Writing Backward

I made a discovery this weekend. Or, rather, a re-discovery, because this little piece of knowledge is something I’ve learned before, utilized many times, and–of course–forgotten until I had a need for it again.

Sometimes, its easier to write backward.

When I was in college, I did try and come up with that all-important thesis statement that drives an essay. After that, though, I would often write in this order:

  1. Conclusion
  2. Body paragraphs
  3. Intro paragraph
  4. Revision of that thesis statement that wasn’t quite right after all.

Why backward? Because sometimes you just can’t know how you’re getting somewhere, until you’ve been.

This last week, between dodging raindrops, staying afoot in huge winds, and lighting LOTS of candles, I got the outline and marketing/course information written for an online critique class that Writer’s Digest will be offering in December. This weekend, I started on the lessons. They’ll build on what I’ve written in The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, teaching critique tools and skills by having students critique first chapters or scenes from their classmates.

It took me a bit to focus in, but then I remember the backward writing. Which, in this case, took the form of developing–first–the bulleted list of questions the reader should ask themselves as they critique, and–second–writing the introductory text to set up those bullets. MUCH better.

As I worked, though, I was thinking about the other ways & times that backward writing is the form of choice. And here’s what I came up with:

  • Getting your hero to their scene goal and then figuring out the path they took.
  • Writing the fight scene between two (or three) characters, and then working out the scenes that will build in tension to that moment
  • Working out the climax of your novel first, so you know what’s the most important choice your hero will have to make
  • Developing exercises for your how-to book, to focus on your reader’s practical goal, before writing the guide’s main content
  • Writing the conclusion to your magazine article, to hone in on the one thing your should take away from the piece
  • Playing with the resolution to your memoir, to get closer to the theme of your personal story

Obviously, writing this way will not work every time. The opposite tact is to write through an entire draft–from start to finish, or skipping through the middle–to grow your own understanding of your project. I find that this backward style works best when I’m stuck, when I’m staring at the lead-in or some place in that vast middle of a project and not knowing what to write. Jumping ahead–flipping the coin over–gives me a jump-start, a different angle from which to see things.

And then, I find, I’m writing.

What about you? What did I miss? When do you decide to step off the linear, straightforward path and take a look at what the end can tell you about the beginning?

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14 thoughts on “Writing Backward

  1. Shawna says:

    Becky,

    I am a firm believer in nonlinear writing. Sometimes I do write the end first so I know how it will all play out and what must happen. Sometimes I write the crisis or turning point first.

    I find writing can be kind of like those mazes my kids do. If you start at end and work your way backwards, there are less side roads to mislead you.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I’ve done mazes that way! I had forgotten about that. 🙂

      I did write the crisis scene for my WIP already. I know it’ll need revising, but it was good to get it out there & see it.

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  2. We must be traveling down a similar mind path because I was reminding myself of writing things out of order this weekend. I’ve just decided to try and write some of the ending scenes to my WIP so I can use them as a goal post for working toward.

    I think any time we shake things up in our routing, write in a different spot, use a different tool, etc, it gives our gray matter an opportunity to pull out some old tricks of its own.

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    • beckylevine says:

      It’s been saving my sanity this week, just on the bit of NF writing I’m doing. And I keep having to repeat it–thinking I know what I’m writing, then jumping ahead to figure that out, and back again to detail it. Happy writing to you!

      Like

    • beckylevine says:

      I’m struggling with the bits and pieces myself these days. It seems the way this WIP wants to be written, but it is not my way of EASE! Good luck with the knitting.

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  3. Several people have recommended laying the fragments out on a timeline and looking for connections. They haven’t necessarily followed the chronological thread, but it helped them find the “story line.”

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