Research, Planning, Writing, Editing

It’s Friday, which is not normally a blog day for me, but I thought I’d comment on a couple of reader comments on yesterday’s post on subtexting.

Wayne wrote:

So subtext would then seem to be a literary technique like dramatic irony involving information withheld from the characters.

But you say “I don’t plan subtexting either. I just write.” Why not plan subtext? Shouldn’t an author plan what info to withhold?

Also, what is the broader term for literary techniques that withhold information?

Randy sez: I’m not sure if it’s a matter of withholding information from characters, so much as it’s a matter of characters acting the way real people do–which is to say they lie, fib, prevaricate, obfuscate, and dissimulate. Once in a while, they even tell the truth, if it suits their interest.

Elizabeth wrote:

You said that you “don’t plan subtexting either. I just write.” which I’m surprised to hear; when I write dialogue or interior monologue, I’m very aware of what my characters aren’t saying, as much as I am of what they are — perhaps I’ve spent too much time studying Pinter, but that’s crucial for my character development.

Randy sez: I’ll answer Wayne’s second question and Elizabeth’s first at the same time. There are really four main activities we do as writers when we create fiction:
1) Research
2) Planning
3) Writing
4) Editing

Different people put different amounts of efforts into each of these, depending on their personal tastes. Let’s look at each of these:

Research: Michener was a research puppy and Clancy is one now. Grisham doesn’t care for research. I like research, and have done some rather insane amounts. I have a lunar calendar valid for Jerusalem between the years A.D. 50 and A.D. 75. I made it myself, using astronomical tables of new moons. I once wrote a computer program to calculate trajectories of spacecraft between earth and Mars (for my novel OXYGEN). It took me 3 weeks to answer a question my coauthor and I had about whether a deep-space rendezvous could be done. I showed that it could, and calculated the exact date it could occur. We revised our plot slightly to accommodate this.

Planning: Frank Peretti and Davis Bunn like to do quite meticulous outlines. Jerry Jenkins and Robin Lee Hatcher prefer to just sit down and type the story without any planning. My Snowflake method is a planning tool that is very flexible and will accommodate both the meticulous folks and those (like me) who want to have some structure but leave some surprises, although it is not much use for those who don’t want to plan anything. I need to plan out the large-scale structure of the story, but I need to NOT plan out the details. There is no right or wrong choice on planning that works for everyone–there is only the right or wrong choice for YOU.

Writing: Some people hate writing first drafts and some love it. I love it and write quite fast. In January, I interviewed Susan Meissner on this blog, who shared how she routinely writes a novel in 30 days or so. That speed is about right for me, too, IF I’ve done my research and my planning. But there are also those who write very slowly and painfully, leaking the story out of their veins one word at a time. Again, whatever works for you is whatever works. I have tried writing slower and the result was worse writing.

Editing: Some people love editing and others hate it. I don’t particularly like it. I have a suspicion that those who hate the first drafts love the editing, whereas those of us who love the first draft tend to hate the editing. Once again, this is a choice each writer has to make.

The bottom line then is that you only have 100% of your time and effort to give to any project. You can apportion more or less of it on the four phases: Research, Planning, Writing, and Editing, but it’s all going to add up to 100% in the end. There is no set of proportions that is “best” for all writers. But for YOU there is probably one best way to split your time in order to get the best out of yourself. Your mission is to find that split and stick to it.

Here’s roughly my split:
Research: 40%
Planning: 20%
Writing: 30%
Editing: 10%

Now I can answer Wayne and Elizabeth on why I don’t plan my subtexting–I prefer not to. It works better for me not to. But for some people it works better to plan it.

I’m curious how my Loyal Blog Readers split their time. If you’re brave, post a comment with your estimated apportionments for Research, Planning, Writing, and Editing.


  1. Alice June 27, 2008 at 6:04 pm #

    Research: 35%
    Planning: 10%
    Writing: 30%
    Editing: 25%

    Anal-retentive is my middle name. When I have a book idea, I pile up gobs of research in various Word and .pdf docs. I swear by the Snowflake. I’ve also been a copyeditor for 25 years, so editing is second nature.

    When I’m writing, I want to WRITE, not stop to research a fact. So all my research is accessible and I just open a saved doc, check the info, and keep on writing. I’m up to 44K on the current book–took me 4 months. Not nearly as fast as many, but I have a FT job, kids, house to keep–you get the idea. Also, without the Snowflake, I’d totally mess up planting clues to the murderer, and what’s a mystery without clues?

