The Art of “Skipping Around,” or Writing Out of Sequence

sara-letourneau

When other writers ask me if I’m a plotter or a pantser, I usually tell them, “I’m a little of both, but I’m also skip around.” By “skipping around,” I mean that I work on whatever scene I’m picturing clearest, even if it’s at the end and I haven’t begun Chapter One yet.

Yes, I write my first drafts out of sequence. With my current manuscript, the first scene I wrote appears one-third of the way through the story. Then I wrote the first chapter shortly afterward, followed by the climax scene a few weeks later. Now I’m in the process of “filling in the blanks” between the story’s middle and the climax. I even skip around when drafting my blog posts, including this one. 😉

Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But when approached in the right manner, non-sequential writing can be surprisingly productive and liberating. It’s not an unheard-of method, either. Fantasy author V.E. Schwab uses it (she calls it “connecting the dots”). So does writing coach and self-help author Hillary Rettig. Maybe it might rescue you during your next bout of writer’s block. (*gasp*)

Before we cover how to write first drafts out of sequence, though, let’s discuss why it can be beneficial.

The Purpose and Benefits of Writing Out of Sequence

How to write a novel out of sequence

Think back on a scene in your current story where the words flowed out of you. Why was writing that scene such a breeze? Were you visualizing it clearly, as if you were watching a movie? Had something in the real world made you so angry or impassioned that you needed to channel your emotions into that particular scene? Your being “in the flow” was likely a result of either scenario, or maybe a little of both.

Writing out of sequence takes advantage of such moments. As you work on a first draft of a story (or other piece of writing), you focus on the sections you’re most compelled to work on at that time. So if you’re struggling with Scene A but visualizing or “feeling” Scene B more strongly, you would skip to Scene B and return to Scene A later. That way, you allow yourself to stay “in the flow” so the writing goes smoothly, rather than forcing yourself to fight for every word. And more often than not, this intensely inspired state can deepen your concentration and help the word count soar.

Another benefit of writing non-sequentially is that it helps you work around – and even beat – writer’s block. By skipping to a section that puts up less resistance, you’re not ignoring the part that’s stalling your writing. Rather, you’re giving your subconscious time to process and solve the problem causing that resistance while you to continue to move forward. It’s an intimidating method, especially if you’re a perfectionist. But it works. I write so much faster when I skip around than when I used to write straight through from beginning to, and I wouldn’t do it any other way now.

Some Cautions About Writing Out of Sequence

While writing out of sequence can give you a much-needed productivity boost, it also has some drawbacks that you should be aware of:

  1. “Forgotten” Scenes: Writing non-sequentially can make it tricky to remember the state of each section of the story. You might not recall which scenes you’ve already written, which ones you still have to finish, and which ones you’ve yet to start. That’s not always something your brain can keep track of on its own.
  2. A Lack of Continuity: When writing non-sequentially, you run the risk of dropping subplots or important details you included in previously drafted scenes, or adding ones that didn’t exist before. Of course, this can also happen when writing straight through from start to finish, but it’s something to be mindful of when skipping around.
  3. Additional Work for the Next Draft: A completed first draft is always messy. Writing out of sequence with reckless abandon, however, can make it an even bigger mess. So depending on how you approach “skipping around,” you might create more work for yourself come revision time.

So, How Can You Write Out of Sequence Without Driving Yourself Crazy?

With a little courage and a LOT of preparation. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean outlines. Writing first drafts out of sequence can work for plotters, pantsers, and everyone in between. Rather, the key here is to plan how you’ll approach this way of writing so that you’ll benefit from the heightened level of productivity without feeling too overwhelmed. So, if you’re willing to give non-sequential writing a try, here are some tips that can help.

Have a general idea of the story’s main plot points. You don’t need to know everything that will happen. Instead, begin with three to five scenes that are central to the plot, and dive into the one you feel most strongly about writing. If you’re a plotter, you may have more scenes to choose from because of the outline or notes you developed beforehand. And if you’re a pantser (a.k.a. an intuitive writer)? Think of these “jumpstart” scenes as the corner and exterior wall studs for a new house. Any later scenes will act as interior wall studs or floor / ceiling joists that will build the story out further. Dan Ciriello’s post on plotting for pantsers also has some great tips that pantsers can apply to non-sequential writing.

