Sixty second writing tips: writing by layers

One of the techniques I use to get structured written content assembled quickly is to write it in layers.

If you’re daunted by the complexity of what you have to write – be it non-fiction or the complexities of a novel with of its character arcs, plot, dialogue, need for pacing and so forth, try this.

I’ll often start with the skeleton of a chapter or sequence – the main thrust of what I want to say.

Then I’ll go back and add a layer – add nuances to the argument, build points or add detail. It might be a particular type of detail, for instance.

Then I’ll go back again – and add another layer, like ‘colour’.

About this time I’ll often re-style it around the more complex nature of the content.

I guess the analogy is similar to sculpture or painting – you start with the broadest strokes covering the whole canvas, then go back and detail it in sequence.

It’s the inverse of the method by which you totally finish one part before moving on to the other. The advantage is that it gives you that structural overview from the outset.

Does this work for you? Have you ever tried this approach before?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

9 thoughts on “Sixty second writing tips: writing by layers

    1. The initial overview/cast usually helps define the underlying thrust of the argument, the rest follows on the back of the detailing. Sometimes I’ll discover something along the way that demands a re-cast, but not always.


  1. You are spot on with the painting analogy. I was a fine are major, and painting was my specialty. I found that I naturally fall into the layering approach with my writing as well. Funny that I hadn’t compared it to my approach to painting until I read this post. 🙂


    1. I find the comparisons between the drawn arts, music and writing to be pretty much direct – all, to me, are the same thing; ways an author/artist/composer can express their own emotional concepts in a way that invokes an emotion in the recipient. Ideally, an intended one. In art, I see this myself particularly in impressionism – the deliberate effort to invoke a mood in the watcher through capturing the effects of light. That in turn was take up by Claude Debussy, who thought sound and timbre could be used to create a vision of colour in the mind of his listeners. When it comes to writing, to me a lot of 1930s material, Hemingway particularly, simply shouts ‘modernism/deco’. They all go together… I don’t know if others think the way I do, but I find the cross-pollenation very useful as a writer.


  2. I have never thought of it that way. With Hold the Faith, and now the second book, I suppose I do something like layers… just never thought of it like that. I am on another ‘run through’ of book 2 at the moment. I guess that will be another layer. Thank you for making me think:)


  3. Great post. Thanks Matthew. There are times when writers do things without thinking about what they are doing and know methods and tricks they forget and don’t use often enough. I find I go back and edit the last 1500 or so words to pick up the thread of where I want to go and get into my stride again. I have realised that what I do at that time is add the layers you have talked about in this post. So thanks for strengthening the point.


  4. I’ve never thought about it that way, but now that I’m reading this I realize I do tend to write in layers, to a certain extent. When I’m feeling blocked or stuck on a scene, I definitely start with the spine of the chapter/novel and fill it in after another run-through – it gives me a chance to focus my thoughts and really understand what needs to happen at a level of detail greater than what an outline or a story-board might capture. Great post! I’ll have to give it a try on a more conscious level next time!


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