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Oct 2, 2012

What Kind of Writer Are You--An Inputer or Outputer?

"I've caught nothing, but I've had fun fishing, and that's what counts."

Most of us are familiar with the terms "pantser" and "outliner." Pansters write by the seat of their pants. Outliners make lists. Panstsers muddle through. Outliners plan ahead. Most of us combine the two approaches, and (little secret) a lot of us who start as pansters learn to be outliners.

But here's another way of looking at it. Some writers define their goals in terms of input and some in terms of output.

Output goals define what outcome you want to achieve. Here are some examples:

1. I will write one flash fiction story per day.
2. I will write one chapter a week.
3. I will finish a novel in six months.

The benefit of output goals is obvious. When you check off your output goal on your TO DO list, you have a completed project or part of a project: a finished story, scene, chapter or novel. Yay! That's wonderful.

If you were a fisherman, you might have the goal of catching a fish, or a basketful of fish, in a day. If you fish for your dinner, or for a living, this is the kind of goal you have to meet. Most fishermen don't work on salary and neither do most writers. You get paid for what you catch.

But what happens if you fish from dawn to dusk and the nets of inspiration come up empty?

Input goals define what effort you put into the project. Here are some examples: 

1. I will write 1000 words a day.
2. I will write two hours a day.
3. I will write between 5 am and 6 am every morning.

The benefit of input goals is that they help you remember what you need to do to achieve output. If you don't throw your net out into the water, you're not going to catch anything. Most of the time, when we fail to write, it's because we've failed to apply butt to chair. Or we're in the chair, at the computer, but surfing the net, checking out Buffy/Angel tribute videos on You Tube. (Note, however, if you re-define it as "research" time, you can spend eight hours reading TV tropes, and still claim a full day's work in the hard, hard life of a writer.)

The input goal reminds us to spend a certain amount of time in front of the screen (with email/twitter/facebook/netflix verboten), or to write a given number of words. The input goal says, "it's okay if you don't finish a scene, or if you write total crap, or if your net comes up empty, as long as you cast it in the water."

The output goal reminds us that it's not necessary to write every day. In fact, if you define writing narrowly as "putting the words that will appear in your novel down on paper," as opposed to research, visualizing the scenes, outlining and world building, it might not even be a good idea to write every day even if you have the time. Other kinds of work are just as important for completing the novel.

At different stages of our writing journeys, we will waver between which of these kinds of goals are more useful. Brand new writers are most likely to be inspired by a particular project -- a single story or their first novel. After the white-hot head of inspiration cools, however, they will find themselves distracted by Shiny Things and the project, finished or not, gets left by the wayside. This is a good time to kick into Input Goals, and try to write daily or at least weekly.

Writers whose extreme mental deficiency leads them to pursue this as a full time career will find that it's not enough to write for a given number of hours a day, or achieve a certain daily word count, if this doesn't result in actual salable objects. Stories and novels need to get finished. If you go fishing just to spend quality time with your granddaughter, it's okay to throw the little fish back.  If you also need that fish to feed her dinner, you better make sure it's a keeper.

Of course, as with pantsing/outlining, most writers will find that a happy combination of these two techniques works best: regular time to write, with an approximate word count goal, and a schedule to finish your story and novel projects. You'll notice that this is what NaNoWriMo does: there's an output goal (a novel) and an input goal (50,000 words). If you do either one or the other, you "win."

1 comment:

Sara Flower said...

I'm a panster for the most part.