Structure Versus Slapdash

Rob Parnell
4 min readJan 27, 2024

An author friend messaged me earlier this week. Apparently he’d been lying awake at night thinking about my advice. I recently tried to convince him that planning his novel was a good way to get him out of a block. He’d contacted me to say he wasn’t sure that planning stories worked for him, actually for any writer. He thought perhaps “making stuff up as you went along” was better.

Hmm…

Indeed, he went further, suggesting that if a writer did something right, like accidentally write a good book, then they were likely to be more surprised than anyone. Clearly he’d been obsessing far too much over this whole issue. In the end he let me know he was of the opinion that most writers really didn’t know what they were doing and that if they did by chance create something wonderful, it was a probably a total fluke.

To be honest I think this attitude is pretty dumb. Sad actually. And wrong.

My experience tells me it’s clear many authors know exactly what they’re doing from start to finish. And they know instinctively that pre-planning a novel is the most effective way of creating something that will approximate a decent first draft.

I have spent enough time encouraging new authors to know the very worst thing you can do is to make up novel fiction as you go along because this will always create massive problems when it comes to structure, sense, and the proliferation of logic flaws. In short, to borrow the old adage, when you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.

True, many great pieces of writing can be created as a result of naked inspiration, or unstructured, flowing thought. Many authors too, swear by letting their imaginations run free, by allowing their creativity to fly unencumbered. Yes, all these techniques can work. You can even use these same techniques to augment your planned structures!

Seriously, blocked writers often need to convince themselves of all kinds of silliness to get them back on the writing path. Ego and arrogance can play a part. Bending the truth can be helpful on occasion, even lying to yourself. I know that at certain points in their career, many would-be writers assume they need learn nothing more and just hope for the best.

My author friend I assume needed to reject my advice, at least for a while, to get to a more positive place. But I would argue that undermining the self-evident might not be the best way forward.

There is much a writer can learn without relying on the hard way, that is through trial and error, by using up much of their potentially productive time by writing badly when they could have learned a few useful conventions that are already widely accepted.

To be honest, I would have been more convinced by his argument if he’d made a better case. I found his writing, at least in his messages to me, to be almost incoherent. This may sound cruel and prematurely judgmental but If his books are anything like his texting style, he clearly has a lot to learn about technique, not to mention grammar and punctuation.

You might say you can’t tell a person’s literary style from their emails, their texts and DMs, and I would disagree. These things are important. Careful writers know you should get “text-speak” right if you’re going to message properly.

Because that’s what writers do. That’s their true purpose: to communicate effectively.

It’s not fair to write badly and then expect other people like editors to “fix” your work.

It’s lazy for one. Insulting actually. And ultimately disrespectful.

Why would you subject your editor to painful errors that you could easily cure yourself from making? Especially simple things like using conventional punctuation — the bane of an editor’s life.

This whole issue is related to the other age-old writing question. Which is better: plotting or pantsing?

The easiest way to get to the bottom of this issue is to ask a room full of writers for the answer. (Something I have often done!)

The experienced will say plotting (planning) while new authors will say pantsing (making it up as you go along). I think this result is to do with the difference between fear of failure and experience (reality). Because beginners can’t trust their fragile egos to perform under pressure while professionals know nothing is as dependable as hard work.

Newbies think writing should be fun, even if they don’t create anything. Professionals think the fun is in actually creating something.

New writers tend to make the same mistakes over and over. Advice is really only there to help you look more professional. There’s nothing to be afraid of. If you enjoy the struggle of not knowing the correct ways to write — or you like learning in public, that’s fine. Do that if you don’t like to follow the rules and conventions designed to help you.

The rules on point of view, show don’t tell, structure, the hero’s journey, dialogue, characterization, pacing, style, and punctuation et al, these are all necessary protocols that you can’t ignore or say don’t matter.

Because they do.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell’s Writing Academy

PS: My author friend still hasn’t got past his block. Good job I’m also blessed with patience!

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Rob Parnell

Bestselling Author and Owner of Rob Parnell’s Writing Academy