Investing in the Writing Process

Are you a front-end load writer or a back-end load writer?

Lee G. Hornbrook
May 21, 2020 · 9 min read
Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

Writing is a skill that can be learned. Nobody is born knowing how to write. We must learn the brute mechanics of holding a writing instrument, making letters, making words, stringing words together into phrases and sentences and paragraphs, and whole texts.

Learning to write is similar to other mechanical skills, like playing the piano, learning to swim, or learning to code. All require manipulating something else with your body and mind. The more you practice the activity, the better you get. Also, writers rarely work alone. They collaborate with colleagues and work with copy-editors, editors, and publishers.

But somehow, a mystique remains about writing that people are born writers, lone geniuses who have a natural talent, a gift handed down from the heavens. In actuality, writing is a skill that writers learn through hard work, persistence, practice, and collaboration.

The currency of writing: time and effort

The basic currency of writing is time and effort. As a writing instructor, it was impossible for me to quantify effort. I graded final products, not process. Short of cheating and plagiarism, how students got to that final product was up to them. I can’t say Susan‘s effort was better than Karen’s. And even individually, Susan may have a good effort one day and difficult time writing the next. The key to success in writing — or in any endeavor in life— is to minimize the bad days.

The basic currency of writing is time and effort.

We can make some claims, however, about time and effort: Susan may produce 500 words in one hour, while Karen may produce 2,000 words in one hour. By one measure, i.e., the number of words, Karen has produced a greater effort. That’s misleading, however. Susan may have produced a much more polished 500 words than Karen’s 2,000 words. Susan may be closer to the finish line than Karen, having paid up front in thinking and planning and thus minimizing the need for extensive revision. Karen may have produced more words than Susan in one hour, but her work may be just beginning. She may need to revise and edit extensively those 2,000 words. Neither Susan nor Karen are better writers than the other. They both pay into the writing process at different points.

Writing as a process

Everybody has a writing process. Lisa Bickmore mentions how composition theorists talk about “‘The Writing Process’: invention, drafting, revision — but we probably also can acknowledge that there’s no one writing process, there are many.”

Individual writers have their own writing process. Stephen King says, “I try to get six pages a day.” It may seem that he doesn’t ever revise given the length of his books, but he’s also famous for saying “kill your darlings,” as a way to discern between the good and bad in one’s drafts.

Everybody has a writing process.

Vladimir Nabokov revised extensively. He said, “My pencils outlast my erasers.”

Hemingway wrote in the morning, standing up at his desk. He was incredibly fussy about getting the work correct. He wrote 47 endings to his famous work, A Farewell to Arms.

Whatever the daily rituals and goals of writing, each writer shares a writing process that goes something like this: prewriting, planning/outline, drafting, revision, editing.

Types of writing investors: front-end load writer vs. back-end load writer

At some point, the monies (time, effort) for each part of the process have to be paid. It’s just a matter of when. There are no rights and wrongs here. One way isn’t better or worse than the other.

Consider these ideas about investing. In general, when buying mutual shares, class “A” shares have front-end loads, meaning the buyer pays fees upfront, on the front-end of the transaction. Class “B” shares are back-end loads, meaning the buyer pays a fee when the broker sells the shares, at the back-end of the transaction.

The broker always gets paid. In the world of writing, your manuscript is the broker. You pay the broker either early in the process or later in the process. Let’s extend this investing metaphor to the writing process.

Front-end load writers

Front-end load writers pay up front. They spend a lot of time and energy at the beginning of the writing process. They “front-end load” the process with much deep thinking, planning, and organizing before even trying to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. These writers put such great stock in thinking that they may not even take notes before the drafting process, working everything out in their head before committing themselves to paper.

Front-end load writers tend to be more linear thinkers, getting their ducks in a row before committing a single mark of ink to paper. They end up with advanced 1st drafts that have the quality of 2nd and 3rd drafts.

The downside is that front-end load writers may take some time getting started. But they save time on the back-end with less revising and editing because of the higher level of polish, to begin with.

Front-end load writers tend to be more linear thinkers, getting their ducks in a row before committing a single mark of ink to paper.

If you consider yourself a procrastinator, then you may be a front-end load writer. If you are merely slow in getting started because you’re meticulous in lining everything up, that’s still necessary work.

A true procrastinator doesn’t get the job done. If you know you are a procrastinator and have trouble getting to the drafting process, then you may wish to try a back-end load process to get to that completed draft.

Back-end load writers

Back-end load writers pay at the end of the process, during revising and editing. They put pen to paper/fingers to the keyboard quickly, providing elaborate prewriting, outlines, and extra-long drafts. They throw any and all ideas in and do not make premature judgments about their ideas. They more freely try to record their thinking through a variety of prewriting and planning techniques.

Back-end load writers are often considered more creative types, organically following ideas to see where they lead. Don’t mistake this for inattention and lack of method, however. They take voluminous notes, make messy drawings, outlines, and write drafts that include everything including the kitchen sink. They make a few judgments upfront in trying to find what will stick. Back-end loaders end up with drafts that are long and messy, frequently requiring several subsequent drafts to wrangle the organic mess into some coherent shape.

