There’s Rarely Only One Right Way

Lately I’ve been seeing and hearing a lot about how writers write, and I’m always astounded at how everyone’s process is at least a little but different. There are a few major divides, like whether an author is a plotter or a pantser.

Most of you probably know that a plotter creates an outline before starting to write, and a panster just writes the story with little or no idea where it might go.

But beyond this broad definition, there are a near infinite number of variations. Recently I was doing a library event with a couple of other writers, and an audience member asked us about our processes.

Three mystery authors; three different methods

One of us (not me, that’s for sure) creates a meticulous outline before beginning to write her book. This particular author writes both fiction and non-fiction, so maybe that’s why she uses an outline even her for fiction. It’s her method, and she’s comfortable with it.

The other author said she doesn’t use an outline at all. That’s brave.

My process is somewhere in the middle. I only know my logline and occasionally the opening scene when I start writing. But two or three chapters in, I pull out the yellow sticky pad and create a bunch of scenes I’ll need to get from those opening chapters to the ending. Which I know will be my main character identifying the bad guys and bringing him—or her, since I’m an equal opportunity author—to justice.

Both of the other authors know before writing who the bad guy is. I never know until at least two thirds through the book when I suddenly realize ‘who dunnit.’

It goes beyond just the way we write our mystery novels

The three of us also had different publishing models. One author had a mix of indie published, big five traditional published, and small press published books.

One author was with a hybrid publisher.

I am completely self-published, with my own publishing imprint and all the joy and pressure of being a one-man band. Not to say I don’t outsource things I’m not good at, like cover design. But at the end of the day, it’s still my responsibility to get it done.

There’s no one right way to write a mystery novel

As I contemplated how three successful authors arrived at three very different ways to create their books and deliver them to eager readers, I saw a parallel with the larger cosmos. None of us writers felt compelled to try to convert the others to their own preferred methodology. We took note of anything that sounded helpful for our future work, but otherwise, we merely nodded respectfully and moved on to the next question.

There are at least a million ways to write a book, and there are probably a million ways to do almost everything under the sun.

So why do so many people so often try to force others to think or do things in the way that they perceive as’ “the best?”

Sharon Ward is the author of the Fin Fleming Scuba Diving Mystery Series, which includes In Deep, Sunken Death, Dark Tide, Killer Storm, and Hidden Depths. Sea Stars, the sixth book, is coming out in October 2023. Sharon was a marketing executive at prominent software companies Oracle and Microsoft before becoming a writer. She was a PADI certified divemaster who has hundreds of dives under her weight belt. Sharon is a member of Sisters in Crime, MWA, ITW, Grub Street, the Authors Guild, and the Cape Cod Writers Center. She lives near Cape Cod with her husband Jack and their miniature long-haired dachshund Molly, who is the actual head of the Ward household.




  1. Sharon, I love hearing about different writers methods. I tend to be a mix of several of those threads!

    I know the inspiring incident/crime, and who did it before I start and work towards that. I may have outlines for a few scenes, at least at the beginning, and for a few that will be needed. Then I let happenstance take over as things evolve.

    It’s true that as we are all individuals, so is our writing process, and I think that’s a lesson many writers find to be a hard but valuable one. You can’t fit yourself into someone else’s routine. A large part of knowing yourself as a writer is learning what suits you, in my opinion.

    1. I totally agree, Marni. I find that’s true in many things besides writing. I hate when people say “You’re doing it wrong” even if they say it politely. If the goal is accomplished, then the method works. That’s what matters.

  2. Haha. Now I feel guilty for my proselytizing for outlining! Of course you are absolutely right. Finishing the book and giving the reader a good experience is what matters.

    1. Oh, Lane. This wasn’t a dig at your column. I just really enjoyed the conversation at this event, and it led me to thinking that “there’s no one right way” works for almost everything in life, not just writing!

  3. Though I consider myself a pantser, my process is always evolving. While my romances are pretty much still full on pantser, with my NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mysteries I do some research and thinking before I start writing, about whatever issue (white nationalism, child sex trafficking, etc.) is woven into the plot. I’ve also found it helpful as early in the process as I can, to come up with the title and preliminary jacket copy.

  4. I found this very timely, in that I am somewhere in the middle as well. General outline of characters, how the murder is committed, who dies, what relationships are what (in a general sense), but as the characters start becoming more and more real to me, my most frequent question to myself is “What would Malone do next, how would she react? She has SUCH a mind of her own!” The characters sweep up the story into their possession and off they go! I do the yellow pad thing as well; like mile markers. It unreels itself like a movie in my head. Having been a Theater Major in college probably is to blame. And my title ALWAYS come last—this time it was from an article on cricket in the Guardian!

    1. I have a quote from Stephen James (love him) on the white board in my office. it consists of 4 questions.
      1. What would logically happen next?
      2. Is it believable, logical, and contextual?
      3. How can I make things worse?
      4. Have I kept all the promises I made to my readers? (Think Chekhov’s gun.)
      I use questions 1, 2 and 3 during the writing, and 4 during editing and rewriting.
      BTW, if you haven’t read any of his books on writing, try them out. They’re as enthralling as a novel, and super useful.

  5. I am a serial reviser. I write a very rough draft and then a slightly less rough second draft and then I change it all around and come up with a third draft, and that’s usually when I know the plot and on it goes.

    1. I write three drafts. One rough, and I have beta readers tell me where the stupid parts are. I rewrite to remove the stupid and smooth out problems and plot holes. The third draft I do while my computer reads to me, and that’s when I polish the prose.

  6. Great article, Sharon, and so true. We each eventually discover a process that resonates with our own unique personalities and methods. Sounds like you had a great time!

    1. I hate taking classes where the instructor says “This is how it’s done.” I love classes where the instructor says, “Here’s a tool that works for me,” and then lets you decide on your own whether or not to use it, because I agree. Everybody’s process is different.

    1. I use the table of contents like an outline, but I don’t create it until I’m partway into the writing. After I make those yellow sticky notes, I plug each one in as a chapter heading. I have Word number them so I can move them around as needed and the chapters stay in order.

    1. As you and I always say, “Let the reader decide.” If they like it, that’s all the matters. Rules be…(not sure if I can use the next word without getting censored, but it starts with a D.)

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