Discovery vs Outline Writing

Plenty of writers and bloggers have covered the topic before: does “discovery writing” exist? If so, which is better, discovery writing or the traditionally taught “outline writing”?

This blog is not about those questions. It’s about the discourse that writers, readers, and English academics have been exchanging, how toxic it is, and why such a seemingly inconsequential debate is getting so heated.

For the Uninitiated:

For those of you who aren’t caught up on this fiasco, “discovery” and “outline” writing refer to differing ways of creating a plot. Outline writing is what you most likely learned in K – 12: to write a story, you first create an outline, and then you start slowly connecting those dots as you write. “Pure” outline writing would be outlining a story down to the last paragraph. You can make revisions, of course, but a true outline writer finds it difficult to get started without knowing where they’re headed. Even if the plan doesn’t survive contact, a plan is still necessary. Discovery writing is simply the absence of an outline. Pure discovery writing would be creating characters, picking a premise, and then just seeing what happens.

Some big names are on either side of this debate. Stephen King is adamant about the power of letting characters make their own decisions, and not shoehorning them into a particular plan (Source: “On Writing”). J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, says that outlining and planning is the most vital thing for a good story (Source). Brandon Sanderson — author of the Mistborn series, The Stormlight Archive, and the last parts of The Wheel of Time series — insists that both discovery and outline writing have their pros and cons (Source).

Gray Areas?

There, of course, are gray areas between pure discovery and pure outline. In fact, while individual authors often claim to be one or the other, they often fall somewhere in between, like introverts and extroverts. Authors can even change their strategies from project to project. Some examples of mixing outlining and discovery are:

  • Diving right into the story with a vague idea of who lives, who dies, and what the climax looks like
  • Keeping a list of scenes to include in the story, just in case discovery writing fails to include them
  • “Reverse outlining,” where an author discovery writes, reads the finished draft, outlines the already-written story, and then reorders accordingly
  • Planning a character’s growth and development but not the specific events that spur it
  • Writing the story out of order and then gluing the pieces together (Diana Gabaldon uses this)
  • “Inspiration writing,” where a full scene pops into an author’s head out of no where while they are doing something besides writing. They neither deliberately plan nor do they push forward without one.

Of course, these form just the tip of the iceberg. The more you begin to question your own writing methods and research your favorite authors, the more diversity you will see. It’s difficult to even imagine the writing process without a little bit of both: surely ideas come to people spontaneously as they write; if that idea takes place immediately, they write it down spontaneously; if that idea takes place much later chronologically, then it gets added to a plan.

Which is Better?

But which is better? Plenty of authors, blogs, and English scholars have debated the pros and cons of each method so exhaustively that I won’t go into it here. Some say that it varies from author to author. Others say that it varies from genre to genre. Some wrinkle their noses at the very idea that discovery writing can exist.

My answer is that it doesn’t matter. Debating discovery vs outline writing is equivalent to debating whether it is better to be left handed or right handed: you can’t change it. It may make fun trivia, but all trivia is trivial. Making a mountain out of it certainly doesn’t seem reasonable.

The real question is not “which is better?” The real question is “why do so many people care about this so passionately?”

My Experience with “Spontaneous” Writing:

I started my first attempt at a novel in the fourth grade after reading The Tale of Despereaux. It took some time to get myself to diligently write every day, but after that, things moved along smoothly.

Then, one day, I thought to myself, “It might be good to figure out where my story is actually going.” So I lounged around in my house’s library for a few hours, intimately experiencing the story in my head. It was an epic tale of wolves, charity, and one dog’s dream to win the Iditarod. I went to bed that night thrilled at what awaited me in the coming months of writing. Except that it never came. The delicious story seemed to have turned to sand in my mouth, and I never felt interest in it again.

The first book I ever finished was discovery written with a hint of outlining. I didn’t explicitly plan anything, though I did have in mind that my character would eventually achieve X goal and that he would one day find out more about the mythos I had designed. It was tempting to plan, to experience the story ahead of time, but my younger (and much more perceptive) self had set one rule: do not fantasize about the story. Make the world, make the characters, but do not think about the plot.

While this worked swimmingly, my K – 12 English teachers had other things to say. They painted a picture of all great literature as being meticulously planned by writers, down to the color of the curtains. They taught us how to outline, graded our outlines, and never even hinted at a world where outlining wasn’t practiced. They never mentioned “reverse outlines” or “inspiration writing,” only the forward process of “plan and execute.” There were some mentions of revising, but outline vs discovery writing isn’t about revising. To revise is to already know the plot, making the distinction between outline and discovery null and void.

