Write By Accident, Refine By Design

writing process

Writing enough prose to fill a book is one thing, but weaving it all together into a story with a strong arc, purpose, and impact is another. Here are some lessons that might help you in your writing process — whether your own book is an “accident” or not.

In “The Accidental Novelist: How Stolen Moments Can Make a Book,” I wrote about an unorthodox writing technique I discovered — and the novel I’ve been “accidentally” creating as a result.

That process includes thumb-typing chunks of text on my phone whenever and wherever I have a minute and an idea, and building my story piecemeal. One reader, Anonymole, commented that if writers create this way, they will need to step back at some point and consolidate their written fragments, no matter how inspired, into a cohesive and consistent story. I recently hit such a point, with roughly 64,000 words written.

Writing that much prose is one thing, but weaving it all together into a story with a strong arc, purpose, and impact is another entirely. Here are some lessons I’m learning along the way that might help you in your writing process — whether your own writing is an “accident” or not.


When I made the decision to pause my preliminary writing and start stitching the pieces together, I had a total of twelve files that I had emailed to myself from my phone as backup, each containing between 2,000 and 12,000 words. First, I copied and pasted everything into a single word processor document, in the best narrative order I could determine at the time. Having all of my prose in one place felt like an important milestone — my work seemed more like a cohesive novel-in-progress and less like a collection of fragments, scenes, and vignettes.

Edit at will

As with the initial drafting of my novel, I use what minutes I can find in between other activities to clarify the language, put pieces together, or review something I wrote months ago. Sometimes that means searching for a particular scene that’s been caught in my memory and reexamining how it fits into the overall story. Other times, it means scrolling randomly through the document and working on whatever paragraph my eyes and mouse fall on. I focus my time on what I can do right now to get myself closer to the finish line, knowing I’ll get to it all eventually.

Label and shuffle

With tens of thousands of words and dozens of narrative episodes, keeping track of everything can be a challenge. To help, I started labeling significant portions of my story with unsexy and utilitarian titles like, “Argument about green vs. black tea” and “Weird surveillance grocery store encounter.”

Will the chunks I’m currently defining end up as chapter partitions in the final novel? Probably not. But for now, functional titles help me know, quickly and efficiently, what the landscape of my work-in-progress looks like.

Having well-labeled portions of text also helps me put things in the best order for my narrative. Does a certain scene play better in the second third of the book? Does a character’s backstory suddenly become more resonant when presented after a traumatic incident involving an ex-lover? Cut-and-paste is a wonderful thing, and I use it to experiment with all sorts of structures and event orders.

Save versions-in-progress

After significant editing sessions, I save a new version of my document with a title like “Draft_v2.0,” Draft _v2.1,” and so on. This way, I can always go back and see previous manifestations of my ideas, as well as what I originally wrote on my phone. Having copious backups makes me more comfortable experimenting — I always know I can revert to a previous version if a creative risk I take doesn’t work in the end.

Fill in the gaps

If I discover that additional text is needed to make the story flow (and this has been happening quite often), it’s always fun to return to writing mode. Either on the spot with my laptop or on my phone the next time I have a free minute, I add the words, sentences, or paragraphs the story needs to smoothly flow and then go right back to editing mode.

Be patient and stay focused

It can be overwhelming to look at a 60,000-plus-word document, completely unedited, and realize it’s up to you alone to get it all in order. I try to stay micro-focused as I work, polishing only whatever sections are in front of my eyes at the moment and losing myself in the task at hand. Just as the crafting of the original text happened gradually and organically, so too will the acts of compiling, editing, and revising.

Keep the big picture in mind

At this point, I know where my characters begin, the struggles and triumphs they go through, and where they will end up physically, circumstantially, and emotionally when the story concludes. I keep this whole arc in mind as I’m editing, compiling, and reordering. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the big picture influences everything from word choice to plot adjustments and acts like glue, helping to stick the entire story together as a cohesive narrative.

Do you have any tips for turning inspired chunks of text into a cohesive narrative? Tell us in the comments below.


The End


Related Posts
The Accidental Novelist – How Stolen Moments Can Make A Book
Conflate, and Tighten Up Your Story
Tightening Your Story’s Cause And Effect Chain With “And So”
[Bracket] shorthand helps you draft with lightning speed
The Five Emotional Stages of Publishing A Book



  1. Although I am not attempting a novel, I am writing a life story. I am not Virginia Wolf, but my grand and great grandkids might someday get a nick out of it, especially the I was a teacher part that describes incidents snotty noses and all. The love life parts might be overly dramatic.

    • I’m so glad to see your post since I am writing in the same genre. I learned in a memoirs class that it’s okay to interject some fiction or embellish a piece. I believe all authors writing memoirs or biographies do the same. Good luck to you.

      • I have a 34,000 young adult novella I’m selling called Lucky18. I didn’t write it in order, but the kids seem to think it works. I wrote it mostly in order. Thanks.

  2. A multi-POV, multi-scene style story might be the best candidate for such a fragmented construction technique. Think Doerr’s All the Light we cannot See. 500-2000 word standalone scenes, roughly serialized but with flashbacks and backstory sections scattered throughout.

    You could get away with a few different voices that way.

    A sequential, linearly told story, though might be tough to do, both for creating a consistent voice and for recalling and stitching the references throughout. ‘Was he left handed or right? Shot in the hip or stomach? Did she lie to her sister or the other way around?’ You still would have problems no matter what, but then traditional writers have a reference doc to quickly return to.

    What about themed short stories? Compiled they might present a completed story of sorts?

  3. I write using this method, but find I have trouble keeping the end point and big picture in mind. Since this is how my mind works I made a simple change and started to use a spreadsheet in conjunction with the word processor. Word Processors are linear (like plotters), while spreadsheets are not (like me). Now, I use different sheets to work on chapter ideas, characters, scenes, or background as the whim (or muse) takes me. I also have a page with a rough outline, beginning, middle and end, which helps me focus and makes it easier to see where the idea I’m working on fits, or doesn’t. I still use a word processor for the actual writing of course. You can’t replace that, but the spreadsheet helps my mind make sense of things, while the ideas stored in the sheets get my creative juices flowing when I get stuck.

  4. I like the idea of editing in random chunks. I’m rather a ‘start at the middle and work my way through’ person, which results in skipping the end when I’ve had enough. If I can bear to leave things longer without looking at them I always find glaring errors I missed on earlier edits.

  5. Thank you so much for this piece. I found it confirmed that my writing method is not so crazy after all. I have also found writing bits n pieces ( snippets) on my cellphone whenever they occur to me ( grocery store, walking the dog etc) to be a very helpful and creative strategy. It seems to free my mind from fixating on ‘getting things right in a linear fashion first time around’ – which I find restrictive. But it does mean a lot of editing later. I have combined this ‘snippets’ method with outlining a rough plot on a big sheet of paper using sticky notes. Seeing the whole rough storyline at a glance makes it easier to decide where each snippet should go. Of course the sticky notes are easy to move around if the plot changes because of new snippets. The plot line with relevant snippets for each chapter then goes onto the computer as chapter headings and notes, and I fill in more detail from there – sometimes on the word processor, and sometimes using more snippets.

  6. Thanks for sharing, but I also assume an author can easily be thrown off balance if he has too many thoughts on his plate – I mean in terms of nonfiction writing.

  7. My method exactly, complicated by the fact that some snippets are decades old.

    I’ve written 2 books this way and swear I’ll never do it this way again. I’d luke to try a more linear approach. But…I fear this is simply my way of writing. Difficult but creative.


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