“Planning to write is not writing”: Like Hell It Isn’t

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
-E. L. Doctorow

My friend and fellow writer Dana Fredsti posted this quotation on her Facebook page, and asked people — especially other writers — if they had thoughts about it.

Boy, do I ever.

I think Doctorow has his head so far up his ass it’s coming out the other side.

A huge amount of writing is thinking about writing. It’s absurd to say that it isn’t writing unless you’re typing out words that very second. I mean, even when I’m in the “typing out words” part of writing, I spend a fair amount of time staring at the wall or out the window thinking about what I’m going to write — or looking over what I’ve written and thinking about how and whether to revise it. Does that not count as writing, either? And if it does, why does it count ten seconds before I type words, or a minute before I type words, but not an hour or a day before? Why does the revising count ten seconds after I typed words, or a minute after, but not an hour or a day after?

Is there some sort of statute of limitations determining when “thinking about writing” no longer qualifies as writing?

Yes, there are some differences between the “typing out words” part of writing and the “thinking about what to write” part of writing. But in my experience, those are differences of degree, not of kind…. and the degree isn’t that great. And yes, it’s easy to procrastinate by telling yourself things like, “I’m writing in my head,” or by doing every possible thing even vaguely related to writing that isn’t the “typing out words” part. (It’s one of the things that’s so dangerous about Facebook and Twitter: if you’re a writer, going onto Facebook and Twitter do qualify as work, since it’s part of publicity and promotion.) At some point, you have to sit down and do the “typing out words” part of writing: if you never ever get to that, then no, all the planning and thinking in the world doesn’t really count as writing.

But if you do eventually sit down and do the “typing out words” part, then yes — all the planning and thinking and re-thinking totally counts.

Thoughts — from other writers, from other artists, from anyone else with ideas about this?

“Planning to write is not writing”: Like Hell It Isn’t

39 thoughts on ““Planning to write is not writing”: Like Hell It Isn’t

  1. 1

    Here’s the absolute most charitable devils-advocate I can muster.

    I read a writing blog titled Writing About Writing, and that particular blogger has a very strong stance called “Earning your ‘ER’.” In other words, if you write (words on a page) regularly, you are a writer. On the other hand, if you don’t actually write, you are not a writer.

    This is in response to the sorts of people who want to be a writer, talk all the time about the vast number of stories in their head, try to go to networking meetings, buy expensive pens and paper, but never actually sit down and put the words on the page. Apparently this is a thing in the writing world.

    So, if I am as charitable as possible to Doctorow, they might be talking about the people who don’t actually get to the part of writing rather than the people who do everything they said in the quote plus putting words on the page. It could be seen as an admonishment to people who say they write but never seem to get around to it rather than deriding certain steps in the process.

  2. 2

    I’d have to say I started writing, or telling stories (since I also work non-written forms, such as when I run a tabletop RPG or when I used to draw comic art), since the moment I started being able to comprehend my surroundings. One way or another my everyday life works its way into the things I write and stories I tell, either directly or just inspirationally. I may not be scribbling something down or typing in my netbook when you see me but that hardly means I’m not writing.

  3. 3

    I think all writers – all serious writers focused on their craft, at least – have things they want to get better at. In the last year or so, one of my projects has been becoming more concise. Largely I think I’ve now achieved that: I can say in seven or eight hundred words what used to take me twice as many. This is very much the result of conscious effort to not-write – not just to put fewer words on the page, but to start typing with a clear trajectory mapped out.

    In general, I’m a big defender of the maxim that the best way to write better is to write more; to put more practice in, train the writing muscles, devote more time to honing one’s style, etc. But for me a big part of doing that was getting myself not to bash out words before I knew where they were going. A big part of writing more was writing less.

  4. 4

    In my own opinion, even if the quote could be construed as correct, it probably would still do more harm than good. Everyone has their own process, and all that really matters is that you have something to show for it at the end, no matter how long you wish to take or how little or much you spend writing the words that become the story.

    I like the “earning your ‘ER'” concept much better because it puts positive focus on what matters, not negative focus on what doesn’t.

  5. 5

    Yeah, I think he’s being flippant about something more serious. There’s a reason why Julia Cameron and ERic Maisel and others are making their living coaching artists. Fear and anxiety about creating is huge. I think this is his version of Nike’s “Just do it”. Eh. Alternatively, he is the literary incarnation of Mozart and could audiate symphonies … whatever that would be in writing.

  6. sbh

    It sounds like the kind of thing I sometimes tell myself when starting still another outline or doing further research for the same unwritten piece.

  7. 7

    Drawing bleuprints and architecting a building, doing environmental impact studies, earthquake resilience simulations, wind vibration tests, securing supply lines, hiring crews, acquiring permits, discussing over and over with the client their ever changing requirements, what materials they want to use, and so on. None of that is building a building.