I tried for years to outline, but every time I did, I lost the story. Grand worlds of shapeshifters and evildoers turned into color-by-numbers, following a mind-numbing set of instructions. But I kept trying. I trusted my English teachers, and I thought my writing would never amount to anything if I couldn’t change my body’s negative reaction to outlining. Imagine being left-handed, dreaming of becoming a baseball pitcher, and then being told that you must be right handed. My “spontaneous writing,” as I’d dubbed it, made me feel like a 17th century lefty being disciplined for something she couldn’t help.

This continued until my freshman year of college, when I watched an online lecture by the aforementioned Brandon Sanderson. I don’t remember most of what I heard, but I recall hearing the phrase “discovery writer.” It sounded exactly like my spontaneous writing.

There are many idioms that we use in daily life that I fail to appreciate. I don’t expect a drunk person to actually see pink elephants, feel “butterflies” in their stomach when nervous, or perceive that the world is collapsing around them. One such idiom that I never appreciated was “weight lifting from one’s shoulders.” I’d always thought authors were just being poetic. But after I heard Sanderson describe my spontaneous writing in intimate detail, and what’s more heard him say that my method could be a good thing, I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. I had never and have not since experienced such a palpable feeling of relief in my shoulders. Not when my doctor told me that a lump was not cancerous, not when my prospective thesis supervisor said “yes,” not when my boss agreed to pay me for my lab work, not even when my dog narrowly evaded collapsing into a diabetic coma. The most freeing thing that I have ever heard was the term “discovery writing.”

Why Such Anger?

Afterwards, it was clear to me why discovery writers would get heated in the outline vs on-the-fly debate. Discovery writers have been encumbered by close-minded English teachers for years, making them doubt their capabilities every day. They are attacked, and so they get defensive.

But why would planners get so heated in the debate? Sure, many people don’t like it when new technologies and customs enter on the scene, threatening to undo the status quo. But normally there are stakes. What does a planned writer have to lose from someone else writing spontaneously? Why would they get defensive? I waited two years to write about discovery and outline writing, and this is the reason why: I couldn’t fathom why people on the outline side cared so damn much about how other writers wrote.

I’m writing this now because I have stumbled upon a very good lead. It may be the root of all the anger coming from the outline side, or perhaps every angry blogger has their own reason for taking this debate so personally. But I think that even this one small insight might be able to sew up the divisions that have torn apart the writing community in recent years.

A few weeks ago, my roommate and I got into an argument about what it took to become a good artist. Wanting to argue against restrictive, counterproductive, or arbitrary rules, I emphasized the importance of gut feeling. My roommate, wanting to argue against destiny, fate, and talent, emphasized the importance of study. It was about half an hour into the conversation that we realized we were talking past each other. We were both reacting to different conversations, both arguing with shadows from our past — and not with each other. Rules vs flexibility is similar to experience vs talent, but the overlap of these two debates are not absolute. It turned out that we both completely agreed with each other: experience > talent and flexibility > rules. But as I was arguing “flexibility” and he was arguing “experience,” we both heard different things.

To be explicit: planned writers (or at least some of them) get angry in these debates not because their writing method is losing a seat of power. Rather, they react defensively because they feel they are being attacked. By what?

Talent.

There are countless people who believe that an initial input of talent is necessary to be a great artist: if you don’t have talent, you can’t get good. Hard work, perseverance, and learning are secondary to talent, and all the great artists of the past were born with a genetic makeup that automatically turned them into artistic geniuses.

Do I believe this? No. But when many people hear me say “go with your gut,” they think I believe this. I can’t blame them: Stephen King is both a discovery writer and believes that talent cannot be earned, taught, or substituted. So people in these four communities often team up: the talent-focused ally with the discoverers, and the experience-focused ally with the planners. The line is drawn in the sand, and from the other side of that line, the two allies on the other side might as well be one and the same. After all, if Britain allies with France, and Germany allies with Japan, doesn’t it make sense for the British to attack the Germans and Japanese with equal fervor?

I lean towards discovery writing, but I’m also in the experience camp. I believe that good writers are made, not born, but I also get far more use out of writing by gut feeling. How is this possible? Simple: have you ever been to an improv show? Do you think you would be good at improv? Do you think you can get good at improv? Exactly.