  2. Camille June 27, 2008 at 11:36 pm #

    Research 10%
    Planning 25%
    Writing 10%
    Editing 40%
    Blogging 10%
    Frowning at the screen 5%

    I love editing/polishing/perfecting. I’m an editing junkie. For me, it’s when the real writing begins, when the storyworld and characters come alive and take on depth.

  3. Richard Mabry June 28, 2008 at 5:12 am #

    Research: I do it as I go along. Maybe 10%.
    Planning: General outline and rough synopsis done before I start, but it always changes. Probably 20%.
    Writing: The bulk of my effort, often editing as I go. At least 75%.
    Editing: At least two versions after the first draft. Probably 35%.

    For those of you who noticed that this comes to 140%, this probably explains why writing is so difficult for me.

    Randy, thanks for your advice.

  4. Jess June 28, 2008 at 9:18 am #

    Research – 5%
    Planning – 10%
    Writing – 15%
    Editing – 10%
    Encouraging/Critiquing/Reading for others 60%

    Actually this changes with each book I write. Sometimes the research is so fascinating it won’t let go of me. Other times, it’s drudgery. The first draft is the hardest for me, but I have to write at least three chapters before I can do any planning. I usually edit as I go. Once I tried to write the entire book before I did any editing and I was so overwhelmed the book still isn’t finished. 🙁 I have that same problem in my crit group. When I receive 5 critiques–all making different comments, I tend to get lost and lose my focus. I guess that’s why I have so many incomplete manuscripts. I didn’t have a crit group for my one published novel until AFTER I finished it. Any advice, Randy? I believe out of frustration I turn to helping others. That makes me feel as though I’m truly accomplishing something.

  5. Lois Hudson June 28, 2008 at 9:24 am #

    Camille, I love you!

    I tend to do everything simultaneously. My stories are character driven, and I know them well. I place them in settings I know, even if created. I’ve created a town in the midwest, set it down in a space in Missouri where there’s room for it, named it, drawn a map of it with houses of all the characters, places of business, geography, et al. Come to think of it I suppose that’s research, or is it planning? I deal with my characters mentally, sometimes all day as I’m doing other things. I do a lot of editing on each chapter as I go. (I know, that’s not recommended.) And I, too, have wondered how much time blogging steals from writing. Can we call blogging research? It does lead to study. Are we having fun yet? Yes – a blast!

    Research 15%
    Planning 30%
    Writing 30%
    Editing 25%


  6. Karri June 28, 2008 at 9:26 am #

    Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to stop editing as I write. This is a problem.

    I think I write better when I plan; however, it takes me forever to think about what will happen so I can actually write it.

    I’m still a relatively inexperienced writer, so I hope this will all come as I’m learning.

  7. Lynda June 28, 2008 at 9:30 am #

    I can’t really break it down to percentages. It all depends on what I am writing. I love research, writing, editing—the whole thing. But, I find writing fiction is very different from non-fiction. I need total silence to do fiction. But, I can (and often do) have a circus going on around me when I write articles. I guess the ability to do the different forms come from separate places in the brain.

  8. Davalynn June 28, 2008 at 9:39 am #

    research – 10
    planning – 10
    mulling – 10
    writing – 40
    editing – 30

    This is the breakdown for my recently completed middle-grades novel – lighter on the research end because the setting is local and I already had the information in my head/life/experience. However, there is an earthquake in the story and I spent enough time researching causes, effects, types and locations that when the quakes in China hit, they jolted me out of my story world. It was a little freaky to see on the news what I’d had going on in my mind.

    A second novel that I will soon pull from the shelf requires more on the research end. I’m sure you’ve also noticed that I’m not much of a planner. The truth is, I’m not much good with numbers, so these could be way off. However, most of the time when I write, the story takes over and tells me, rather than me telling the story. The characters do and say things that I sometimes don’t see coming. It’s like watching an unpredictable movie. (Is that totally nuts?) That’s where subtexting comes in for me, and then I go back and polish off the rough edges – also known as editing.

  9. Lois Hudson June 28, 2008 at 9:44 am #

    Would passive-aggressive dialogue be an example of subtexting?

  10. Hope Marston June 28, 2008 at 9:51 am #

    Hi Randy,
    My time is apportioned similar to yours. I am a library media specialist by profession and I love ferreting out the information I need ahead of time.
    I also enjoy editing my work. I learned many years ago the importance (for me at least) of getting something on paper. It didn’t have to be correct. It just had to be there. Then I could take all the time I needed to refine it. I love seeing the improvement I can make merely by using a different word, rearraning the text, deleting redundancies, etc.