    Only hammering nails and pouring cement, baby. THAT’s building a building.


  8. 8

    I’ve been a professional writer for almost 40 years in one way or another, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times when writing something wasn’t preceded by a period of “thinking about what I’m planning to write.” When I was a daily newspaper reporter, I did an entire story from alpha to omega in 20 minutes on deadline. That one sticks out in my mind, but I’m really hard-pressed to think of another example.

    My current process involves a lot of reading and then thinking about what I’ve read. Before I put pixel to flat-screen, I have mulled over what needs to be said, how it needs to be said, what context it needs to be said in. It is extremely rare that the first thought that pops into my head ends up being anywhere near what the final product looks like.

    Frankly, the more I plan and think about what I’m going to write, the better the project comes out. Things have to “cook”. Some might view it as being indistinguishable from procrastination, but it’s anything but. Sometimes, that thinking process keeps me up at night. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had flashes of insight in that shoulder time between going to bed and going to sleep.

    So, I agree with you 100%. Doctorow is wrong. He probably didn’t think about what he was saying before he said it.

  9. 9

    Chris J at #1 may be right, in which case fine. Otherwise it just sounds like an exercise in pointless definitioneering. He’s whining about the meaning of a word, in a way that sounds erudite but conveys no actual information. There ought to be a word for that. Definisturbation?

  10. 11

    I interpret the shorter version along the lines Chris J. suggests: telling people about parties about the book you’re going to write is, let’s say, orthogonal to actually writing it.

    I’m not sure Doctorow’s formulation leaves wiggle room for that, though. Outlining, researching, planning — as long as they don’t turn into prepcrastinating — most certainly are writing.

  11. 12

    “Planning to write is not writing.”

    True enough, if a bit banal

    “Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing.”

    To be difficult, one could point out that most outlines are written down, that writing without researching the topic is, in essence, puffery or that even insofar as talking to people is not writing, it’s far more engaging to have two-way communication.

    “Writing is writing.”

    Well, that’s good rhetoric, if nothing else. I like to believe that Doctorow was merely saying something along the lines of “Put up or shut up” but it’s such a half-thought-out way of saying so.

    Personally, I’ve said for a few years now that “writing” is often treated as some sacrosanct, mystic process when what’s important is communication of one’s thoughts.

  12. 13

    As someone who joined an old school APA (Amateur Press Association) in order to have deadlines that would actually force me to write something rather than just think about it…

    I suspect that part of what may be happening here is that Doctorow had so internalized the ‘planning to write’ part that he didn’t even really consciously notice he was doing it anymore. Like the old bit about how genius experts are not necessarily any good as teachers: many of the things that need to be explained to novices have become so second nature to them that they don’t actually think about them anymore.

  13. 14

    At a conference a few years ago, I listened to a well-known best selling thriller writer talk about his process. He went into a lot of detail about how he outlined and organized his projects. Notecards and thumbtacks on corkboards. It sounded tedious to me, but whatever worked for him, I figured. Then he declared unequivocally that anyone who didn’t write this way was a fool and unprofessional and couldn’t really call themselves a writer.

    I was sitting next to another best selling thriller writer at the time, someone with many more books to her credit than this guy, and she whispered, “I haven’t used a notecard since high school. I’m such a failure.”

    That Doctorow quote has been floating around for years, and I admit I’ve always found it off-putting. I read it as more Doctorow self-congratulation than as a useful insight about writing. It’s a guy standing on a stage saying, “if you don’t do it my way, you’re wrong.” Oh, good grief.

    Unrelated: I know Dana too! She’s good people!

  14. 15

    I tracked down the original quote from the New York Times in 1985. It’s part of a larger paragraph and I think that context adds something back to that line that’s less negative than it reads as (mis)quoted.

    Thus is the artist in Edgar born, and the scene supplies an answer to the overriding concern of the narrator in the novel: How did I become what I’ve become? How did I get here from there?

    Sitting in the sun in Sag Harbor, Edgar Doctorow answers those questions about himself. ”The presumption of writing,” he says, ”is that you can speak for other people, that you can live lives through your work that you have not lived, and that you can do that adequately and justly. Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. If you do it right, you’re coming up out of yourself in a way that’s not entirely governable by your intellect. That’s why the most important lesson I’ve learned is that planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

  15. 17

    I’ve written a novel (-ish – it’s about 100 000 words). It’s not pretty, but it’s on paper and at least two people have read it, and I’m editing and expanding it.

    Throughout the process of researching, planning and actually writing it, I’ve come to the realization that this quote could be saved with the addition of one word: just.