The downside for back-end load writers is that they leave the majority of their choices as a writer for the revising and editing process. Revising and editing take longer for the back-end load writer.

Back-end load writers are often considered more creative types, organically following ideas to see where they lead.

If you are a stream-of-consciousness freewriter, a consummate journaler, and like seeing the words quickly materialize in front of you, you’re probably a back-end load writer.

If you have difficulty with making choices or a weak grasp of grammar, punctuation, and mechanics that is necessary for good editing, then you may wish to consider trying a front-end process to have a more manageable draft to work with.

Most writers are probably some combination of front-end load and back-end load writers. Neither type of writer is inherently better nor worse than the other.

Understanding the type of writer you are can unlock increased efficiency in each part of the writing process. This amounts to understanding your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Also, since writing is often collaborative work, understanding the type of writer you are can help you collaborate with others more effectively.

Each part of the writing process is a necessary act, though the parts are not discrete entities. The writing process is an iterative process, almost a “two steps forward, one step back” practice. There is a considerable bleed between the parts as well, especially between revising and editing.

Paying into the writing process

Let’s look at the traditional 5-part sequence to evaluate how front-end load writers and back-end load writers might act during each step of the writing process.

  1. Prewriting
  • Front-end load writers: Prewriting may not even happen as the front-end load writer thinks through the project more fully before even putting pen to paper.
  • Back-end load writers: They prewrite almost obsessively. They may use many types of prewriting, such as freewriting, brainstorming, mind-mapping or clustering, or the 5Ws & 1H journalist questions.

2. Planning/Outlining

  • Front-end load writers: Significant portions of their projects are planned and outlined in their heads. They may perhaps develop a rigorous and detailed outline that will change little during the drafting process.
  • Back-end load writers: Planning and outlining documents are filled with doodles and lines and circles and arrows. Outlines may contain frequent cross-outs as back-end load writers evaluate different choices frequently before making any final determination.

3. Drafting

  • Front-end load writers: Draft looks like polished writing, complete with titles, subtitles, subheadings, and immaculate structure. To the untutored eye, this document looks done.
  • Back-end load writers: Draft is much longer than assignment guidelines. Draft may have spaces to fill in missing information, notes to self. A quick glance will indicate that the ideas flow haphazardly as if the writer wrote what came to mind without any regard for a plan. Looks loosely planned.

4. Revising

  • Front-end load writers: Little is needed in the way of reorganization since the writer spent the time earlier deciding upon structure. However, since the draft is so clean and precise, it’s more difficult to discern other organization patterns that could improve the writing.
  • Back-end load writers: Lives for revising. A long draft is just what the back-end reviser wants. It’s time to garden. Planting this seed. Taking out this weed. The back-end load writer thrives in bringing order to the messy writing process.

5. Editing

  • Front-end load writers: Editing is less time-consuming with a polished draft. On the other hand, finding errors in a clean draft is often more difficult than having them stand out like weeds. Meticulous editing is still required.
  • Back-end load writer: Editing is an extension of revising. The process becomes important here, such as moving the work from paragraphs to sentences to phrase to words and on to grammar, punctuation, and mechanics.

Writing collaboration as an investment group

Writing seldom occurs in a vacuum. Writing is often collaborative work. Writers work with other writers, and with agents, copy-editors, and publishers. Having a discussion with your partners about the kind of writer you are can help ease tensions that may develop during group work. If it seems one teammate isn’t carrying the load, maybe he is a front-end load writer. Or if it seems that one teammate is all over the map, with seemingly irrelevant comments during planning sessions, maybe she is trying to discover her way through much like a back-end load writer.

Each writer brings strengths and weaknesses to the table. A good writing group will take notice of the strengths and weaknesses of each writer, either as a front-end load writer or a back-end load writer. Where one writer may be skilled at planning and outlining, another may thrive at assembling a draft, and yet another may be meticulous in revising and editing. Dividing up the work according to the type of writer can lead to more efficient group work.

Writing is often collaborative work. Writers work with other writers, and with agents, copy-editors, and publishers.

Writing is hard work. All writers want a maximum return on investment (ROI) for their products. Determining the type of writer one is and where to pay into the process more effectively can improve not only a writer’s process but also can maximize one’s earning potential, in the form of money paid per assignment, an increase in readership, or both. Investing in understanding one’s writing process can only lead to increased dividends down the line.

Lee G. Hornbrook taught college English for 25 years in every time zone in the continental United States. He writes about sailing, movies, literature, baseball, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, and is at work on a memoir. Find him on Twitter @awordpleaseblog and at his personal blog A Word, Please, or his Medium publication Valley Dude.

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Lee G. Hornbrook

Written by

Writer, Editor. Vegan, Sailor, Non-conformist. Former college writing teacher. **I Write. Mostly Words. Every Day.**

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

Lee G. Hornbrook

Written by

Writer, Editor. Vegan, Sailor, Non-conformist. Former college writing teacher. **I Write. Mostly Words. Every Day.**

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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