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You need to know what you are writing before you start to write.

I don't mean that you have to plan every step of the way - and yet some writers do.

James Patterson writes a very detailed outline of his story chapter by chapter. This is a process that screenwriters call "breaking the story". Screenwriters know their plot and character arcs and can break their story down into scenes. In each scene something significant must change. If nothing changes then the scene has no place in the movie. We'll come back to that notion in a later post.

Patterson then takes his outline and starts to write the book. He knows how the book is going to end. And yet, he says, he often changes the ending. He says that his outline contains a logical ending but by the time he gets to writing it he is emotionally involved in the book and finds that the ending he writes has to have more in it than the ending he imagined.

I don't care if you write an outline or not. I almost never do. Sometimes I write myself into a corner. I'm not sure that an outline would have helped but those who work from outlines say that it forces them to figure out the traps ahead of time

That said, many novelists and genre writers find themselves sixty or more pages into a book that just isn't going anywhere. Some press on and work to fix it and some move on to another project. Many of these people are writing from outlines. An outline can help but it doesn't write the book for you.

"Didn't you say that you aren't talking about outlines?"


I want you to think about what you want to write. There are a bunch of questions you need to answer first.

What is the topic you want to write about? Actually, dig deeper, what aspect of this topic are you focusing on?

Who are you writing for?

What is it you want the person you're writing for to come away with after reading your work?

Is this a book? an article? a blog post?

This is similar to the app definition statement that Apple suggests we write before we create an app: what are we writing, for whom, so they can do what.

As an example, I've just updated a book I wrote last year. Having a clear focus helped me shape the book when I wrote it and has been invaluable during the rewrite. Here's how I defined the book.

I'm writing a short book to introduce the Swift Programming Language to experienced developers who are new to Swift but know an Object-Oriented language like Objective-C, Java, or C#.

Knowing the topic - the Swift Programming Language - helped me shape the book in so many ways. It would be tempting to base this book around an iOS app and introduce buttons, labels, and table views. But that's not what this book is about. This is a book about the language. It's not a book about the Cocoa APIs or building an app. This meant I could create code examples that centered on teaching code.

Knowing the audience - experienced developers who are new to Swift - limits the books in other helpful ways. I don't have to explain basic constructs I just have to show people who we do it in Swift. I know that my readers have an OO bias so I can stress those aspects that may be challenging while pointing to the aspects that may be familiar and comforting.

Knowing that this is a short book that is to serve as an introduction also provides focus. I'm not going to go into every aspect of the language. I'm not going to show the more esoteric aspects that would confuse a newbie. This is an introduction. Once you're done with this book, you'll know enough that you can start writing code and consult the docs and other resources when you need to know something that lives in the corners.

So here's your homework. Take some time to figure out what you're writing about and who you're writing it for. We'll meet back here tomorrow and see how you did.

At some point you need to know what you are writing. You will discover more about it once you are actually doing the writing. In the end you'll be able to answer the question more clearly, but I think you have a greater chance of succeeding if you can answer the question before you write.

The question you are answering for homework: "What is it?"