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Monday, February 11, 2019

Discovery Writing and Outline Writing—Kinda the Same Thing Actually

I've talked about before on here and you can find it talked about throughout the industry, that there are really two approaches to writing: discovery writing (sometimes (controversially) called pantsing) and outline writing (aka plotting). Discovery writing is where you go directly to the manuscript and start discovering the story as you go. Outlining is what it sounds like, you outline before writing the manuscript. Most people fit somewhere in the middle. Me? I'm more of an outliner.

These approaches can seem like total opposites. And you can read and research all about them online. In fact, on here I have an article on outlining and another on discovery writing.

But for the last several months, I've been thinking about how they are actually kind of the same thing.

That might sound contradictory to some people, but just hear me out.

Months ago, I did this post on what to do when you write yourself into a corner. When I shared this on Facebook, one of my Facebook friends said he never writes himself into a corner because he outlines. I mentioned that I outline a lot and still manage to write myself into corners. For me, this is because it's impossible for me to brainstorm a perfect outline. There are usually side effects, complexities, and complications I run into that I didn't foresee. Not everyone has that, but I do. I also think it depends on the kind of story you are writing and how interconnected it is--if you are dealing with undercurrents, mysteries, hard magic systems, for example, I think you are more likely to run into issues you didn't foresee. If you are writing something like a slice-of-life story or a romance, I think it's less likely. Not one type is "better" than another, they are just different.

But as I was thinking about it, and I realized that while that post was titled "What to Do When You Write Yourself Into a Corner," it could have just as easily been titled "What to Do When You Outline Yourself Into a Corner."

At the end of the day, whether you go straight to the manuscript or you outline, you are still figuring out the story. Yes, it's true that the different approaches can produce different kinds of stories, but whether you outline or write a first draft, they are approaches to the same thing: figuring out the story.

True discovery writers may make statements like this: "It's like the story is telling me what it is, and I just write it down."

But I'm a big outliner, and I still have moments like that. In fact, not too long ago when outlining, I had a whole sequence of scenes and a character arc seem to simply manifest themselves to me, and it all felt so perfect (as "perfect" as the process can be anyway). Other times when I'm working on an outline, I feel utterly stuck on what should happen next, or how to get from point A to point B--things that discovery writers run up against when writing the story. There are times, I think, where discovery writers have to sit back and think how to do X or what's going to happen next. Some would call it writer's block.

I have heard some discovery writers say that their first draft is their outline. You get the story down and then you shape it into the true narrative.

Then recently, when I was perusing Writing Excuses to get some writing insight and inspiration, I happened to run into Brandon Sanderson talking about this same idea. That discovering and plotting are actually kind of the same thing. In outlining you front-load a lot of the work and in discovering you back load it, because you usually need to do more revisions.

My opinion has been that my writing tips and editing services and others' writing tips are helpful to discovery writers and to plotters, my take being that for discovery writers, the more you understand writing, the more you can "discover." (Not to mention, if something is "broken," getting tips can help you revise and fix it.)

Discovery writing can feel a little mystical.

Outlining feels more intentional and planned.

But in each approach you are simply figuring out the story.

And in reality, at times the opposite will feel mystical and the other requires some planning.

As I have been brainstorming and outlining a new book, I have sometimes felt anxious or rushed because I haven't started writing anything for the actual manuscript yet, and therefore feel as if I haven't "really" started it--as if the preliminary work I'm doing isn't really work and doesn't count, because I haven't started the word count. But here is the thing, I'm front-loading a lot of the work (as most people, I am not one extreme or the other, so I will undoubtedly still "discover" some things when I actually start the writing process). So of course it's going to be longer before I actually put words to the story document. But that also means I will have to do less work during and after the story-writing.

For discovery writers it may be the opposite. You can start on the word count right away, but you may be doing a lot of work during and after the draft.

Neither way is wrong and both ways are right.

Personally, I do way better work when I largely front-load it. I think I would cry if someone told me I had to "discover" a novel. Uugh, it would be the worst (as you can see, I'm not a pantser). Discovery writers may feel the opposite--they may feel that outlining takes away their desire to write because in a sense, the story is already "written"--it's already figured out.

In either case, we all have the same goals: to write a solid story. And frankly, nearly all the writing resources should benefit both types. In fact, the other day I listened to a podcast about discovery writing, because I thought the techniques would help me "discover" my concepts and outline. For me, in that instance, I was right. It helped quite a bit actually.

So do you agree or disagree? Are pantsing and plotting sorta the same thing in some ways? Which works for you?


  1. Oooooo I love this! It makes sense that they are kind of the same thing. As for me, I'm definitely a discovery writer--outlines stunt my creativity. After the first draft though, I usually make an outline, just to make sure my plot and character arcs actually make sense. I also like to see things all neat and organized, so I don't really know why that doesn't help me with the first draft. xD

    1. XD The writing process is so weird sometimes! Honestly! Sometimes I wish it was like math or something. I guess as long as you can nail your own process down, you're good.

  2. My thoughts exactly. I've spoken about this. Pantsers are really long-form plotters. Each method is a creative approach to the same end-goal. The pantser writes in a mist; each step moving forward but without goal-clarity and sometimes going down blind alleys but still, moving forward. The plotter is a puzzle maker, fitting each piece strategically together until a completed picture is formed. But, even the puzzle maker may discover, during the writing process, that there are suddenly new pieces on the board that will have to make their way into the picture. The glory of discovery in plotting! It's what makes plotting more like quantum theory: Here is my complete 1,000 piece puzzle which, in the end, contains 1,013 pieces.

    1. Glad to hear from someone who agrees. I did get same backlash on this post when it went up from someone who very much disagreed with me--which is fine, I love hearing other perspectives. In one sense, they are different, but in another sense . .. they're kinda the same.

      I love your comparisons to the mist and puzzle.

      Thanks for commenting, Gordon.

      All the best,



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