writers resources / writing

4 Ways to Plan Your Writing

Few people can sit down and start writing. Most of us hem and haw as we mentally walk through how to get from introduction to conclusion. It’s called ‘prewriting’ and everyone does it. What differs is the method–what best suits our communication style?

Here are four approaches I’ve seen work for writer friends:


Brainstorming, also called ‘mindmapping’, is a visual approach for collecting all the bits of a topic that may find relevance in the fullness of your manuscript. It enables writers to come up with many ideas without worrying about where they fit, leaving that for the writing process.

Here are basics for brainstorming your novel:

  • There are no wrong answers.
  • Get as many ideas as possible.
  • Don’t evaluate ideas–just record them.
  • Build on the suggestions of others (if you’re doing this as part of a critique group or writer’s workshop).
  • Stress quantity over quality–get as many ideas as possible. Sort them later.

There are many online tools that facilitate this process. If you’re looking for a webtool, try Inspiration, MindMeister, or another from this list. For iPads, try iBrainstorm, Ideament, or another from this list.


Timelines are graphical representations of a sequence of events over a period of time. Researching and creating timelines appeals to the visual, mathematic, and kinesthetic intelligences in a writer’s mental toolbox. They are critical to developing the story’s temporal flow, making sure events are in the proper order, with necessary scaffolding.

They can be created in:

  • a desktop publishing tool like Publisher or Canva
  • an online tool
  • a spreadsheet program

Popular options include MS Publisher, Google Sheets, or Excel. If you want a webtool, try Piktochart, Canva, or another from this list. If you have an iPad,  try Timeline or another from this list. Here’s an example of my novel’s timeline:

story timeline


Outlines are a tried-and-true approach to organizing knowledge on a topic. They:

  • summarize important points
  • encourage a better understanding of a topic
  • promote reflection
  • assist analysis

Once a general outline is established, they are a valuable method of curating thoughts on subtopics of a theme.

Outlines can be completed easily and quickly in most word processing programs (using bullet or numbered lists) or a note-taking tool like Evernote or OneNote. Excellent web-based options include OakWorkflowy, or Outliner of GiantsIf you’re an iPad user, try Quicklyst or OmniOutliner.

pre-writingDigital note-taking

Note-taking not only collects information, but power boosts learning. Consider this from the 2008 Leadership and Learning Center:

In schools where writing and note-taking were rarely implemented in science classes, approximately 25 percent of students scored proficient or higher on state assessments. But in schools where writing and note-taking were consistently implemented by science teachers, 79 percent scored at the proficient level.

Regardless of whether you write fiction or non-fiction, note-taking is an important approach to remembering and activating knowledge. This includes quickly jotting ideas down as well as the extensive note-taking employed during your novel’s research. Doing this digitally allows you to rearrange, edit, and move thoughts into the order best-suited to the writing phase.

There are lots of digital note-taking tools that are both web-based or for iPads. Two of my favorites are Notability and Evernote.

How do you organize your thoughts and research in preparation for writing?

More on writing:

How to Write a Novel with 140 Characters

Technology Removes Obstructed Writers’ Barriers to Learning

66 Writing Tools for the 21st Century Classroom

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

60 thoughts on “4 Ways to Plan Your Writing

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  4. Jacqui great tips here. I have been through a Holly Lysle course on the editing side of writing. There are so many layers to creating a book. But I am discovering the process is different for all of us. So now I take out the things I can use.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re a very visual gal, Jennifer. I have to force myself to add images/color/design to my stuff, but–as a teacher–that’s critical with kids. So many of them are more visual than textual.


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  6. I’m a mind map person, Jacqui. My novels can bubble around for years. The crisis idea comes first, then the characters to put into the crisis, then the outcomes. Once all this is floating around I have to have a clear ending. Once all that is done I start writing about my characters so I know them better than myself (I love character driven novels, so it’s no surprise that this is naturally how I write). Then the location comes. When the crisis hits I know how all my characters will respond. Then I throw more universal grief at them until they nearly break (I’m so mean). Ahhh, I feel like writing another novel now!😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Some excellent ideas – I generally use a combination of things and find each new project requires something different. For one of my series I have notes all over my walls, for another a mind map on my wipe board and then there are the databases I compile. I like the timeline idea – I always forget about the simplicity of timelines😀

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I must poke around some more and investigate these suggestions.

    When I attempted my first novel for NaNo in 2011, I wrote on 4 by 5 cards, which helped me a lot. For the most part I fly by the seat of my pants, but as character joined the story, I made a list of them with a description. As well, I made a list of chapter titles to keep the story straight in my head. It helped, but don’t believe it was anywhere close to a great way to write. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks, Jacqui, this is a terrific list of resources.
    Before I begin to write or organize anything, I walk around with a story bubbling in my head. Sometimes for years. Eventually, even though I need to clean the house and sort the closets, I sit down at the computer and begin with something like a mindmap, then add notes as specific as names and bios of characters, and as random as reminders to look up this or that history. Finally I find I’m writing my story, tacked on to some sort of “background note” file. I pull out the story and open a new file. Story begun.
    That’s my usual approach, usual being a loose term with me. I did create a formal outline for one of my books, but that’s because it had to fit into a structured format. For that one book, it worked well.
    The only tool I’ve ever used is a Word doc. It’s close to writing longhand and works well for me. But I’m going to take a look at some of the tools you’ve suggested – even I can learn something once in a while!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, these are just for planning. Once you start writing, you need Word or some other word processor. I take my spreadsheet and convert it to a word doc. That usually kick starts my story with about 70 pages!


  10. Gee, I take manual notes on a legal pad. I stuff them all in the back cover of the binder for the draft. From time to time, I take them out and peruse–taking more notes on the original notes, with a different colored pen.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh, I’m supposed to plan?! Only kidding. 😀I find I start with a vague idea, a few sentences and then start to plan. I found doing a mind map very useful early on and I advice anyone to make a timeline earlier rather than later – I wasted time having to go back and try to sort mine out. Great information as always Jacqui and interesting information about note-taking. I love doing that but notice students today seem to shy away from that.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is a really helpful overview of the various tools and approaches. Personally, I struggle with organizational issues and end up with bits in various places. I find if I get too bossy and uptight with my stories, I lose the creative stream. On the other hand, some form of structure is essential!

    Liked by 1 person

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