How do you approach writing? How do you think your favorite author does? Do you just sit down and start typing without knowing which direction you are headed, or do you put in ample forethought, planning out the path you mean to later traverse? Are you a discovery writer or an outliner?
In discovery writing, you create the events of the story as you go. You allow the story to unfold naturally from one sentence to the next, line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph, page-by-page, creating and crafting on the fly.
The path unfolds one step at a time. It branches out in various directions, sometimes it takes a ninety degree turn, yet it does so in a naturally organic and plausible way. You may not know what lies at the end of the path, but that is half the fun.
Discovery writing has a very creative, fun, exciting feel to it for the writer. You are an explorer in the unknown—how could that not be fun?
Another way to think of discovery writing is as a zoomed-in approach to writing, in which you are actively present in the sentence and the context that sentence is within. You are working from the inside-out, not always seeing the forest from the trees, but moving along nimbly and deftly.
With outlining, you make a linear list of your plot points and make sure you note everything you wish to achieve before writing the actual prose and sentences.
You are drawing out your path on a map before you set out on that journey. You know every twist and turn you will eventually make, and where you will eventually end your journey, and although this may take the fun out of it, there is a comfort and structure to it.
Outlining has a very analytical and systematic feel. You are the mapmaker, so it goes with the territory as a planner.
Another way to think of outlining is as a more zoomed-out way of writing, where you are taking a wider look from the outside-in at all the puzzle pieces.
Pros & Cons
As with most things in writing, and life, both discovery writing and outlining have their advantages and disadvantages.
One major advantage of the organic discovery writing is that all the plot points feel plausible and realistic. Nothing feels forced or contrived. Since you are closeup in the details, in the thick of the path, you will be better prepared to answer the question: What would my character do next?
It makes sense: as you move sentence by sentence, the intricacies of what you are writing are fresh on your mind, allowing for progressive details to form organically and branch out in a realistic fashion.
With this method, I think the narrator and characters write the story as much or more than the actual writer.
And usually, it’s just more fun and can often keep your creative fuel burning longer and brighter.
But, because you do not always know what is around the next corner in the path, you can write yourself into corners with discovery writing. Then you have to go back the way you came, take out your machete, and hack out a new path.
Unfortunately, you can also write a bland story through discovery writing. You become focused on the individual steps you are taking on the path and the flow and rhythm of the plot unfolding naturally and realistically from one thing to the next that sometimes you find yourself in a very plausible yet boring room at the end of the path. And not at the oasis you originally were seeking.
You can also get lost and just start writing scenes that serve nothing to the larger story.
All of these pitfalls can lead to a lot and lot of rewriting.
Since you are zoomed out with this approach and can see the entire map, you can more easily move around the chunks of story to arrange them in the best possible order for maximum effect. You can better answer the question: What do I want the reader to get out of this scene?
Before you even begin writing, you can make sure you include every exciting element you enjoy as a reader: character deaths, new settings, surprises, and plot twists. Also, you can save a lot of time writing (which is always helpful) because you are figuring out which ideas work and which don’t before you put countless hours into them.
Sometimes the plot points in your outline are too difficult to connect once you actually get to the writing. But you like your outline so much that you force the connections between the plot points. This can cause your story to feel implausible, unrealistic, and contrived. You may like the ending you picked out so much that you end up writing a ridiculous beginning and middle just to get to it.
Also with outlining, you are placing more control in you as author than in your narrator and characters. This can lead to a more cold and distant feeling story, or just something very different than you originally desired.
Also when moving about such large pieces of story, it’s easy to become a perfectionist with your outline. Be wary of trying to achieve some perfect skeletal model based on classic novels.
So, what kind of writer are you?
I imagine you are a writer who wants to create the best version of your story possible. If to do that you need to use one method completely over another, then definitely do that.
For me, sliding around the spectrum–if you think of discovery writing and outlining as opposite ends on a pole–as I need to often results in the best story.
I don’t think one method is objectively better than the other. Try not to think rigidly about these two methods. These are not hard and fast rules, just an assessment of the approach writers take.
The important thing is the result, the story.
I’d love to hear what kind of writer you are in the comments. What are some advantages and disadvantages you find in each method?
–Discovery Writing vs. Outlining is written by Michael DeCesaris.