  11. Pam Halter June 28, 2008 at 11:19 am #

    I hate math … therefore, I can’t even begin to break down my system in percentage. But I do plan and research before I start to write and I often stop to research something that comes up in the writing. Since I’m not under contract yet, I have the freedom to do this. I also factor in frowning at the screen like Camille and mulling things over like Davalynn. Then there is the inevidable rabbit trail I go down when my characters surprise me.

    For subtexting, I think really knowing your characters will help you use subtexting naturally because you know their thoughts even though you don’t always write them down.

    I don’t know if this is subtexting, but in my WIP, my antagonist (Tzmet the witch) has resurrected her father, Viss’aird (the evil Dark Lord) and she’s not happy with the outcome. Here one snippet of converstaion:

    But the longer she sat there, the more she wanted to leave and take refuge in her own room. She desired a hot bath and something to eat. Her father had not dismissed her after she brought his evening meal. She sat by his side as he ate, her own stomach begging for food. Again, she wondered if it was a good thing, this change in her life.
    Finally, she could stand no more. “Father,” she started.
    Viss’aird’s pale eyes rested on her. A tremor of fear shivered through her, but she lifted her chin. “If you have no need for me tonight, I would retire to my room.”
    He nodded, and Tzmet rose to leave. She turned at the door to curtsey in respect.
    Tzmet paused with her hand on the doorknob. She turned back. “Yes?”
    “I hope your loyalty to me has not changed along with everything else.”
    Tzmet’s heart leaped in her throat. “It has not.”
    When he said no more, Tzmet slipped out the door and forced herself to walk calmly to her room.

  12. Suzanne June 28, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    Research 10%
    Planning 10%
    Writing 40%
    Editing 30%

    Writing and planning are actually a bit intermixed for me. I write a section, then review it and tweak. Then write another section, review it and tweak. I’ll do that over and over as I write a chapter. At the end of a chapter, I read through the whole chapter and make changes. Then I’ll make one more pass through it to catch any mistakes my changes may have caused. All of that before I even send it to my critique group. When I’m finished with the whole book, I call it my First Draft, after all of the tweaking and reviewing, it’s probably more like my Third Draft. LOL

  13. Suzanne June 28, 2008 at 1:39 pm #

    I may be able to write, but math is a whole different ball game. Guess I should have reviewed what I wrote before I posted it. LOL Here’s what it should be to equal 100%.

    Research 10%
    Planning 10%
    Writing 45%
    Editing 35%

  14. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren June 28, 2008 at 1:58 pm #

    I think is also important for your style of writing when you do what step. Seeing I’m only on my first full novel project my percentages and order is a bit speculative but I think it will work out something likes this:

    writing: 10%
    planning: 20%
    editing: 50%
    research: 20%

    Research is at the end because I think of research more as a logic cum fact checking exercise and not as a basic inspiration event.

    Pam, I am not sure about the subtext but I think your strongest moment is in this line: “I hope your loyalty to me has not changed along with everything else.”

    I think you can up the ante by making his words less threatening, thereby heightening the implied threat. Something like:

    “It warms my heart to see your loyalty has not changed.” His knife sliced cleanly through the chicken’s breastbone. He didn’t bother to look up.
    Tzmet’s heart leaped in her throat. “It has not.”

  15. Andra M. June 28, 2008 at 7:24 pm #


    Since I’m editing one novella and need to tackle two novels as well, editing seems to be all I’m doing.

  16. Heather Henckler June 29, 2008 at 5:36 pm #

    hi everyone – this topic has made me curious… how many of you blog readers are professional full-time writers and how many do writing on the side? for people who have other jobs, how do you manage to fit the time and energy for writing? My job leaves me so exhausted at the end of the day that I don’t devote nearly as much time as I’d like to ANY of the four categories percentiled above…

  17. yeggy June 29, 2008 at 6:09 pm #

    Research, depends on the project, my present project about 10%
    Planning, this is mostly done in my mind in my imagination and can take weeks, say 40%, but I usually am planning the next thing while editting present project.
    The writing is then relatively quickly executed say 20%
    Editting I tend to do over and over adding in more and more texture until I’m satisfied. 30%

  18. Julie June 29, 2008 at 9:25 pm #

    So far, I’ve done little research for my novels since they all tend to be science fiction or fantasy novels; as a result, i’ll give research about 3%

    I do a heck of a lot of planning. First i get a general idea of my novel, slowing thinking things out while others are dozing off in french class. I’ll give planning 35%.

