Outlining vs. Discovery Writing: Which is Correct?

There is much debate on the process of writing a novel.  Many traditionalists fall back on what we were taught in school—first create an outline and then fill in the blanks.  While others subscribe to the rule of having no rules. These writers just write, figuring out how their story will unfold as they move along.

There are even nicknames for these types of writers–Planners or Outliners for those who meticulously plot out their story line and Discovery Writers or Pantsers (short for ‘fly by the seat of your pants’) for those who figure things out as they go.

And both types of writers are adamant that their style of writing is THE RIGHT WAY.

Outliners believe that having a planned-out story ensures that the critical elements of storytelling are included such as the arc and resolution. For them, outlining eliminates redundancy and superfluous writing. What is written is essential.

As John Grisham (an advocate for outlining) states, The more time I spend on the outline the easier the book is to write. And if I cheat on the outline I get in trouble with the book.”

Discovery Writers, on the other hand, believe that outlines are too rigid and restrictive and hinders their writing.  These writers get their enjoyment from discovering what will happen next in their story. They write, focusing only on one scene at a time, giving power to their characters to lead them through.

Stephen King on his book, On Writing, discusses his disdain for outlining:

“Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God
they were writing masters’ theses.”

So which way is correct? Who do you believe?

For me, I lean toward the latter style. My first novel was definitely an exploratory exercise with my story line often surprising me.  Writing was fun for me because it was if I was READING my own story AS I WROTE IT.  

Now, I say this with a caveat, there were also essential elements that I wanted to be sure to include. I would HOLD ON TO/SAVE these things for when the TIME WAS RIGHT.

For my next book (now in the editing stage), I took a slightly different approach.  It was based on a short story I had written.  I knew the GIST of what I wanted the book to be about.  There were major MILESTONES that I wanted to be sure to include BUT the writing process was definitely exploratory in nature.

Yes, I did have what I call “milestones” — SCENES — that were important to include.  With my current book, I even wrote scenes OUT OF ORDER. For example, I was so inspired to write one chapter—a chapter that was definitely NOT next in the chronological sequence of events–that I wrote it anyway, even though I wasn’t “there yet.”

And that scene is probably one of my favorite parts of the book.

Needless to say, my writing process is a hybrid of both methods. That is, I have realized, what works for me.

So, what do you call me?  I am deeming myself a HYBRID WRITER.

And for those who are struggling with their writing identity? I say, do what works for you.

Try starting with an outline, with you deciding how in-depth you would like to go with it.  Your outline can be very thorough and detailed or it can be bullet points of ideas and possibilities (which is my approach).

Regardless, there is one important word of advice that is essential: DO NOT BE AFRAID TO CHANGE YOUR STORY.

No outline is concrete and shouldn’t be.  You must have a flexible mindset when writing.

While it may seem like a cop-out to say, my best word of advice is FOLLOW YOUR HEART.  Just start writing and your ideal writing style will work itself out. You will instinctively find what method works best for you.

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