Track your progress. Before you start writing, establish a method for tracking your progress so you can avoid “forgetting” scenes. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet with color or acronym coding that shows which chapters are finished, which ones are still in progress, and so on. (The following image shows a screenshot of the tracking sheet I’m using for my current manuscript.) Then you can update the spreadsheet after each writing.

Highlight (or keep notes on) any unfinished areas. If you skip from scene to scene within the same chapter, use your word processor’s highlighter function to remind you of which areas need to be finished. For example, I use magenta highlighting to mark the last sentence I write in a scene before skipping to another scene or ending my writing session for the day. That way, the visual cue alerts me to where I left off – and with such a bright color, it’s impossible to miss! It’s also good to jot down notes of where you leave off so you know where to resume writing the next day.

Keep a list of changes that develop as you write. We’d like to think that nothing in our stories, from the major events to the minor details, will change from the moment we first think of them to the moment we write “The End.” But that’s rarely the case. And when you’re writing out of sequence, it’s even easier to lose track of those mid-draft changes. So as you skip around, maintain a list of these changes, as well as with any questions you think of or inconsistencies you find within the manuscript. You can then address these items when you revise the next draft – or, even better, turn it into a bonafide revision checklist.

Trust in your revision skills. Another reason why I write non-sequentially is my confidence in my ability to revise a manuscript or blog post and make the next (or final) version stronger. Believing in your revision skills isn’t a prerequisite for “skipping around,” but it definitely helps. The more you trust yourself to catch mistakes or weak points in your writing projects and then form and implement a plan to fix them, and the more experience you have with doing so, the more secure you’ll feel about saving the more challenging work for the next draft and focusing on “being in the flow” right now.

Give yourself permission. Perfectionism can be a HUGE obstacle to overcome. Being inflexible about where, when, and how you write, for example, can actually cause you to write fewer words, finish fewer projects, and be less productive in the long run. Practice compassion with yourself instead, and allow you and your writing process to change and grow over time. This includes being willing to give up more control than usual in the first draft and opening your mind to new and possibly more fruitful ways of writing. So if the idea of out-of-sequence writing intrigues you but that nagging voice in your head insists that you stick with a less effective process, stop and gently ask yourself why you’re so resistant and whether that resistance is helping or hindering you. And if it’s a hindrance, give yourself permission by saying (either out loud or silently), “It’s OK to try something new and see if it helps me be a better, more productive writer,” and see what happens from there.

If all else fails, switch to a different project. There might be times when, despite writing non-sequentially, you still find yourself blocked. That’s OK; it could be a sign that you need a break from that story. Other writers have done this. Isaac Asimov would switch between writing projects to maintain interest in his work. (Maybe that explains how he managed to write or edit hundreds of books and short stories during his lifetime!) So, instead of struggling through your WIP, try working on a different project for a short time or stimulating your creativity in other ways. That break could be exactly what your brain needs to become “un-stuck” and regain clarity – and excitement – for the previous story.

Have you ever considered writing non-sequentially? If you haven’t, do you think you’d try it? And if you have done it before, what was your experience like?

sara-_framedSara is a fantasy writer living in Massachusetts who devours good books, geeks out about character arcs, and drinks too much tea. In addition to WHW’s Resident Writing Coach Program, she writes the Theme: A Story’s Soul column at DIY MFA and is hard at work on a YA/New Adult magical realism manuscript. Find out more about Sara here, visit her personal blog, Goodreads profile, and find her online.
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29 Responses to The Art of “Skipping Around,” or Writing Out of Sequence

  1. Delynn says:

    Have you ever used the Ywriter? You can put scenes and chapters, move them around, and edit as you go, and lebel everything however you want to. It’s really awesome for those of us who only know how to write this way… by finding solid scenes and putting the pieces together as they come.
    …and it saves periodically as you go… which is a world-saver for a bumble-brain like me. 😅

    For all I know, I read about it on this blog, but it doesn’t hurt to mention it again.

