into my writing. All of my experiences shine through- the world is my research, my outline and my inspiration. I can’t speak for the rest of us head-writing types, but that’s definitely how it works for me. If I think too hard and plan too much, the story stops being interesting. I don’t know why that is, it just is the way it is.

    Anyway, that’s all I’ve got.

    Take care,

  18. Hey there! Loved this article! I suffer from a similar problem where I think I’m wasting time by doing other things besides writing (i.e. going to work, exercising, cooking, socialising, etc.). But I see your point about those things helping with research. After all, I know sitting on Facebook definitely isn’t a good use of writing time even if it’s a welcome distraction at times.

  19. Barbara says:

    Thanks Jo for a most informative post! You seem to be well set up and I’m appreciative of your sharing.
    Thank you also for your follow!