    “Just planning to write is not writing. Just outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”

    I know a lot of people who are in the “research phase” of a novel, or are “working on an outline,” or something, and have been in that phase for a decade or more. I think there’s a strong argument to make that what they’re doing might be some kind of creative act, but that it’s not writing.

  16. 18

    I write more while doing the dishes than probably anywhere else. I will hash things out in my mind, tease out analogies and ideas, and decide some things are too big for the topic so they’ll have to go, all before I sit down at the computer.

  17. 20

    “Planning a menu is not cooking. Shopping, chopping, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is cooking. Stirring stuff in a bowl or on a stove is cooking.” Said no cook, ever.

    I’ve known best-selling writers who – like the author mentioned above – were obsessive outliners, and others who “jumped off the bridge into the fog”. Some were strong on character development before turning them loose in a situation to see what they would do, Others worked out the plot and then wrote characters that could make it happen.

    Whatever works! Whatever leads to getting words on paper or pixels on screen if fine with me.

    E.L.Doctorow writes FICTION – as a long-time technical writer, I need to do way more research and planning or I’ll be writing fiction too, when it’s suppiosed to be a user manual or article on wildlife.

  18. 21

    @Chris J.
    I’ve been reading Chris Breechen’s blog as well (He is a fellow Grounded Parents Blogger) and I’m fairly certain that Chris would agree (I’ll ask him) that Doctorow is being a pedantic ass and completely failing to encourage writers to actually write.

  19. Pen

    Obviously, there’s some melodrama in the way he puts it across and it depends very much on the writer, but I don’t think it’s completely untrue. I loved every minute of working on my research thesis except the damned writing which nearly killed me (the referencing was just the torment of the afterlife). Not an uncommon situation, and lots of PhD students in particular abandon their thesis between the research and writing phase. It’s just not done till you glue your butt to the chair and get the words out. It may still have worth to the person who did it but it means nada to the rest of the world, since it’s inaccessible to them.

    Ditto my novel. I’ve spent months traveling the world, building up my experiences, more research, day-dreaming over my characters and what they do, making planning sheets, character charts, notes… All very important and necessary. Do you all want to buy it yet? Of course not. Not with several chapters still at the bullet point stage! All those things may be part of the writing process, but until it’s written it’s not written.

    Clearly, writing without research, planning, etc would be equally unacceptable in many cases, but I don’t think he’s trying to say that, nor do I think he has it in for pauses between words.

  20. 23

    In Camus’ The Plague there’s a writer who’s been working on a novel for several years. He’s making the first paragraph perfect. As soon as the first paragraph can’t be improved, then the rest of the novel should just flow from there. That (fictional) writer isn’t writing.

  21. 24

    Writing is a bit like sewing a garment in that respect: Actually putting in stiches/down words is the smallest part of it.
    I’m wondering if this guy ever went to a college class for “written expression”. Or maybe he’s just a bad writer. Because nothing makes me put down a novel more quickly than an author who hasn’t done their research.

    I think you’re putting the carriage before the horse: Just because research doesn’t mean there will be eventually a finished text it still doesn’t mean it’s not a necessary part of it. To get back to my initial comparison: Many dressmakers have a stash of things they call “UFOs” (un-finished objects): Items started but abandoned when something distracted them. Just because these items didn’t become clothes doesn’t mean that they could have become clothes by simply putting rectangles of fabric under your needle.

  22. 25

    As a perfectionist/procrastinator, I have some sympathy for Doctorow here. It speaks to me quite well. I’m not a writer, so possibly that gives me the detachment so I don’t feel angry or dictated to.

    If he’s the type (like me) who has to overcome procrastination with all the dicking around organising and planning and researching and filing, then the idea works for him, and is important for him. Cool. He doesn’t actually say that the other stuff is unimportant, just that it’s not actually writing, and to be a writer you must actually write.

    Since Giliell’s using craft analogies, I might say that organising your yarn stash is not knitting. Neither is browsing ravelry for new patterns, shopping for tools, or browsing online stores for new and exciting yarn. The only way I’m going to get a finished object is to actually knit.

  23. Pen

    @ Gillell – I think you’re putting the carriage before the horse:

    No, I just put what you said in the last paragraph! I guess I still have to work on editing.

  24. 30

    It’s not knitting as in ” make knots in wool*”, but it’s a necessary precondition, isn’t it?
    It’s a bit like creativity in general: You won’t get any new ideas by sitting in a dark room thinking hard.

    *I can’t knit, does it show?

  25. 31

    This conversation is making me think, and I think I should clarify/ refine my point.

    If all you ever do is plan, outline, research, and talk to other people about your writing, and you never get to the “typing words” part — then no, that’s not writing. And I know I’m not the only writer who sometimes uses these things as excuses for not actually doing to “typing words” part. (“Prepcrastinating” — that’s really good, Hershele Ostropoler @ #11. I’ll have to remember that.)