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  4. Sacha Black says:

    Hey Sara,

    I loved this post. I also write out of order! I didn’t with my first book, but the sequel I had no choice. It was a bit of a random occurrence, I was completely blocked on the start so decided to write a scene I could ‘see’ clearly. That was it. I was off and skipping all over the place. FAB tips too – about the change list and marking where you get to – all lessons I learned the hard way!! haha.

    Anyway. Brill post. In total solidarity with your style over here. I’ve just started book 3 and I’m already all over the place!

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  6. Joan Hall says:

    I write out of sequence all the time. I use Scrivener and make a folder titled “future scenes.” When I’m ready to use them, I simply move to the correct chapter.

  7. Becca / Angela, this comment by John appears to be a duplicate of one he had made on Tuesday 8/21 at 4:28 pm. Would you mind deleting this one when you have a chance? I’ll reply to his earlier comment instead. Thanks!

  8. sjhigbee says:

    A really informative, useful article, Sara – I’m sorry this is your last one in this series, but I do understand:).

  9. Dan Smith says:

    Really enjoyed this. To find out that I’m not alone and that other people also skip around makes me feel more confident about my writing.

    The issue I need to get better at is revising. I already highlight, but I need to get better at seeing the issues that I haven’t highlighted. You’ve encouraged me to work on that aspect more. Thank you!

    • You’re welcome, Dan! I can understand how feeling like you’re the only one who writes that way can make you feel less confident, so I’m glad this post was able to give you a much-needed boost.

      It seems that we “skippers” are a rare breed, though, but that doesn’t mean the skip-around / connect-the-dots method isn’t viable. If we learn how to use it effectively for our first drafts, then there’s not much to question, really. And based on your comment, it sounds like you’re identifying areas of your process that need strengthening and working to improve on them – which is great! Best of luck in your future writing endeavors, Dan. 🙂

  10. Talia says:

    This is the ONLY way I write. I used to write everything sequentially, but now I love skipping around! It allows me to be a lot more creative, and I don’t feel confined to a strict order, because stories tend to change a lot from the vision in my head, once I actually get them down onto paper. I’m also a pantser, so my first drafts are usually messy (you should see me during NaNoWriMo xD), but I’m getting better at revision/editing. Thanks for the post!

    • This is fantastic, Talia! I was actually wondering as I wrote this post if readers would think I was a little nutty for writing the way I do. *lol* So I’m heartened to hear that not only do other writers “skip around,” but that this post has sort of helped to validate their methods. Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

  11. Jay Hicks says:

    I’m in revision of my first draft novel now (overwritten by 50k, mind you). I call myself a PLANTSTER. I plant seedlings (scenes) and transplant them into the soil (scrivener), weeding and adding fertiliser as I go. It’s been enormously fun. In fact my novel began with a short story I wrote after I got a seed of an idea. It happens to be the final scene of my novel.
    Wow what a ride I’ve had. Oh did I say I’ve been learning the craft of writing as I go? (This has been a three-year project, only taken up seriously with the scene idea for the past twelve months.) I knew Scrivener would be my new best friend, so waited for v3 and got online courses for that. And I’ve done dev edits workshops, masterclasses, attended conferences and retreats, done online workshops, and bought a range of highly recommended writing books. My absolute favourite, kind of like the strawberry cream in a box of chocolates, is Sol Stein’s Grow Your Novel. Ha ha. I just realised this title fits with the analogy of my method here! He’s not discussing how to start at a and go to b, but rather what we are wanting to impart to the reader, and why. Really useful now I’m in revision. I guess Lisa Cron is also in that vein.

    My point is, I dove in at the (deep) end of my novel, and had the best fun by writing scenes. It’s only at this stage that I’ve thought about a three act structure, and that’s helped me lay it all out to plant herbs between the fruit. I would probably look at having that structure as a general picture in my mind first for working scenes in book two.

