Exploratory writing

We tend to think of writing in terms of drafts; first draft, revisions, edits, final draft.  Words on the page that will, eventually, end up as a finished story.

Most times we develop story in our heads, maybe produce and outline if we are so inclined.  But as any writer will tell you, words in the head don’t always equal words on the page.  The transfer from thought to written word is the difficult part.  Putting that idea into practice is when you find the flaws, when you realise how thin your plot really is, how cliche and uninteresting those characters look when they leave your imagination.

Sometimes it’s beneficial to write before you start writing – to get your ideas and thoughts out on the page and into view before you embark on the story.  It can be as simple as a character vignette or as complex as a pre-draft of several thousand words.

This is known as pre-writing or exploratory writing. Exploratory writing is useful at different stages of your process, whether you are a plotter or a pantser.  In fact for many pantsers, exploratory writing is part of their drafting process.  Lets have a look at a few examples.

1. Who are you?

If you aren’t the profiling type, or if your multi-page list of character attributes just isn’t doing it for you, it’s helpful to write a couple of scenes with your character in it.  It’s often not until your character is walking and talking that you find out who they really are.  Writing about the pivotal events that made them who they are is a great way to flesh them out and understand what makes them tick.  I don’t mean a dry expository paragraph about how they lost their kitten at a young age.  Put them in the scene, really live it with them.  Write the story.  They will surprise you.

2. Where are we?

Sometimes you want a deeper understanding of your world and what makes it unique.  If you’re searching for ideas, try this trick.  Pick a background character you might find in your world; a blacksmith, a cafe waitress, the cleaning lady on the space station.  Put them in your world and start writing.  Your subconscious will throw up all sorts of ideas as you write.  Let it all flow.  Don’t censor anything.  Explore your world through the eyes of someone who has to live in it; politics, architecture, race and culture, magic.

3. What’s going on?

You might have a great idea under your belt, but idea is not story.  Your plot might be a bit thin on the ground.  So start writing the story.  Not with any expectations of a finished draft; just for the sake of seeing where it goes.  As you write, you’ll come upon the same stumbling blocks as you would if you were writing the first draft.  But because you are just exploring, you don’t have the stress of considering language and plot and flow.  Just write.  You may find out that you are starting in the wrong place, or that you are following the wrong character.  You may go off on another tangent altogether.  All of this makes the story stronger before you even write it.

But isn’t this a waste?  Why not just write the story?

Firstly, no words are wasted.  Everything you write is either a story, development work for a story or a learning experience.  Keeping those words coming, even if you’re not actually writing a draft keeps your writing muscles limber.  And great ideas can come from exploration.  Thinking is what leads to creativity.  Think all the time, and then follow through on paper.*

Secondly, you can save yourself a lot of stress and pain by exploring a concept before you embark on a draft.  10,000 words of writing is not wasted if it means you come to the story with a clear vision, a perfect understanding of the world and the characters.  Exploratory writing makes drafting much, much easier.

Exploratory writing isn’t just useful before a draft.  You can also use it to great effect while you are writing the first draft.  Scene going nowhere?  Open a new document, start from your stuck point and just write.  Fiddle about.  Make your characters do something, then try something else.  You’re not writing the draft, so it doesn’t matter what you do.  Work out your issues on paper.  Then when it’s all flowing again, transfer the good stuff back to your first draft and keep going.

Exploratory writing is the best cure for writer’s block, especially the kind that is caused by fear.  When you’re facing a story that you know is going to challenge you, stop avoiding it.  Open it up, then open another document.  Start exploring.  You’re not writing a draft, so there’s no pressure.  Force yourself to put words on the page, even if they are stiff and clunky.  You will hit that sweet spot, and the writing will flow.

There is a danger, though, that you will end up using exploratory writing as an excuse not to write.  That you will write and write and rehash until you have lost the drive for the story.  If this sounds like you, if you are one of those writers who struggles to finish, then stop exploring.  Put your butt in the chair, put your fingers on the keys** and finish that draft.  Write until you are done.  Explore as you go if you need to, but make sure you finish.

Next time you are stuck with a scene, or facing a writing challenge, give exploratory writing a try.  Sit down in front of the page with no other goal than to explore a concept on the page.  It’s a useful tool for your writing skill set that you can use over and over.

If you’re interested in further study, Laini Taylor has a post on her technique for exploratory drafts which you might enjoy.  Find it at Not For Robots.

*Yes yes, keyboard and screen if you like.  Goodness you people are pedantic.
**Fine, pick up a pen.  You people are never satisfied, are you?

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7 thoughts on “Exploratory writing

  1. Pingback: 5 cures for Writer’s Block « Not Enough Words

  2. I’m reminded of an exercise recommended by director Robert Rodriguez. He advised dividing up a stack of index cards into groups labeled Character, Setting, Action, etc. the idea is to write down a brief description of each person/place/action on a card. Then you shuffle each deck and turn them face down.
    By drawing one card from each category (starting with Character) in turn, you can create a story outline totally at random. Though the process was meant for film scripts, I think it could help jump start short story ideas, too.

  3. Awesome post, Merrilee! I only recently tried an exploratory writing technique, similar to number three, that a friend recommended to me. It was to write the story, but from the voice of a young child. It simplifies the language, and the idea of it just being an exercise was very freeing. I like the piece I eventually got from that.

    I’m excited to try out technique number one with this short story idea I’ve got bumping around.

  4. AH! So this is what I’m doing!! I was thinking of doing a couple more bits and pieces, just to get my head around a few more ideas. I think I know where to start the story now, though :-)

  5. I write several thousand words of exploratory writing before I embark on a new idea – mostly to expand the plot and start getting into the character’s heads.

    When it comes to setting I tend more to draw maps and fill in sheets/lists (climate, technology level, etc). But for plot and characters, I just have to sit and ramble uninterruptedly, often contradicting myself several times as I get things figured out.

  6. Thank you! This describes my approach perfectly, and now that you’ve written about it, it feels legitimate ;)

    And you are right to point out the dangers of using exploratory writing to avoid starting a draft. That is my particular weakness, and I’m trying to prevent it this time by setting a deadline for this stage.

    “No words are wasted.” Exactly!

  7. Thanks for explaining this in detail! These are really good points, and I particularly like the point on fleshing out characters. Even though I’m the kind of writer with pages of character info, I still need to write a few scenes to really get to know the character.

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