Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The first draft of your book is where the ‘writing’ really begins. You can spend years imagining a story – planning out the setting, building up the world, marinating in the minds of your characters – but until there are words on a page, it’s all theoretical. This is why authors, editors, and agents alike give budding writers the same advice; start writing. None of the rest of it matters until you actually start writing.
But that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to go about it. In fact, most authors tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between two different approaches: marching and hopping.
What are marching and hopping?
Marching and hopping are different approaches to writing, with each having its own pros and cons. While they apply to writing in general, they’re at their clearest and most useful in reference to your first draft, where the difference between the blank page and written prose is the starkest.
Marching is the technique of starting on page one and then writing your first draft from beginning to end, all in chronological order. Like someone marching along, you keep putting one foot in front of the other, forcing yourself on until the job is done.
Hopping is the technique of starting with the scenes that you most want to write, then bouncing all over the narrative until eventually you have a complete story.
Of course, between most absolutes there’s a lot of wiggle room, and there are plenty of authors who hop to their key points then go back to the start and march, as well as writers who hop to one significant moment just so they have a destination for when they march through the rest of the piece.
Still, each of these techniques has distinct advantages and disadvantages, so in this article we’ll be looking at how each works, how to do them better, and how to tell which is right for you.
While very little study has actually been dedicated to these writing habits, marching is certainly the technique that society thinks most authors adopt. That’s probably because it mirrors the experience of reading, but since decent stories go through so many revisions, there’s no actual reason that you have to write from beginning to end. After all, if you do your job as a writer, you’re going to visit every moment of your narrative again and again and again. When it comes to editing, everyone starts hopping eventually, so even if marching is for you, it’s worth asking whether this is your writing style because it’s what works best or because you’ve always just thought it was how you had to work.
So, what are the actual pros of marching through your first draft? First, a lot of continuity takes care of itself. By ‘continuity,’ I don’t just mean the events of the story, but the characters’ mental states, minor plot details, tone, and even voice. If a character is miserable in Chapter 2, then a marcher can take that into account as they write the events that follow, whereas a hopper who writes Chapter 3 before Chapter 2 may end up creating a discordant moment where the character ‘forgets’ how they felt just pages before.
This sense of continuity can permeate deep into your writing, and you’re more likely to discover small moments of relevance or potential synchronicity as you march, since all those small moments are slowly building up in your subconscious.
Marching also tends to help pacing, since writers pick up an instinctive understanding of how many words they’re employing for each section that they then carry forward, while hoppers don’t have the same points of reference as they bounce between the big moments.
In terms of what it’s like to write, marching also flattens out enthusiasm. This offers its own pros and cons – you may be less excited to write your story if you’re not enthused about the section that’s chronologically ‘next,’ but you don’t run out of ‘good’ bits and then have nothing to look forward to, which is a potential snag of hopping. This speaks to one of the main benefits of marching, especially in relation to first drafts, which is that you’re more likely to end up with a complete story before you move to the next stage. Hoppers can get trapped rewriting the ‘best’ bits of their narrative without ever actually writing the moments between them, which tends to warp a narrative in ways that can be hard to fix later.
Marching is easier if you have a plot outline for your story, but while it can run counter to the instincts of a ‘pantser’ (someone who derives creative energy from making up most of the story as they go along,) it’s also useful here. This is because marching forces a degree of chronology on your writer’s brain, which can help fix your inventiveness in a useful context.
Since marching and hopping are opposite approaches to writing, it’s only to be expected that the strengths of one are the weaknesses of another. Hopping can lead to sporadic pacing, voice, and even plot points, and you’ll have to do some extra work to connect up moments that don’t naturally progress one to the next.
But while marching helps cement past context in a writer’s mind, some authors find this overly restrictive in the early stages of a story’s formation. A downside of marching is that if a character is miserable in Chapter 2, their mood carries over into Chapter 3, which is a problem if Chapter 3 is better without that context and it’s actually Chapter 2 that needs to change. Marching tends to give events that have already happened an assumed authority over events still to come. Hopping does the same thing, but it lends this authority to core story moments rather than pure chronology. This can be useful if your story is built on big, powerful moments – you don’t want your big Chapter 20 battle scene to be warped to fit whatever happened in the training scene in Chapter 5; you want the training scene in Chapter 5 to be written to serve whatever happens in the big battle in Chapter 20.
Placing emphasis on ‘big’ moments also tends to get narrative results really quickly. A marcher who has written five chapters has barely started their story, whereas a hopper who has written five chapters has already nailed down several key moments, helping the narrative feel less nebulous and thus incentivizing further writing.
Getting these crucial moments down early can also make it easier to write connective passages. Writing such passages tends to be a slog for marchers, but hoppers – who know where these characters are coming from and where they’re going – have more of a sense of what connective scenes need to accomplish.
