Becoming A Better Writer: Order Of Operations

Another day, another idea for self-improvement stolen from Jack Han and the world of hockey.

Most people will recognise the term Order of Operations from Mathematics. Brackets (or parantheses), Order (or exponenents), Division, etc.etc. You do one type of thing first, then the next, and so on, or it just doesn’t work. The idea, as Jack Han talked about it in a video I can’t share as it’s behind paywall, is that if you’re trying to get a hockey player to improve, there’s an order in which you look at their skillset and try to improve weaknesses.

Can the idea work for writers?

I’m going to give it a go but with a big honking caveat is that this is an idea in untested first draft, that this is what makes sense to me, that writing is notoriously individualistic and what works for one person doesn’t always work for another, and that there’s a lot of ways to succeed in a book and not every book concentrates on everything equally. For the love of everything, don’t apply this rigidly to yourself, or anyone you’re helping with their writing.

1. Basic Prose
2. Scene Writing
3. Narrative
4. Use of World and Character
5. Use of Plot and Archetype
6. Use of Theme
7. Self-Editing
8. Mentality

To break it down.

1. Basic Prose

Can they write three paragraphs in a way that makes sense?

2. Scene Writing

Can they write a whole scene and progress events through it in a way that leaves readers satisfied and clear about what happened?

3. Narrative

Can they string together those scenes to make a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end?

4. Use of World and Character

Can they create strong milieus and characters that readers find interesting and memorable?

5. Use of Plot and Archetype

Does the writer know how to use common expectations of certain types of plot and archetype to meet and confound reader expectations?

6. Use of Theme

Can the writer identify an underlying theme in their writing, and use it to add further coherence and emotional resonance to their work?

7. Self-Editing

Can they go back and spot when their work isn’t at the standard they wish, and find ways to solve this, and be able to incorporate suggestions from beta readers/editors

8. Mentality

Can they keep going after numerous rejections, or disappointing sales/reviews? Can they keep finding creativity and time to write when busy? Can they learn which criticisms helps them and which don’t?

A few thoughts on the ordering here

The writing comes first because that’s what other people will look at first. Even if the characters and story are great, people will make their first judgment on the writing. If someone shows someone a piece of their writing and all they hear is “that doesn’t make sense” or “that feels clumsy/dull”, then they’re going to feel discouraged. Write good prose first.

Why does Narrative come before World & Character, etc.etc.? Because it’s the natural follow on from being able to do a scene. If you understand how to push a story on through a scene, you can probably grasp most of how to do it for a story (it doesn’t have to be a long story). Also because if you want to be a writer who shows their work to lots of acclaim, being able to finish work is important. I would say that’s a skill worth acquiring early on. Does it have to come before that other stuff? Maybe not. Maybe this is my bias as someone who struggles with writing whole stories and finishing. But I think it’s in the right place as a guideline at least.

Self-Editing could go arguably go a lot earlier in the process. The ability to absorb, sort through, and apply lessons is as crucial for a writer as anyone. I think I have it where I have it though because it’s all about having confidence in the prior steps before accomplishing the next one. Someone does a great job of editing their work but doesn’t know how to write great characters or play with stereotypes is probably still going to be discouraged by the feedback they receive.

Mentality is a big one. I know many talented writers who probably aren’t going to be best sellers simply because they struggle with constantly writing, or get discouraged. One of the things that separates the most successful from the middling ranks, and the middling ranks from those who made brief impacts, is persistence. But no amount of cultivating resilience is going to help a writer who’s not very good at writing. Don’t worry about whether you can hack the publishing grind until you’re good enough to think about getting published.

What Is This Good For?

I wrote this mainly for myself as a thought exercise. It makes a good mental checklist for myself when reviewing my own work, or for when trying to help other writers stupid enough to ask for my help.

However, up until the last one, it could make a good checklist for beta’ing a scene or story (to the point where I’d bet someone’s already made a similar one). Do you need to follow the order there? No, but I often find my thoughts get jumbled up when beta’ing, and having a winnowing process could help me.

Or you.

Let me know if you have any thoughts people. Such as “Stop This”.



2 thoughts on “Becoming A Better Writer: Order Of Operations

  1. Another interesting thesis. It probably needs some empirical data (ie some foolish writer guinea pigs) to test it out and see how it goes before you could say it works or not, but I suppose it’s down to an individual’s personality – ie are they willing to submit to an ordered method of improving oneself rather than trial and error?

    As I think of it, I’d say for the rank amateur that an orderly list like this is a good way to start off. You’re certainly right about 1 (though I’d include grammar & punctuation etc, though I suppose with the caveat that you can pay for a proofreader, even though your beat readers won’t thank you) and 8.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I

      a) Assumed grammar and punctuation went unsaid there
      b) Wasn’t enough of a hypocrite to tell writers they need to be good there

      As for empirical data… honestly, I think this is more for mentors than for writers, the more I think about it. Writers need to be powered by passion and confidence and joy and other emotions. Lists like these don’t really produce those emotions. Maybe they can refer to them in quiet moments of self-reflection but for the most part, I think they work better for those trying to help.

      Liked by 2 people

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