    Writing scenes gives no excuse for writer’s block, and just those few hundred words are day are achievable in fifteen minutes on a notepad beside your bed or on a bus, or in a cafe. That’s how I grew my novel in a year. A lot of writers don’t actually write. Scenes are the answer, and they can be expertly crafted with your mind focused on one moment. You keep your work fresh, and it makes for an exciting adventure. Dig in!

    • Love your analogies as well as your additional insights on “skipping around,” Jay! And you’re right about making the first-draft process an adventure by using this method. Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

  12. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    Very interesting, Sara! I brainstorm and plot stories like that, moving setpieces and dialogues around and sometimes from story to story, though I do the actual writing in sequence.

    We’re advised to not write the parts readers don’t read. A radical postmodernist might not write the parts the author doesn’t want to write, and/or leave what they wrote out of sequence and with gaps! But I’ll leave that to braver souls!

    • Moving things around from story to story?? That’s not something I’ve done before! Then again, I know you’re working on a series, John, so moving a scene or bit of dialogue to a more appropriate story would be doable. Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

  13. Thank you! I now know what to say when someone asks if I’m a plotter or panster. I can proudly say I’m a “skip around”. I’ve tried writing sequentially but always get stuck. Skipping around works for all the reasons you mentioned. It can be scary putting the scenes together in an order that makes sense but I know before I start the basics like inciting incident, turning points, realization and HEA. (I write romance!) This helps with knowing what order to put them in. I use Scrivener for first drafts so I can easily skip around and rearrange the scenes.

    This may not be the easiest process but I have to accept that it’s mine. And with a total of 7 books under contract with 2 publishers, I guess it works. At least for now. I find that each ms creates its own unique problem.

    Thanks again for this post!

  14. The first novel I wrote was during NaNoWriMo, and while I did do significant planning beforehand to understand the backstory & worldbuilding, I would still call myself a pantser. I knew the start, the end, and a few key scenes, but the rest of the book was a mystery. I did my best to write sequentially, but if I would get stuck, I would leave a single line of placeholder text like, “somehow her mom has to find out Mary’s plans so she can confront her at the party” and then I would move on to the next solid scene I had in my head. This worked brilliantly and I always found that once I was writing and moving forward, ideas would come on how to fill in those missing scenes and I could go back and add them when they did.

    I don’t think I could draft this way now (I am much more a planner so I would have more of a firm understanding of what the turning points and events would be along the way), but for a first draft, especially a nano project that put me under a time restraint, boy did this ever work! Thanks for the tips on how to do this well, Sara! 🙂

    • That’s a good point, Angela! I hadn’t thought of how “skipping around” can be helpful to writers in the thick of NaNoWriMo. Thanks for sharing your experience – and also for having me on board for the past 2 years. 🙂

  15. This is exactly how I write. I make a super simple outline just so I don’t get totally lost and then go for it. I’m very analytical by nature and writing this way helps me get in the flow. 😀

  16. Patchi says:

    When I start a story, I just write out all my notes and preliminary scenes by hand in a notebook, in whatever order they come to me. I only start typing/transcribing when I have enough for a first draft. That’s the point where I start putting things in order and connecting the dots. I find the lack of order and sequence of my notebook freeing. No need to worry about perfection.

    • Exactly, Patchi. Especially during a first draft, which isn’t meant to be “perfect” to begin with. Thanks for commenting and sharing your experience with “skipping around”!

  17. JeffO says:

    My first “completed” manuscript, a really bad NaNoWriMo project, was written largely out of sequence. For the most part I now write sequentially, though I have occasionally skipped something and come back to it later. John Irving (A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules) talks about how he always starts with the last line or last paragraph, so he always knows where he’s going. I tend not to know until I’m somewhere along the road.

    • Nice! And I like how you resort to skipping around when you feel you need to, Jeff. There’s nothing wrong with writing sequentially. The point of this point was to let writers know that there’s another option, so that if they do get stuck in the future, they’ll have a way to work around it. It sounds like that’s exactly what you’re doing. Thanks for commenting!

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