    Writing tends to take me a while, but i don’t exactly labor over every word. I’ll give writing 40%.

    I love to edit! I don’t enjoy the first draft too much, so i guess that may be why. It doesn’t take me to long, though. I’ll give editing 22%.

    So, execpt for research, i’d say i’m pretty balanced. then again, i’ve never finished many novels all the way through for me to know my needs as well as i should.

  19. Julie June 29, 2008 at 9:26 pm #

    For Heather’s question, I’m in high school, but I plan to be a full time writer. Summers like these are perfect for getting that writing done too.

  20. Karla Akins June 29, 2008 at 9:34 pm #

    Research 20%
    Planning 20%
    Writing 20%
    Editing 40%

  21. Daan Van der Merwe June 30, 2008 at 1:16 am #

    I think for a pre-pubbed writer it depends on the book one is writing. For my first disastrous attemt two years ago, I did very extensive research on the religions of Islam and Judaism.

    My current attempt is about the political, economical and social situation in South Africa. It is kind of an answer to the famous novel, “Cry the Beloved Country” by Alan Payton, published in the late 1950’s, and which was about the atrocities of apartheid.

    In these days, one only needs to live in the Beloved Country for 6 weeks to obtain sufficient, excellent content to write a novel with this theme.

    As I have lived here for 54 years, I did very little research and I will apportion my efforts for my Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as such:

    Planning : 30% (strictly according to the Snowflake Method)
    Writing : 40%
    Editing : 30%

  22. Carrie Neuman June 30, 2008 at 4:56 am #

    Hi, Heather. I have a day job where I have some reports to prep in the morning and about a 45 to 60 minute wait for the courier to get there with my work. Since Word looks like work, I usually do some research or writing then. (When I’m not building a database of the ancestors of the Royal Family of the UK. Yes, I’m a freak, but I’m a happy freak with a quiet hobby.)

    I still have trouble finishing things, though I’ve recently gotten over my fear of sharing bits with my friends. I’d probably estimate:

    Research: 20%
    Planning: 40%
    Writing: 10%
    Editing: 20%

    Now if I can use the other 10% that is generally abandoned at the end when I don’t like it anymore and spend less time editing as I go, I should make some genuine progress.

  23. Pam Halter June 30, 2008 at 1:57 pm #

    Thanks, Gerhi!

  24. sesgaia June 30, 2008 at 3:46 pm #

    Since I write mainstream fiction about relationships, research is minimal except perhaps for setting. That said:

    Research 5%
    Planning 15@
    First draft/writing 50%
    Editing 30%

    Full manuscript ready to send out: one year

  25. Camille June 30, 2008 at 5:10 pm #

    Anybody read Mike Duran on Novel Journey today?

    If anyone is thinking about writing to publish with Christian royalty houses, we probably should be talking about writing Xtremely, Xceptionally WELL or not at all.

    I’d heard about Thomas Nelson’s recent decision and chose to stick my head in the sand and keep writing my novel. But I pulled it out and listened when Mike hit on things in this blog, like: But as with any quality product, there’s a downside — perfection takes time. (Yesss!!)

    And this: With the big boys seeking, primarily, brand name authors with shelf cred and the cream of the “breakout novel” crop, it makes sense that aspiring authors should look toward new, creative ways to get their story into print.

    Ack! Shelf credibility doesn’t exist for the emerging author. And out of ALL those “breakout novels” each year, what percentile makes up the cream of that crop?

    I guess we have to write a darn good novel that beats every other darn good novel by light years if we want to see it published.

    Didn’t mean to rant, I just sort of panicked. Back to my sandbox.

  26. valerie June 30, 2008 at 9:28 pm #

    For me, because I write fantasy, I’m adding a fifth category: world-building. It’s different from research, though I certainly used some research for many things (recently: what plants, etc, make what color of dye). And I seem to revise three times to one round of first draft, so the editing feels high. Not because I love it but because there is so much fine-tuning that needs to be done! (If I put the numbers that feel true, I, like some others, would have landed up at 150%)

    Research: 5%
    World-building: 10%
    Planning: 10%
    Writing: 25%
    Editing: 50%

  27. Grace Bridges July 1, 2008 at 2:24 am #

    Research?? You gotta be kidding.
    Well, okay, for my last WIP (finished now, yay!) I did investigate what range of oxygen levels make a habitable atmosphere. So…

    Research: 40%
    Editing: >30%

    Writing is psychologically harder than editing, but also more passionate, both because its goals are mostly undefined. Editing is easy and often fun, but quite a grind, with precise goals laid out and a foreseeable end in sight.

