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Struggling to Write a Story? Try this 3-Stage Writing Process

Have you ever experienced that ‘stuck’ feeling, where you don’t know how to get to where you need to be with your writing? You start something but can’t seem to finish it. Or you do finish it but it’s nothing like you’d imagined it in your head. It’s certainly nowhere near as well written as those other published stories on your bookshelf, and you don't know how to fix that. Perhaps you’ve indulged in a bit of writerly self-flagellation: 

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Any of this sound familiar to you? Rest assured, you are not alone. 

The creative process 

The creative process is so called because that’s exactly what it is – a process. It consists of:

  • The creative stage
  • The shaping stage
  • The polishing stage

This process doesn't only apply to writing but is true for many other forms of creative expression too, such as pottery, for example.

If you were a potter instead of a writer:

  • The creative stage would be all about the preparation – gathering the wet clay
  • The shaping stage would require you to shape the object, then fire it in the kiln
  • The polishing stage would be about decorating, pattern painting, adding gold leaf

Imagine working in the creative and polishing stages at the same time. There you are, with a great wet lump of clay on the wheel and hands full of the stuff, and you start delicately painting symbols and laying some gold leaf onto it. What an unholy mess!

It’s not so very different for writers.

The Creative Process for Writers

As a writer, there are three hats to wear during the creative process. You should wear them one at a time or, like the potter, your work will be a mess. Are you trying to wear more than one hat? This may explain why you’re not making progress.

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Let’s take a look at the three stages, what you need to do to move from one to the next, and why you should tackle each separately.

Hat 1: The creative stage         

This stage is about getting the writing habit, turning up regularly, putting in the practice, training the eye, listening to voices, and making space in your life for writing. It’s also the stage where you do your gathering, find inspiration, follow fragments of ideas, and explore your subconscious through free writing - in other words, follow your nose to find the story.

If you’re writing purely for well-being or enjoyment purposes – not for a reader – this is the only stage you need to worry about. Stay here, explore, observe, record and reflect; it’s a great space to be in and it’s the stage where the oft-heard advice to new writers to ‘just write’ is spot on.

This stage is important; it’s where we let our imaginations run wild and pull out the good stuff from our subconscious. For a ‘pantser’, the first draft of an entire novel might be written in this stage – if you don’t know what a pantser is, see our previous blog. This stage is all about getting it done, not getting it right.

Hat 2: The shaping stage

This stage crosses over from the purely creative to the more craft-conscious shaping stage. You have a scenario forming, and now you need to work it up into a story. Your character needs a character arc that links to the plot. The plot needs to be structured in a way that enables your character to experience their arc and deliver a satisfactory conclusion.

Somewhere in there, you need to identify your theme and choose a point of view to operate from. For this stage, you need to use all your knowledge of these aspects of the writing craft in a conscious and controlled way, which means you do need to have that knowledge.

The advice to ‘just write’ won’t help you at this point, because here, it’s all about getting your story to work as a story, and a story needs a structure. A story is only ever as good as its underlying structure, otherwise it’s just a series of anecdotes or a list of poorly organised episodes.

Hat 3: The polishing stage

By time you reach this stage, you have written your story, got the structure in place, taken all the big decisions regarding theme, plot, point of view etc, and you have a rough second draft in place. Now you need to get all the details right, to make it shine.

This is the time to step back, edit and refine your work. How effective is your dialogue? Does it do the job that dialogue is meant to do, or is it merely conversation? Are your settings convincing and drawing the reader in? Is your language active and engaging, does it flow easily? Are you showing where you should be telling, or telling where you should be showing? How is your voice coming through?

This stage is all about getting your story to read well and leap off the page. You get to throw everything you know about the craft at the piece and be hypercritical – yay!

To recap:

When you are writing, bear in mind these three stages, each with a distinct hat of its own:

  • Stage 1: Get it down, rough is fine
  • Stage 2: Get it to work as a story
  • Stage 3: Get it to read well

If it helps, literally find three hats of your own, designate a role to each and wear the appropriate hat while you write. Why not? Writers have done far crazier things to make the process work for them. And remember... 

Wearing two hats at once will scupper progress

Imagine you’re wearing your stage 1 hat, tapping into your subconscious and trying to get a feel for who this character that’s haunting your imagination might be and what they might be up to, but you’ve unconsciously popped your stage 3 hat onto your head too.

Now, as well as looking a bit ridiculous, every time you write anything, you stop and edit it for language, rewrite the dialogue forty times until it sounds just right, fiddle with the settings, or the grammar, or your use of show versus tell, because you really, really want to get this right…

Chances are you’ll kill your creative flow and find yourself ‘stuck’. 

As for those bits that you have managed to polish beautifully? Well, by the time you finally complete the stage 2 shaping process (and yes, this really does need doing at some point) those bits may well end up in the bin because they’re not contributing to the overall structure, so what a waste of time and energy that all was.

The solution

Stick to the three-stage process, and if you find yourself unable to make progress with your writing, ask yourself:

  1. Am I trying to wear more than one hat at a time, and if so, which hat should I be wearing? 
  2. Have I armed myself with the knowledge of craft that I need to progress from Stage 1 all the way through to Stage 3, or am I just winging it and hoping for the best? 

Your answers to those questions may well clear the way for you to move forward with your writing at last.

For those who want to learn the craft, or are in need of a refresher, we've got a brilliant ten-week course coming up in April. We will take you through stages 1 and 2 and give you the confidence and ability to shape your work in a way that satisfies the reader. We will run the course covering stage 3 in September. 

If you'd like to be the first to know when these courses open for enrolments, drop us an email at [email protected].


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