The same for rap battles, dance-offs, and MMA: when you go in, you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what jokes you’ll tell, what rhymes you’ll make, or what attacks you’ll inflict upon your opponent. Your audience, your opponent, or your story teaches you how to respond to it on the job. But that doesn’t mean that people are born being good at dance battles or born knowing how to fight. People still give each other tips for different situations, still display a diversity of distinct strategy, and still reflect on how to do things better next time. Some people keep a repertoire of various plans for various situations, and others decide to go in headlong and roll with the (sometimes literal) punches. Experience and spontaneity are both used in all of these examples, in perfect harmony with each other. They are not opposites.

Discoverers would stop being so angry if the world stopped calling them lazy, diluted hippies. But outliners would stop calling the discoverers lazy, diluted hippies if they didn’t feel that discoverers were espousing raw talent as the main ingredient in writing. Discovery writing can still be taught and learned in the same way that handwriting can still be taught to the left-handed. It’s not about which is better: it’s about realizing where you stand and then learning to optimize your strategy.

Which Should You Pick?

I mentioned above that I don’t like prescriptive rules, as they’re often counter-productive, arbitrary, brainwashing, restrictive, or misapplied. In line with that preference, I don’t think there are all that many “should”s in writing. Discovery and outlining are no exceptions.

I’ve had projects that die as soon as I make that bullet-pointed plot summary, but I’ve had one or two projects where I had to outline — I was so intimidated by the look of a blank page that the story would have died if I hadn’t outlined. Discovery and outlining, in my experience, doesn’t just vary from genre to genre, or from author to author. It can vary from project to project, or even from month to month. Sometimes I make an outline, purposefully forget about it, and lock it in a drawer somewhere in case I ever freeze-up again. Sometimes I swear off of planning entirely and see where the story takes me. Sometimes I’ll let potential resolutions and plot developments mull about noncommittally in my head, waiting to see if any of them match the story’s pacing when I finally get to that point in the timeline.

There is no right or wrong here. There’s hardly even a definition of outlining or discovery, with people debating whether characters and world-building should even count when talking about plot outlining, if “inspiration” writing falls into a camp, and if revision is essentially the same as an initial outline (My answer to all of these is “no,” but I guarantee there’s going to be flames in the comment section.).

Most of the pros and cons I read online directly contradict each other and are obvious speculation. Some of them are a bit more sophisticated and use historical, theoretical, or literary sources to support whatever side they’re on. Some of them say “Harry Potter sold more copies, so planning is better,” as if this were a numbers game; or “Most writers are in X camp,” as if that didn’t fall into the survivor’s bias fallacy; or simply forget that revising is a thing and speculate that discovery-written stories are all 10,000 pages of meandering (directly in contradiction to Stephen King and Ernest Hemmingway’s discovery styles). Speculation is taken for evidence, evidence is taken for speculation, and every attack from one side escalates the hard feelings on the other.

But even if any of those pros and cons, us vs them, black vs white stances were true, it wouldn’t matter. In my experience, discovery vs outlining chooses you, not the other way around. We can debate all day whether it is better to be tall or short, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, right-handed or left-handed, but the debate will lead to nowhere and nothing except polarization and wasted time. I tried for 10 of my most formative years to change from discovery-leaning to outline-leaning, while my superiors and role-models tried to beat it into me. I fell into actual clinical depressions because I tried to change but couldn’t, and was convinced that a little bit of improvisation would be my downfall. But. I. Couldn’t. Change. Perhaps some people are more fluid, but that doesn’t change the fact that many aren’t.

Instead of yelling at the other side, trying to control others’ lives, or making them feel oppressed and attacked, we should explore our own preferences (self reflection wouldn’t exist if we knew everything about ourselves), figure out what works for us, and try to make the best of what we’ve been given.

((And, in case you’re wondering, the first and third parts of this blog were “inspiration written,” and the second part and afterwords were discovered. Do with that information what you will.))

All comments must be respectful and civilized. Any submitted comments with name-calling, speculation, or sarcasm will be allowed, but will be ridiculed with memes — at an intensity directly proportional to the severity of disrespect shown towards one camp or the other. However, neutral, unsubstantial, and non-controlling personal experience comments are perfectly allowed, and will be praised with nicer memes.


4 thoughts on “Discovery vs Outline Writing

    1. It depends there, too! I always thought I should outline for nonfiction, but then whenever I go to write an essay, “dump drafting” (vomiting all your words onto the page in the first draft and then later reverse outlining) tends to work better. Though I’ve never written a full nonfiction book, so who’s to say?

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  1. I am a discovery writer who goes back to the beginning after each new discovery. Needless to say, I have troubling finishing. I can tell stories verbally with a measure of success, but when I try to dictate, I once again get tied up with rewriting.

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