The Scattershot Method – How to Defeat Writers’ Block

Out of the countless aspiring authors who have a great plan for a groundbreaking novel, only a fraction of them will ever complete a first draft. For many, simply getting words onto paper can be a daunting task, and any amount of planning, research, and editing will mean nothing if you can reach that first major milestone – having a completed draft. Any method available to achieve that target should therefore be explored by writers who need it.

Completing the first draft

Every writer is different in how they approach a new project. You might have heard of the dichotomy between plotters and pantsers, and that in itself is a spectrum. 

Whether you identify as a plotter or pantser, or if you disagree entirely with the labelling of the two, there’s no denying that you’ll have an approach that works best for you.

Discovering that favoured approach, whatever it may be, is one of the most rewarding steps as a writer. Once you’ve found the method that makes it easiest for you to get words on the page, then the entire goal of finishing that first draft will feel even more achievable.

Challenges to building the word count

Many writers put a self-inflicted constraint on their writing process. If a novel consists of parts A to Z, then surely it makes most sense to start with part A, then B, then C, and so on.

The reason for this approach may seem obvious: if you write chapters 4 and 9, how can you ensure continuity between them without painstakingly structuring the sections in between? Character motivations and behaviours, plot intricacies, descriptions, even the setting – all of these are vastly impacted by what you write in the events preceding those chapters.

By writing from beginning to end, it seems the easiest way to avoid potentially glaring plot holes that require extensive redrafting to fix. But, ultimately, this approach can stifle the creative process by pigeon-holing the writer’s focus.

Why working from beginning to end is the wrong approach

Writers struggling to complete a first draft shouldn’t put up any barriers in their creative process. Although it may work for some, writing chapters sequentially is a potential constraint that can simply be avoided by instead writing with a scattershot approach.

Overcoming a hurdle can be even more challenging due to the daunting prospect of still having the rest of the novel to write once you finally make it over this one obstacle that you may have been struggling with for weeks. By making some sort of progress with other parts of the story, even if they are fragments, the writer can push forward knowing that more progress has been made than it may first seem. Any tool to diminish the dreaded writer’s block should be taken advantage of.

What is the scattershot method?

The scattershot approach to writing is simple: write what you want, when you want, and how much you want. 

There doesn’t need to be a particular method behind what parts of the project you write and when. The only question you need to ask before putting pen to paper or sitting in front of your computer is what do you want to write? Here, now, which part of your work is compelling you? Which chapter, scene, or even paragraph do you just need to get out of your thoughts and into words?

This scattershot technique doesn’t need to have any clear structure; you can write how much you want from any part of your novel. If you finished chapter 1 yesterday, you don’t need to start on chapter 2. If instead chapter 5 has a scene that you can picture vividly, or chapter 55 has an exchange of dialogue that you’ve been acting out all morning, then work on one of those instead.

Building a collage

If you follow this approach, your project will come together piece by piece. You might know what you want to write for part C and part E, but not what connects them. With the scattershot method, that doesn’t matter. You can write parts C and E and leave D for later. You may think this gap only needs to be one chapter, or it could be that later in the process you decide it should be several.

Filling in the gaps

Remember, this is an approach for creating that coveted first draft. The collage you build will become larger without you needing to think too much about how to finely tune the story.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, you can start with the easier pieces first. The scattershot method helps to create that bigger picture – the final completed project – and even if it’s not finished the remaining holes will become easier and easier to fill as you add more in.

The more you add, the clearer it is to visualise what’s needed to fill the remaining gaps. You’ll start to see how each piece becomes connected to one another and how these chains of ideas (themes, subplots, character arcs etc) spread across the entire story.

Why choose the scattershot method?

This may sound unlikely to work for you, or perhaps you already employ a similar approach to your writing, but the scattershot method can be useful for a range of purposes.

It gets words on the page

Building that word count is, to put it bluntly, the only way to finish a first draft. By adding bits and pieces wherever you see the need for it, you can skirt around passages you’re uncertain about or plot points that you’ve not yet developed.

It’s fun

When you’re writing a novel, you should be able to have fun with it. The reality, of course, is that it’s often a challenging slog. By using a scattershot approach, you can avoid (at least temporarily), the parts you’re dreading writing. Instead pick what you enjoy, even if it’s only a short scene or few paragraphs.

It develops your story more creatively

Having a series of disparate scenes or chapters can help you see aspects of your story which you might not have discovered if you had worked from beginning to end. It can even help you write more developed passages as you start to get a better understanding of how all the pieces fit together. 

A character’s motivations during one passage could be explained by a preceding scene. Or you could work in foreshadowing for a plot twist in a creative way. Examples like these should be developed anyway through redrafting, but with a scattershot approach you have the opportunity to identify creative opportunities to unpick from the very first draft.

Won’t it require more redrafting?

In a way, you might think that this approach will require more redrafting compared to writing from beginning to end. Undoubtedly there will be plot holes and inconsistencies that arise and that need fixing, but there will be in any first draft.

Any time you write, and whatever method you use, you’ll need to redraft over and over before you get the final result. Even if you plan extensively, laying out every single chapter in great detail, it will be impossible to get a flawless first draft.

The act of writing out your story, no matter how much you plan, will bring out new ideas that you won’t have considered before.

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Using the scattershot method

Using a scattershot approach to writing might not be for everyone, but there’s scope to use it, or some variation of it, in a range of projects. If you’re trying to write chapters of a novel sequentially and have reached a roadblock, try picking out other sections which you have a clear idea about. It might help unlock a creative spark that allows you to return to that obstacle and overcome it.

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