On Planning Savviness
By Christine Carron
Your writing adventure is most likely not going to proceed in a straight line. There will be zigs, zags, challenging twists, and exciting turns. You may have already experienced this. Truth is, the whole adventure could end up feeling a little discombobulating. Unless you take charge.
One of the most effective ways to start feeling—and actually being—in charge of your writerly adventure is to improve your planning skills. Solid planning will help a writer navigate the sometimes irksome, sometimes awesome changes in direction. Planning can also help a writer get any aspect of their writing journey done with greater ease and effectiveness. Writerly plans might include a plan for:
- Outlining your novel, essay, non-fiction book, etc.
- Scheduling your writing time.
- Reclaiming your groove if you have a few off days.
- Expanding your craft skills.
- Generating story or plot ideas.
- Giving critiques to other writers.
- Getting back to equilibrium when you’re triggered by a review, or experience imposter syndrome, or receive your umpteenth rejection.
- Digesting and prioritizing feedback from your first-reader cohort.
- Completing a major revision.
- Querying agents.
- Marketing your book.
The list could go on. Basically, any aspect of the writerly adventure could be served by a plan, and therefore by improving your planning skills.
What you might find surprising is that the foundational steps to improving your planning chops have nothing to do with learning new planning skills. Those come later. Instead, true planning savviness starts with:
- Embracing an in-charge-of over an in-control-of planning mindset.
- Understanding why you plan.
- Trusting that planning can support the way you work as a writer.
- Knowing the different ways plans go “off plan.”
Let’s look at each step in more detail.
Step 1: Embrace an in-charge-of over an in-control-of planning mindset.
As a project manager and process improvement consultant with decades of experience in planning, I fully support planning as a tool to take charge of your writing adventure. What I often find, however, is that many writers assume that planning is about control.
They either like that idea and then are totally discombobulated when a plan doesn’t go to plan. (And for the record, plans pretty much never go exactly to plan.) So when things do go off plan, writers with this perspective end up feeling like their plan (and they) failed because their plan didn’t “make” everything turn out exactly as they expected.
On the other side of the spectrum are the writers who don’t want to go anywhere near planning. The idea of controlling anything associated with their creativity is an anathema. For these writers, control is just another way to say constrict, choke, curb, etc. And to that, on behalf of their creativity, they say, “Thank you no, kindly.”
Planning to be in control of is a mentality of force, of hustling, of trying to bend oneself, one’s writing, the creative process, others—even reality—to one’s will. Lots of energetic churn, little planning awesomeness. Polarization and reactivity result: one set of writers who have unrealistic expectations about planning, and another set of writers completely missing out on the benefits that effective planning provides.
Planning to be in control of is an exhausting and futile endeavor, and it creates a stressful, scrambling tone for the writerly adventure.
Planning to be in charge of, on the other hand, is the mentality of grounded focus, of trusting the process, and of aligning with reality no matter what. The “in charge of their adventure” writer regularly reconciles their plans to what is happening, and when their plans are off—which they know is normal—they make an adjustment. That’s it. No hoopla. No devastation. No avoidance.
When you plan with the intention to be in charge of your writerly adventure, planning becomes a powerful and empowering endeavor.
Step 2: Understand why you plan.
When I lead workshops on planning, by this point there is usually at least one writer in the group who asks, “Well, if plans never go to plan, which you’ve said numerous times, why bother planning at all?”
I love this question. It shows me the writer is already thinking about planning in a savvier way. The expectation that a plan must go to plan to be useful is a relic of the plan-to-control mentality.
Writers who are savvy planners know that the benefits of a plan have nothing to do with being able to construct a plan that, with one hundred percent accuracy, predicts every twist and turn of the future. Honestly, if a writer could create such a plan, I would be asking them, “Why are you mucking about with writing? You could be taking that planning prescience to the bank and back.”
So, no, a plan is not supposed to shoehorn a certain future into being. An effective plan creates focus, clarity, motivation, and confidence.
- Focus: At any given time, you could be doing fifty different things or more to move your writing forward. But no one can do fifty things at once, and they certainly can’t do fifty things at once well. When we make a plan we say, “This. This is what I am going to work on now.”
- Clarity: Once we focus and take action, more insight and ahas come. Whether outcomes go to plan or not, we get more feedback and data, which helps us refine and adjust our plans.