That’s not to say that hopping always makes writing easier. Once you’ve written all the scenes you’re excited to write, all that’s left is what didn’t enthuse you in the first place, and this can be a dangerous trap for hoppers, who can be pushed into avoiding or ignoring a project that is no longer offering significant rewards every time they write.
Another drawback to hopping is the tendency to warp the story to serve big moments. Writing key moments and then filling in the gaps tends to create a narrative which – in terms of voice, plot progression, and pacing – feels like it’s rushing between destinations. That doesn’t have to be the story-killer it sounds like, since this is exactly what editing is for, but it’s worth considering as you make your choice between these techniques.
While ‘pantsers’ tend to also like to hop, it’s actually far easier if you’ve planned your narrative in advance, allowing you to hop with a little more insight into the bigger picture.
Better hopping, better marching
Those are the pros and cons of marching and hopping, but which should you pick, and how can you make each work for you?
First of all, it’s worth noting that hopping is high-risk, high-reward. By ignoring those parts of the story that don’t excite you, you’re working on your story in a way that doesn’t mirror how it will be read, and that can cause a lot of different problems.
One major trap for new writers is writing the ‘big’ scenes without thinking about all the small moments that make them matter. As we’ve said elsewhere, movie battles are cool because movies are visual, but books aren’t, so the value of life-and-death struggle tends to rest on how much the reader cares about the life in question. Write your huge fight scene before anything else and it’s likely you don’t actually have the resources to find its best form, and likewise for the big argument, love scene, revelation, or other major moments that run on the fuel of character and context.
This approach leads to huge moments that suddenly jettison all the character and context present in the rest of the story, as well as narratives that feel like they’re ‘warped’ around key events rather than unfolding naturally.
You can fix this warping as you edit – indeed, that’s what editing is for – but you’ll need the right mindset to make this work. If you’re going to hop, do it with the intention of vastly reworking your initial efforts later on. Giving yourself these big moments before any others is an effective way to keep writing, but it rarely produces great storytelling without a lot of editing.
Choosing hopping is choosing to have more fun now and leave yourself more work later, but that’s only an issue if you don’t do the work later. A good compromise is to really plot out your story in advance of hopping. While often a counterintuitive pairing, having a hardy skeleton lessens the downsides of hopping, since it leaves your story less vulnerable to warping around its biggest moments. Finally, be deliberately cynical about your key scenes when you’re hopping. When you love a scene, you’re far less able to see its flaws, and the writing advice to ‘kill your darlings’ specifically relates to the need to be even harsher with your favorite sections in order to undercut your bias.
Marching carries less risk of warping a story than hopping, but it does come with its own dangers. Something it’s vital to avoid with a first draft is becoming beholden to your initial version of a story. Everything can and should change before the story finds its best form, and just because you wrote something down doesn’t make it the definitive version of a character, moment, or narrative. The big risk of marching is that your story gets pinned down too quickly – if you’re writing the whole thing in order and, halfway through, you realize a moment should have played out differently, it can feel sacrilegious to change lanes, but that’s often the right choice. Sometimes, effective marching means deciding that, from now on, you’re going to write your story as if the events you already penned happened slightly differently. Having to finish a story that you know isn’t right will exhaust you, so even if you’re committed to the march, don’t over-invest in chronology.
It’s also useful to add your first few chapters back onto the end of your march. When you started out, you didn’t have anything to draw on, but by the end, you were drawing on the context of a whole book. Going back and taking another shot at those opening chapters (especially if you deviated from their events later) is a useful way to even out your first draft and ensure that the quality doesn’t just steadily improve throughout in a way that makes it harder to begin redrafting.
If you’ve always marched, it’s worth considering adding a little hopping into your repertoire. While you don’t want to exhaust the scenes that keep you going, having a moment to aim for can be invigorating and help keep you motivated.
So, with these caveats, which technique should you choose? You already know the answer: whichever encourages you to keep writing. There’s no single, guaranteed way to make progress, but by understanding the potential pitfalls of your favored technique, and perhaps even combining it with another way of doing things, you’ll be in a better position to finish that first draft and clear the hurdle that stops many would-be authors from ever seeing print.
Both hopping and marching can be effective, and mastering them is a matter of choosing the one that suits your style and then putting in the work to plug the gaps left in your first effort. Above all, remember that the first draft has only one true purpose – to give you a real, written story that you’ll then improve again and again.
Are you a hopper, a marcher, or do you think you have a unique combination of the two? Let me know in the comments, and check out Why Writing Your First Draft Is Not As Scary As It Seems and Why You Should Finish Your First Draft As Quickly As Possible for more advice on hitting the first major goal of any writing project.