Composition: Planned vs. Unplanned, Written vs. Typed

(Inspired loosely by this essay on planning vs. non-planning novelists.)

I have written two and a half novels now, and my method seems to always be the same, despite my best intentions: I begin blindly with a character or image or situation or metaphor and then explore it at random, writing toward I know not what. I end up with many false starts and dead ends; I delete a lot of text and throw away a lot of paper. In this haphazard and disheartening way, I discover the characters, the setting, the theme, the plot, and the tone.

I could, in theory, avoid being disheartened by planning everything in advance, but the quality of exploration and discovery would thereby be lost. I have to write the novel itself to write anything authentic; preparing an outline or making notes does not feel like writing at all. By the time I have written about half of the novel, though, I have also usually discovered its complete structure. Then I do make an outline, which I usually follow to the end.


Writing a novel is a deterministic process: you begin with a feeling of infinite possibility, but every choice conditions and constrains each subsequent choice until you reach a point where you have no choices left. This “point” is not the ending itself, but the moment when the total structure can be perceived at last. I really don’t see how someone could write an entire novel without any plan, unless one just does not care whether the novel’s moral accounts balance or its tone and symbol-system cohere. There can be perfectly good avant-garde reasons not to care about these things, but I am mostly not an avant-gardist.

My process is as disorganized materially as it is intellectually. I can never decide whether to write by hand or to type. Because writing by hand feels like more work, it also feels more virtuous (we Americans are all Protestants, whatever else we may be), so I often start with pencils and pens and notebooks. But then my hand gets tired; I weary of smudged graphite and of empty pens and of spiral binding that carves itself into my wrist; and then I take to the laptop. This mixed and frustrating method would be a harmless quirk of my writing life, except that I write fiction very differently depending on whether I write by hand or type.

Writing by hand is such a slow, sensuous activity that it turns me into a writer of precision, concision, and concreteness; my descriptions seem carved out of marble with the Parthenon-envying Flaubert’s chisel, my dialogue incised with the fisherman Hemingway’s fillet knife. Writing by hand leads me inevitably to the visual and audible, to scenes and settings—to those older forms, poetry and drama.


At the keyboard, by contrast, where the writing is about five to ten times faster, I become a manic psychologist and ideologist in the Dostoevsky or Roth manner, and even the descriptions themselves become delirious and bizarre and overwritten, Faulkner rather than Flaubert. Narrative gets faster, the phenomenal world pales before the inner life, and ideas proliferate beyond what a poem or a drama could contain.[*]


Each of these methods has its virtue: in the one, I am working so slowly that I feel I can perceive and convey what others miss of the observable world; in the other, I am working so quickly that I can evade the inner censor and pluck forbidden thoughts, dripping black water, straight from the unconscious. Each method has flaws too: the written-by-hand can become precious and airless, while the composed-at-the-keyboard can become loquacious and melodramatic.

The insights provided by both writing and typing are too good to miss, though, so I usually do a mixture of both. And usually I do the reverse of my aforementioned planning procedure: for the novel’s unplanned first half, I seek the precision and constraint of writing by hand; while for the planned second half, I take to the keyboard and race to find the hidden potential in the pre-formed material. That way, I hope that the spontaneous first half feels careful and purposeful, and the structured second half feels joyfully improvised. A novel should get faster and more intense for the reader as it proceeds, which is too often the inverse of the writer’s experience of the waning enthusiasm that accompanies structural clarity. I have decided to embrace my chaotic procedure as at least a partial solution to this paradox of the novel, which must be increasingly logical and increasingly intense at once.


[*] In defense of the stylistic excesses of the keyboard: I am hostile to the application of journalistic standards to literature. “Omit needless words” is unreliable advice for the fiction writer or poet, as if words were industrial parts or tone and mood a matter of mere calculation. As for petty prohibitions on adverbs and the like, they mean nothing to me; I’ll use every word in the language if I want. The columns whose scarce inches required these stylistic restrictions barely exist on paper anymore, anyway. Strunk and White is a product of its time; the Anglo vs. Norman (or, more broadly, Northern/Western vs. Southern/Eastern) ethnic subtext of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is hardly relevant to contemporary American writing; and Orwell and Hemingway and Didion are fine writers as far as it goes, but there are notes they can never play on their chosen instruments.



  1. Thanks for this post.

    Sometimes, when I write, I feel like i’m not writing enough. When I used to write with pen, I felt as if I were underwriting, and even when I type, I do feel like when I write I just write the equivalent of notes, rather than writing fully fleshed out scenes that with editing could turn out well.

    As for elaborate and hard writing, John Milton’s Areopagitica is a case where when I paid attention to Milton’s periods and perorations I was swept away and delighted by it. And, for that matter, if you pay attention to Paradise Lost, John Milton is actually quite clear, sometimes even more than Shakespeare.

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