Cycle of Creative Progress

Many people see the cycle of creating as just writing-reviewing-rewriting, and miss out on an important step: re-evaluating the outline. I see the cycle like this:

Starting the Cycle

You can start at any point in the cycle.

Write: starting here is usually less than a first draft, and more a collection of notes or a rough proof-of-concept piece. Hell, many of my blog posts serve this purpose. And further times with this could be small revisions or complete rewrites, and with additions or major cuts. The hard work of iteration lives here.

Review: this is a weird starting place, but it comes about from reviewing a book or experience and thinking about what doesn’t and does sit right with you that sparks you to make something new. That experience could be something from a past project or yours or something that someone else made.

Outline: starting here is about structuring thoughts in order to figure out what you’re actually trying to create; an imperfect analogy would be to sort your LEGO pieces before building something and pulling those out that you figure you want to use.

Progressing the Cycle

Write: No matter where you start, you’ll get to the point of writing the first iteration. It might be what you imagine is complete, or just a piece of something you figure will be bigger.

Review: Then you’ll get to reviewing what you’ve written. That could be self-reflecting, playtesting, alpha readers commenting, etc.

Outline: Then you either go back and look at your original outline to see if it needs tweaking, remaking from scratch, or sets as-is. You can often skip this step, especially in small iterations and very later iterations, but that should be a conscious choice rather than just not thinking about it.


As a development editor, I eyeball the outline with prejudice in the first round of editing. I often see writers not re-evaluating their outlines. I urge you all to do so; that will make your books easier to understand and process. And when a game book can be absorbed by those who wish to play it, those games will be more successful at the table.

– Ryan


3 Responses to Cycle of Creative Progress

  1. Jared Nelson says:

    When writing fiction, I tend to be a heavy outliner. One of the things I’m working on is embracing the outline as a guide and not as a straightjacket.

    When developing gaming material though, I almost never start with an outline. I’ll get so excited about a particular mechanic or system that I want it to just leap out of my head fully formed. It’s only after that initial fire cools down that I’ll evaluate how the pieces fit together. Sometimes its good and sometimes it leads to me creating mechanics that look great independently but look awkward working in tandem.

    Kind of a Harvey Dent/Two-Face way to go about it, I guess.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Totally. Every project has different needs to get it started. I’m the same way with both fiction & games, barring that initial notes stage that everything goes through.

      – Ryan

  2. Jess says:

    I just want to say that I enjoy the heck out of these posts, and find them incredibly useful, though I’m never quite sure when they’ll become pertinent to my life. I’ve noticed my own writing take a subtle shift, but also how I look at the writing of others.
    My wife and I are both in school, and she’s been asking me to proof read and edit her papers. The increased amount of insight, and indeed the conscious awareness for editing now (as opposed to long ago when I was initially in college), has definitely increased, in no small part due to reading your blog.

    Thank you.