Great novels feel seamless.
The plot is tight, the conflict compelling and believable, the characters jump off the page. Every detail feels organic, as though it couldn’t have been written in any other way than what we’re reading.
This impression, however, can be a little misleading.
When we flip through published novels on bookstore shelves, it’s all too easy to imagine that the writer simply sat down and churned out the book from beginning to end.
But this is actually not how most authors work.
Research comparing processes of novice and advanced writers finds that experienced writers tend to work on whatever is easiest for them at the moment, rather than forcing themselves to work in a specific order.
Many writers I’ve worked with who write out of sequence (especially those of us with ADHD) view their nonlinear approach as a sign of their own incompetence—when in actuality it’s a sign that they’re relatively advanced in their process.
So here’s the good news: Just because our readers will read the story linearly, from page one to The End, doesn’t mean we have to write it that way—it doesn’t mean our process has to be linear.
Writing out of sequence can be incredibly freeing, and there are a lot of advantages to this approach.
Here are my top ten reasons to write your novel out of order:
1. It allows us to embrace the drafting phase
Terry Pratchett said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” I find that to be so true: the first draft is for the writer, and later drafts are for the reader.
There will be a time in the writing process to focus on readability, consistency, and continuity, but we don’t necessarily need to worry about those things when the central task is getting the draft down.
Writing out of order allows us to get the draft out of our head and onto the page without worrying about what the second or third draft will look like.
In other words, we can tell ourselves the story.
2. We don’t need to know what happens next
“I don’t know what happens next” might be one of the most common types of writer’s block.
Writing straight through from beginning to end assumes we know exactly what happens when we encounter each moment and plot point in our novel. But sometimes that’s simply not the case!
Even if we’re working from an outline, there can be gaps where we’re not entirely sure how events unfold.
When drafting out of order, if we don’t know what happens next, who cares? It’s perfectly acceptable to skip over that scene, chapter, or section entirely and write what we do know.
3. It reduces the strain on our working memory
Ever have a great idea for a future scene while you’re working on something else?
When we write out of sequence, we don’t have to remember that great idea or save it for later—we can just write it!
Research shows over and over how writing taxes our working memory. Good writing practices, then, often help us reduce the strain on our working memory so that cognitive energy can be focused on the actual writing.
4. It lowers the stakes of the project
Especially for us perfectionists, it can be easy to feel like we have to get things exactly right. But putting that kind of pressure on ourselves can easily lead to writer’s block—if I can’t get it right, I won’t write at all—or even burnout.
When we write out of order, our work feels less like a Manuscript with a capital M. In this way, skipping around can lessen the pressure to make things absolutely perfect.
Putting less pressure on ourselves can ease our anxiety and make room for our creativity.
5. We can squeeze writing time into a busy schedule
During our busiest seasons—which, let’s be honest, might just be all the time—it can be tough to find large blocks of time for crafting entire chapters or scenes.
But when there’s no pressure to advance the story linearly, we can let our progress be incremental.
Only have ten minutes? Five minutes? No worries.
We don’t need to figure out specific plot points or take time “getting in the mood” of a particular scene. We can just write a paragraph somewhere—we don’t even need to figure out the where if we don’t want to.
Whole drafts can be built a paragraph at a time, and writing out of order gives us permission to write whatever we want, whatever we can, in the time we have.
6. There’s more freedom to brainstorm new ideas
Since we don’t need to worry about how everything fits together, we have the freedom to come up with a lot of ideas and possibilities for our novel—scenes, characters, even full chapters.
This is especially great for my fellow ADHDers who are particularly good at idea generation.
Some of these ideas may not make it into the final draft, and that’s okay. Giving ourselves the freedom to create means we might just come up with something we wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. (And what a joy that is!)
7. It keeps the passion alive
Writing can be fun! But it’s easy to forget that when we’re deep in the trenches of a draft.
Even if we love a project, we can lose sight of our passion if the task itself feels like a chore.
Writing out of sequence allows us to choose to write what we’re excited about writing at any given moment. This keeps the passion alive throughout the novel-writing process, which means we’re more likely to stick with it through to the end.
8. It creates space to write our way through obstacles
Sometimes while writing, we run into a speed-bump.
Maybe there’s a question we need to answer, or a decision we need to make, or a plot gap we need to solve. Sometimes it feels like we can’t move forward until we answer that question, make that choice, or solve that problem.
But if we’re writing out of order, we can write our way into solutions or answers without realizing we’re doing it.
Writing another scene might answer our question for us, writing a different chapter might help us make our decision, or writing a different section might illuminate how we can resolve a plot gap. Sometimes our subconscious comes to conclusions for us while we’re occupied doing other things. (Thanks, brain!)
9. This approach works with or without an outline
Whether you’re a “plotter or a pantser” or somewhere in between, writing out of order has great advantages.
If you outline, you can use your outline as a guide while jumping around to different scenes, chapters, and moments in the novel. The outline provides the structure while giving you the freedom to create in whatever order you choose.
If you don’t outline or prefer to “write by the seat of your pants,” writing out of sequence offers free rein to create as you go—without the pressure of having to figure everything out every step of the way. You don’t have to worry about getting stuck if there’s something you don’t know yet.
10. It’s easier to make consistent progress
When we have the freedom to choose what we’re working on, what we’re excited about, or what we’re interested in, it becomes much easier to motivate ourselves to keep making progress.
If we get bored, we can jump to another scene. If we’re frustrated with a particular sentence or paragraph, we can write something else. If we feel stuck, we can move on and come back later.
Writing out of order means we can let our energy dictate what we work on.
If we have the mental and emotional capacity to dig into a difficult scene, we can. But we can also skip to the easier parts when we’re feeling less than sharp. Either way, progress is progress, and that’s what matters.
Do what works for you
The goal of effective writing practices is to make the process easier for the writer.
Writing out of order is just one approach that can make the writing process easier, especially for those of us who tend to be non-linear thinkers.
It may not work for everyone, and it may not work all the time, but if you’re feeling stuck as you’re writing linearly through your story, this can be a great strategy to try.
After all, we can’t compare our first draft to someone else’s final manuscript. But by using the tools and strategies that are right for us, we can make our stories feel just as seamless.
Want more ways to eliminate writer’s block once and for all? Grab our free cheat sheet, “10 Strategies for Defeating Writer’s Block,” so you can make more consistent progress on the projects that mean the most to you.