  28. Grace Bridges July 1, 2008 at 2:26 am #

    Whoops, my mathematical symbols were read as HTML. The nerve! Please disregard the figures named above. Here’s the truth!

    Research: less than 1%
    Planning: approx 15% (using the Snowflake, steps 1-4, 6, and 8)
    Writing: more than 40%
    Editing: more than 30%

  29. Grace Bridges July 1, 2008 at 2:26 am #

    Darn it, the sunglasses dude is step 8.

  30. Ann Isik July 6, 2008 at 6:06 am #

    First, I’ve really enjoyed reading through all the comments here. It’s very useful to know how others work and why. As I’m on my first novel (well, second but that was in 1987 so it doesn’t count – still have it though!) I can’t really give percentages. So far, I’ve done a lot of research, which I love, so I suspect I’m going to a writer who’s BIG on research. I’m finding that research is tending to give me plot etc ideas BETTER than my original idea. My storyworld is quite important and so far has required some long journeys and more to other places are on the books.

    I didn’t want or expect to write fiction! But this story first blasted its way into my life on a train a few years ago and just wouldn’t let me go. So it started in a ‘Seat of Pants’ fashion as a ‘nice little short story’ (ha ha!) and I got into a real mess as my characters demanded more and more scenes and POWER. It’s now being constructed a la Snowflake Method (THANK YOU AGAIN RANDY FOR SNOWFLAKE!) I live in France and now write in a place 10 minutes walk away called a ‘Mediatheque’, which is a library with a study space with sockets on the desks for computers. It’s a brand new building and just opened and brilliant, though I’m too short at 62 (and three quarters) inches for the chairs and take my own cushion! I think I’m a bit of a shock – I usually share the room with two or three teenagers – who seem to find it necessary to get up at intervals and check out the book on the shelf right behind my head – and thus, my computer screen! I suspect that eventually I’ll be approached with questions on the English language!

    Anyway, it works for me to be away from all home distractions: washing, ironing, cooking, cat, housework, phone, hysterical neighbours. SNOWFLAKE is just brilliant. I’m so happy with my blue ring-binder folder sectioned off according to the 10 steps, and to see it getting fatter and fatter almost daily!

    Ann Isik

  31. Kristi Holl July 7, 2008 at 2:39 am #

    My percentages vary from fiction to nonfiction. My NF (not much of that) is heavier on the research and planning, and less on the writing/editing than fiction. But most of my books (29 out of 35) are fiction, which splits about like this:
    Research: 10%
    Planning: 25%
    Writing: 25%
    Editing: 40%
    I used to hate editing, and now I love that part the most. The more you read and write, the more you realize what you don’t know and the more you get to learn when editing.

  32. Jasmine Mayall October 16, 2008 at 10:42 am #

    Well I’m only on my first (fiction) book right now. I haven’t got that far yet (only 53 pages on the first draft)

    Research- 15%
    Planning- 30%
    Writing- 30%
    Editing- 25%

    Research: My book didn’t need much and most of the research came from my head
    Writing: This in a way sort of merges into my editing. At the end of the day I copy down the last paragraph I’ve wrote, turn the computer off, crawl into bed and then write furiously in my notebook before passing out, waking up two hours later and scribbling some more down. Then in the morning I type it up and change some stuff about it.
    Editing: Well I’ve only done the editing I said above

  33. Troy March 7, 2009 at 12:38 pm #

    The research phase depends greatly on the particular story line. I tend to write about concepts of which I have a good working knowledge. As an average I would say these numbers are pretty close.
    Research 15%
    Planning 20%
    Writing 35%
    Editing 30%

    My editing phase depends on how fast I write the first draft. Some books I pump out in 30-45 days and some 6 months or more. The editing phase seems to be inversely proportional to how much time I put in to the writing, and more importantly how often I have to break the writing periods for any significant amount of time. If I write the first draft fast, the editing will seem to be more involved as you might think as I’m pumped and concentrating on story and characters, so details of structure, descriptions and such sometimes get left behind or shorted.
    If I have many significant breaks, the editing will be more involved as it becomes harder to keep continuity, structure and focus on the story when continually interrupted. It does seem with the manuscripts I’ve written that have taken more than 6 months that the editing is shorter but the story and energy seem to suffer, and the pace drags.
    These days I prefer to write fast and edit for content. It seems to keep me more interested in the characters and easier to edit.
    Of course none of this counts the hours sat staring at the screen or sipping pina coladas and watching sunsets.
    Troy Michael

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