    But if you do get to the “typing words” part, then planning, outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, is all definitely part of writing.

    I think Dweller in Darkness @ #17 hit the nail on the head. “I’ve come to the realization that this quote could be saved with the addition of one word: just. ‘Just planning to write is not writing. Just outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.'”

    It does leave an interesting middle ground, though. It’s common for writers and other artists to start projects that we never finish. I can’t tell you how many unfinished blog posts I have, which I either might get back to someday, or won’t get back to because they were about time-sensitive issues and the moment passed. If you plan, outline, research, and talk to other people about a project, and don’t ever finish it — does that count as writing (or whatever art form you’re in)? There’s a part of me that thinks that it’s all grist for the mill, that the half-written pieces, and quarter-written pieces, and pieces I mulled over in my head and then abandoned, are all part of the process, shaping the work I do eventually finish. And there’s a part of me that thinks I’m using that notion to rationalize being lazy and unfocused. Thoughts?

  26. 32

    Re: Greta Christina @ 31 –

    Doctrow is either poorly stating his point (bad writing, then) or is being ignorant and playing the broad-brush game. Surely, if someone never gets around to the actual writing by their own fault, then of course “it isn’t writing”.

    But it does sound like he is being awfully exclusionary in his definition of writing as a process. A process which may really be a self-delusion for some – sure, that ain’t writing. But an abandoned process? That’s writing which was abandoned.

    What if you run the entire process and never share the output, or it is declined for publishing if one goes that route? Is it like the bad pop-culture concepts of a tree in the forest falling or Schrodinger’s cat?

    Maybe the quote has been freed from a necessary context, but people do say things like that, pronouncing deepities. For the latter in this case, it would smell of self-aggrandizement and actual elitism.

  27. 33

    For me, the expanded quote in #15 rings true. I’m a scientist, but I do have to write, and my greatest challenge has always been getting the story to “lie flat” on the page – reducing the dense, tangled web of associations in my head to a logical, one-thing-at-a-time sequence of words. For this, I can’t just make an outline and expect it to work; I have to actually write.

    When I write, even an intentionally terrible first draft, I can feel where the story begins to resist itself. Then I have to sit with that resistance. More often than not, as I’m struggling, my subconscious will smack me upside the head with a better idea. It’s not something that comes from my rational mind; it’s like fiddling with a rusty lock until the key snaps into place. You have to engage with the stuck bits, and all the “pre-writing” in the world won’t force you to do.

  28. 34

    I’ve composed whole poems in my head at work just to keep my brain awake, and haven’t been able to write them down until I get home. At that point all I’m doing is committing it to external memory- yes, I’m recording the words in written form, but it’s not writing, it’s transcribing words from memory. If the mental composing does not count as writing either, then what did I do? I never wrote those poems, but they are mine. Spawn of my headspace.

  29. 35

    Greta, I went out and found the long interview that this quote’s taken from, and I think Doctorow and I are on about the same page and it’s really a few lines of his taken somewhat out of context. He focuses on the importance of actually putting one word after another more than I would, but the general idea he’s trying to get across, it seems, is that it doesn’t count as writing unless you actually make an actual effort to write. What constitutes “actual effort” is, of course, a matter of some debate.

    For me, I think things that I’ve tried and failed at certainly count as “writing” if I gave them an honest effort. There are some places, though, where I really do think that I failed to write what the idea needed – that’s on me to correct and to write better in future.

  30. 36

    As has been pointed out here by some, I also think the actual point being made was along the lines of: “if you don’t actually put pen to paper (finger to key, brushstroke to papyrus), whatever else you’re doing, the sum of all this effort is nothing unless you start.”

    I’ve had a similar actual experience with creating art. I don’t have much time for it now, am suffering from artist’s block, procrastination and whatnot. but yes, there were times when I would buy materials, make sketches, plan out an art piece, drawing, painting. And execute it to some degree of success. I’d call all that effort “doing art” or “painting” or “drawing” depending on the result.

    And more recently I’ve spent hours considering drawing, thinking about colours and materials, actually buying paints and pencils and other things. And never actually starting work on anything.

    And I don’t think I’m doing art. The “trappings” only become part of the activity when the substance is there.

  31. 38

    I am not a writer, I am a programmer. I read a lot, though.

    I think he’s spot on.

    Planning is not writing. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. Research is necessary, but not sufficient. Proofreading and revising, necessary but not sufficient. You have to put words on paper (or, for me, code into the editor).

    Putting gas in your car is not driving. Learning the alphabet is not reading. Sharpening your chisel is not sculpting.

    “But if you do eventually sit down and do the “typing out words” part, then yes — all the planning and thinking and re-thinking totally counts.”

    I don’t see anything in Doctorow’s quote that says none of that stuff is *important*.

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