• Writers have different personalities. What works for you might not work for someone else and that’s okay.
• Discovery writing (non-outlining) gets started faster but generally requires more revision.
• Outliners take a lot of time initially but require less revision.
• Try adopting different techniques/practices from the other side.
• Leverage your strengths as a writer and mitigate your weaknesses.
Discovery writing versus outlining. Writing by the seat-of-your-pants versus planning ahead. Diving into your work immediately without knowing much about anything versus meticulously laying out every foundational thing about your novel before you write. It’s the difference between hacking through a writing jungle and researching your way to greatness. It’s the great dichotomy of our age!
Chances are, you’re a bit of both. We tend to be continuums that share attributes along the line instead of being polar opposites. I’ve yet to meet an author who is exclusively one or the other. Strict outliners will say they allow for changes to the manuscript part way through. Strict discovery writers have at least some indication of where they want to go, even if it’s just a premise or a character in a setting.
Pros and Cons
I’m much more of a discovery writer as is another member of my Flaming Bacon Boar writers’ group. Our third member is definitely an outliner. The juxtaposition of our styles has taught me a lot about how to tackle writing, and how both discovery writing and outlining have their pros and cons.
Discovery Writing-Faster start, slower finish
It’s so much easier to get started as a discovery writer. I have a concept, I know about where I want the novel to go, and I start. Because of this, I produce a lot of content. The first draft is a breeze and its fun because I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. However, sometimes there are roadblocks that I don’t know how to hurdle and I’ll have to stop for a while or pull out my playlists to move forward.
I have to constantly ask, ‘How are these character’s going to interact? How are they going to conflict with each other? Who is this character anyways?’ Their personalities change throughout the writing process. They become less ambiguous and more refined as I go on. By the end of the novel, I have a pretty good idea what the book is about. I’m at the finish line and there’s a great amount of satisfaction at completing another novel. I take a breather and enjoy. I could write another five stories this way, producing them just as fast.
But there’s a catch. When I finally decide to review my book, it’s a mess! Character’s switch personalities midstream. There are gaping plot holes waiting to swallow me alive! The magic system changes throughout and still isn’t well defined. I realize, to my horror, how much work it’s going to take to fix everything. And therein lies the biggest con against discovery writing: REVISION.
I’ll need to go back through and rewrite characters to make them have consistent personalities. I’ll have to think long and hard about the magic system, and really develop it this time around so it’s cohesive. And I’ll have to do the same thing with almost every aspect of my novel.
It’s something I’ve seen play out in my own writing and in my writers’ group. A discovery writer will have to do a significant amount of rewriting and revision while the outliner does less. My suspicion is both types might end up taking the same amount of time. Outliners just frontload the work, whereas discovery writers backend it.
Discovering Writers’ Strengths
○ Quicker start time (jump right in!)
○ More content production
○ More enjoyment (you discover the plot as you write so you’re both a reader and an author)
○ Learn as you go!
○ Low analysis paralysis (spending too much time world building, etc.)
○ Requires HEAVY, HEAVY revision
○ Roadblocks in plotting are more frequent (What happens next? What do I write from here?)
○ Finishing can still leave ambiguous characters, magic systems, and plots.
Outlining-Slower start, faster finish
The outliner, on the other hand, is stuck before they start. They can’t start writing until they know everything that happens. They have piles and piles of notes on world building, characters, magic systems, countries, cultures, geographies, timelines, conflicts, scenes, themes, etc. All this takes an enormous amount of time to plan.
Once they finally start writing, it’s a breeze because they already know what happens. They’re like the bamboo that doesn’t break through the ground for the first four years then shoots up to 90 feet in a few weeks! (please don’t spend four years outlining though). They make some tweaks to their novel here and there but in the end it’s perfect. It’s exactly what they wanted it to be. And because they did such significant outlining beforehand, everything is in place–the conflicts are intertwining as they should be, the magic system makes sense and is shining through, the foreshadowing is hitting all the right notes, and they’re just about ready to call for beta readers. Despite the need for every author to revise, it’ll all be downhill from here.
○ MUCH shorter revision time (depending on the outline’s strength).
○ In depth world building, plot development, and characterization.
○ Minimized road blocks. You know exactly what you’re writing and where to put it.
○ Characters, plots, themes, and other elements are well fleshed out in the first draft.
○ Potentially quicker to get actual novel out to readers.
○ You get more play time in your world when the rules are actually in place.
○ Richer environments.
○ Requires HEAVY, HEAVY time investment up front.
○ Potential lack of discovery happiness (actual writing may be more of a chore).
○ Outlining boredom.
○ Content takes more time.
○ High risk for analysis paralysis (too much time spent world building, plotting, researching, etc. and not writing!).
Discovering How You Work Best Everyone is different.
Since I’ve been writing, I’ve come to appreciate the benefits that outlining has. I really hate revising and since outlining helps alleviate some of that, I’ve adopted a few outlining practices over the years. I might not be able to outline as well or as in depth as my outliner friend, but what I’ve learned has certainly helped me.
I’d recommend every author experiment in this area. If you’re more of a discovery writer, look at outliners and try different outlining techniques. Try creating the fantasy map before you get started. Really work on developing your magic system before you start your novel. Get a list of names before you have to come up with them on the fly. Plot out a few scenes, or try to be like David Farland-outline the first third of your novel, discovery write to that point then outline the next third and so on. Try using one of the various plotting techniques (snowflake, three act, four-part structure, etc.) and consider applying them all to the same story to compare methods. Once you’re done with this, start writing with all this background information. See what works, see what doesn’t. And if you’re still having trouble with outlining, try writing short stories where you get to explore elements before you write the actual novel.
If you’re an outliner, try discovery writing. Minimize the amount of time you spend world building. Start with a premise, an initial conflict, and throw a character headlong into it. Beat off the voice in your head telling you, you can’t jump into the deep end. Trust your inner writing instincts and let your characters go where they want to. They may surprise you, much to your consternation or pleasure. Even your plot may begin to surprise you, going in directions you didn’t think it would take you. And you might just end up enjoying the ride.
Regardless, each of us (whether leaning toward discovery or outlining) has a lot we can learn from each other. The point is that we should keep learning, keep growing, keep trying new techniques to continually refine our skills, adopting those practices that help us the most.
Leveraging Your Strengths and Mitigating Your Weaknesses
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Often times we spend too much time fixing our weaknesses rather than capitalizing on our strengths. You may find after some experimentation that you just can’t be a discovery writer. That’s fine. You don’t have to be a discovery writer. You may find, like me, that you just can’t outline as well as others. That’s fine. You don’t have to be an outliner. If you’re an Olympic sprinter, focus on sprinting instead of spending too much time trying to become an Olympic swimmer.
I know I’m a discovery writer, that I do some of my best outlining while actually writing. I know if I spend too much time outlining, I’ll get bored, so for me I try to start writing as quickly as possible. But creating a map beforehand, developing magic systems up front, creating histories, cultures, and a few more potential name lists has greatly helped me.
You may find your situation is different. The other discovery writer in my group recently plotted out his ENTIRE novel, chapter by chapter, in the three-act structure. So far, it’s going really well for him. So mix and match, try out new things, and ultimately do what works for your individual writing personality, identifying what your strengths are (so you can maximize them) and what your weaknesses are (so you can mitigate them).
Keep in mind EVERY project can be different. One novel might require extensive outlining. One project might be better written as a discovery novel. Switch, change, adopt what’s working, and leave the rest behind.