Question for Writers


Do you compose in your head? If so, how much can you compose before you have to write it down to keep from losing it?

I can mentally compose a couple of pages of an essay, and that’s frequently how I do it. When I am in composition mode, I can’t follow a conversation to save my life. Sometimes, when people try to talk to me while I’m in the process of working myself up for a writing session, they think I am just not interested in what they have to say.

I can’t write fiction that way. Maybe three sentences of fiction is the limit, and I have to write them down as soon as possible, or I lose them.

How does your composition process work? Is the cognitive stuff you do before you actually sit down to write different for different types of writing? You should think about it and figure it out, even if it’s not something you want to discuss on a blog.

If you’re looking for a prompt, this would make a pretty good one.

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About Gene'O

Compulsive writer, amateur photographer, and blogaholic. Also an evil genius.

25 thoughts on “Question for Writers

  1. Gene'O says:

    This is my 100th post on The Writing Catalog.

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  2. I’m the same way. I actually think while writing so I need to write things down to process them and figure out what I want to say. Then, suddenly, I know what my thought was and it’s clear. Until I had it down on paper, all I had in my head was a nebulous feeling that didn’t go anywhere.

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  3. Gene'O says:

    I think while I’m writing, too, but it’s a different sort of thinking than what I’m describing here. It’s less self-conscious.

    I am just old enough to have started writing longhand, and I still do a lot of outlining and diagramming longhand (even though my best work is in text, my organization skills are visual). I can’t do the actual composition part longhand any more. Composing on word processors has changed my process to the point that I can’t get the words out fast enough with pen and paper, once I get into the zone.

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  4. Poetry, for me, usually starts with snippets. maybe three, four lines, then I have to find somewhere to write it down — in part because I worry I’ll forget.

    It’s like when you dream and in your dream you come up with this great piece or this great line, and it’s so good you know you couldn’t possibly forget it, but then you wake up and it’s gone, or most of it is gone and what’s left means nothing to you. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?!

    There’s a post-it note just in front of me, right now, that has one of those snippets: “The floorboards of heaven were creaking” — the line ended up barely more than an echo in the final poem, but without that line, I never would have written the poem.

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    • Gene'O says:

      Hey, thanks for giving us this insight. I haven’t written enough poems in the last 15 years to say much about it. I wrote a bit of poetry in my teens and 20s, though, and the best ones always seemed to start from either one good line or one good image, and grow from there.

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  5. trentpmcd says:

    I do most of my work in my head before committing to paper. I “wrote” the “alpha” draft of my book in my head before writing the first draft on the computer. When it comes to short stories I usually write about 2 or 3 times as much material in my head, creating back stories, etc., before putting down on paper/electrons.

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    • Gene'O says:

      Yeah. I have lots of stuff in my head. I had a three month long session of writing a lot of backstory type stuff down and getting it out of my head over the last summer. It helped.

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  6. alvasalmanac says:

    My creativity usually comes from my everyday life. It is when I am over thinking things that I run up against a wall. (Hunger Games fanfic, for example.) It is incredibly difficult for me because I do’n’t want it to be trash or a rerun. You know?

    I do spend a good bit of time on character development. The plot like to walk off the beaten path. I can always look for it, and even find it. but the best stories have multiple subplots.

    Basically I write because I have to. It is totally affirmed for me when it is mentioned to me. It used to happen on my facebook notes every time and it weirded me out.

    Keep on keeping on.

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    • Gene'O says:

      Yes! Writing is kind of compulsive for me. I say this to my wife pretty often “No one WANTS to be a writer.” I don’t get so much of it from my everyday life, but I do spend a lot of energy on character development.

      Stay thirsty, my friend 🙂

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  7. I can come up with ideas and structure in my head, but at some point I need to take notes and/or type. If it’s notes for ideas, not actual paragraphs, I can do it with pen and papers, but if it’s actual text, I am much more comfortable typing it up. Yet, I always need to have a notebook with me to jolt down notes whenever my brain attacks.

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    • Gene'O says:

      The way I move from my head to the computer, usually, is by sitting down and drawing crude diagrams on paper. Eventually, I move from the paper to the computer. I just can’t produce text without a keyboard anymore. If I had to go back to writing with a pen, it would take me a year to adjust my thought patterns to that more leisurely way of creating.