- Motivation: When we make a plan, we are able to track our progress. If we fall behind, our plan nudges us to pick up the pace. If we are clipping along, we’ll see that clearly and want to maintain our momentum.
- Confidence: This is the ultimate benefit of in-charge-of planning. As you build your planning savviness you begin to deeply trust that no matter what happens on the writerly adventure, you have the chops to handle it. To regroup, refine your plan, and keep going.
Step 3: Trust that planning can support the way you work as a writer.
This is a straightforward but deeply important foundational step, especially if you happen to fall closer to the set of writers described above who fear that planning will constrict their creativity, murder their muse, and take all the joy out of their writing adventure.
The reality is that effective planning methods can be adapted to any creative working style. For example, I teach writers a method for planning their work that creates consistent, regular output. The approach works for plotters, for pantsers, and for every plotting variation in between.
Don’t let an outdated belief, or even prior negative experiences with planning, stop you from taking charge of your writerly adventure with savvy planning techniques. It may take a round or two of adjustment to get a planning method fully adapted to your working preferences, but if you hang through that adjustment period, you’ll get all the upsides, supercharging your writing adventure without losing any of your writerly style.
Step 4: Know the different ways plans go “off plan.”
I actually covered the final foundational step in the second sentence of this post. I mentioned the different ways writerly adventures can go awry. Those are the same ways your plans will go “off plan.”
Let’s detail them out—this time with a little alliterative flair—as when you are clear on the ways your plans can go “off plan,” you’re better equipped to stay cool when they do. Instead of feeling like you and your plan just got blitzed, you’ll be like, “Oh-ho! Off plan event alert. I’ve so got this!”
(a change of direction)
Zig-n-zags are minor off plan events that are easy to course correct. Example: You estimated that churning out a set number of words each writing day would take you two hours of writing time, but it actually takes you three hours to reach the desired word count. You could make two plan adjustments for this zig-n-zag: (1) Adjust your plan to account for the slower speed; (2) add in writing drills to your plan to up your writing speed over time.
(pronounced “zoots” from the French phrase zut alors, meaning “oh, drats”)
These are challenging off plan events. The ones that can sometimes leave us feeling a little sucker-punched. Rejections, especially when we are just starting out, can feel this way. Other examples: a revision not panning out; struggling to land a certain aspect of craft.
Course correcting zuts usually requires some mindset management as well as planning savviness. However, simply accepting that zuts will come is a higher level of planning savviness than the old planning-as-control belief that if you could just sort out the exactly right plan you could avoid zuts altogether.
(an exclamation of astonishment or admiration)
While most writers think of off plan events as negatives, the truth is sometimes our writerly plans go off plan in positive ways. Zowies can be as much as or more discombobulating than the zuts. Once during a conference one-on-one, an editor told me how much she loved the opening pages of the story I’d submitted.
She was (and is still) one of my dream editors. I was floating on such a cloud after that meeting that when I backed out of my parking space in the hotel garage, I backed up straight into a concrete column. To this day, I call the resulting damage my giddy dent.
Planning Savviness for Planning Awesomeness
Once you level up your planning game using the four foundational steps, it will be easy-peasy to integrate different planning methods, tools, and techniques because you will be open to them. You will trust that planning will help you ace the writerly adventure.
So remember: Embrace the in-charge-of planning mindset; keep reminding yourself of the real benefits of planning; trust that planning will support your creative process; and roll with the zig-n-zags, the zuts, and the zowies that come.
When you give yourself the time and space to do that, you and all your writerly plans will be rock-solid set for the writerly adventure—come what may. You’ve got this!
The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week
- Post-in-Action Prompt: Pick one area of your writing adventure where you want to up-level your game. Imagine how a plan designed from an in-charge-of planning mindset might differ from a plan designed from an in-control-of planning mindset.
- Scene Prompt: Write a scene where your main character tries to white-knuckle control an event. Convey the emotional toll that level of attempted control takes on the character.
- Journaling Prompt: Before reading this post would you say you had an in-charge-of planning mindset or an in-control-of planning mindset? Or, perhaps, did it vary depending on the situation? How might adopting an in-charge-of planning mindset help you navigate your writerly adventure?
- Connection Prompt: Connect with your writerly peeps and discuss the different ways you each use planning/a planning mindset on the writerly adventure.