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
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:
- “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.
- 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.
- 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 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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