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  8. lexyneedham says:

    I have to plan non-fiction out on paper, from notes through to the final draft. Fiction, though, I prefer to have gone over a dozen times in my head before I start writing. It won’t come out quite the same barring a few scraps, but it lets me get the plot ironed out before I set off.

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    • Gene'O says:

      I always plan my nonfiction out, unless it is very short. I still do not know how to plan fiction – fiction is just something that happens to me, and I am always grateful when it does. I am sure viewing it that way is holding my fiction back a bit.

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  9. Diana says:

    Mine varies quite a bit. I do most of my outlining and pre-writing in my head, though, because I’m just that sort of person.

    When I was doing a lot of fiction writing, though, what I tended to do was just sit down and write what was in my head and go back and edit later.

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    • Gene'O says:

      I am detecting a theme here. With fiction, I am more concerned with seeing it like a movie than with moving from point to point. So, my experience is similar. Nonfiction is not like that. Nonfiction is premeditated, at least for me.

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  10. I’m not that disciplined. I’ll think of a line that I think will set the tone for a post, then I save it to drafts. When the inspiration kicks in, I tighten it up.

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    • Gene'O says:

      That’s kind of an interesting way to operate. I do it occasionally, but my normal practice is to take an idea that’s good for at least three posts and do a lot of work on it. Ever notice how my short posting fits into certain categories? Music, questions, roundups . . . it is because those are easy. Not much outlining required.

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  11. I write my really brilliant stuff in my head whilst I’m out walking the dog or doing something that allows me to go off on a tangent. Unfortunately by the time I write it down the brilliance has gone and it is just passable. On the whole my writing is done off the cuff. Once started the writing takes on a life of its own and the words just flow. I never plan although I may have decided or been given the topic of the piece I’m intending to write.

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  12. Harliqueen says:

    I tend to see things in my head, like a movie, before jotting them down 😀 Great post.

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  13. Gene'O says:

    Thanks to everyone for your responses. I love to see how other writers work – I find it both interesting and helpful.

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  14. I love working on non-fiction from an outline, I work it out from there, generally coming up with the ideas and flow in my head as I do that. That goes for my blog posts as well.

    For fiction, I do most of my composing in my head; the problem with that is that it gets hard to take the time to sit down and get pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I feel like I don’t get it out as well at that point as I had it in my head – or else, I come up with new ideas, and they superimpose over what I’ve already written.

    For both, though, I take down copious notes. I have a huge collection of blog post ideas – enough to keep the blog going a few years, I think. And I have a ton of notes for my fiction, which I have tried distilling into an outline, since I know that works for me with non-fiction. I was working on the outline for NaNoWriMo, but found out it’s a lot more work than just sitting down and writing out fiction! But I hope it gets me organized to the point I can get one of my stories down.

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  15. hannahgivens says:

    I generally start with a rough topical outline, then mentally compose entire paragraphs and type them out once I’m happy with them in my head. It can vary… with nonfiction I often end up researching while I’m writing, so when I finish a particular chapter or topic I’ll mentally compose my next sentence and add it to my existing outline or paragraph. I usually end up with a general paper, then refine it with those extra sentences, then read through it to clean up transitions. With fiction, my ideal is to get into a groove and not be stop-starting, so there’s not a lot of mental composition once that starts.

    I just try to make everything in service of what I’m creating, and design my process around whatever information I already have (or how I’m obtaining it). So, if I have a structure, I outline it in subheads first. If I have some mental images of scenes, I’ll probably do a post-it outline and then start writing from those scenes, filling in as I go. If I have research notes, I’ll probably start with topical narration and tease it into some kind of structure later. It just varies.

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  16. Gene'O says:

    I am so proud of this thread. I will answer every comment on it eventually. That is how proud I am of it.

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  17. […] I liked this one from The Writing Catalog. How do we compose? Do we do it in our head or do we need a pen and paper (or computer)? https://gno112.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/question-for-writers/ […]

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  18. Reblogged this on DBCII and commented:
    Looking for input from writers on their process? Want to chime in on your own? Here’s a great conversation starter from over on The Writing Catalog! Make sure to look through the comments!

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