Discovery Writing vs Outlining: Is One Better?
Have you heard of pantsing? No, not the physical act of taking off your pants, but rather a writing technique known as “pantsing.” I and many other authors prefer to call it discovery writing. Discovery writing is a popular approach for some creative writers who prefer to let their imagination flow freely, without the constraints of an outline. This writing technique can be especially effective for certain types of writers, who thrive on the excitement of discovering their story as they go. But it often gets a bad rap as being the “wrong way” to write.
I bring up that last point because outlining is pretty straightforward. It’s easy to understand. But it becomes an issue when writers who prefer and perform best using an outline just “don’t get” discovery writing because it’s not how they are wired then push the outlining method as the gold standard everyone else should use. It’s not unusual to disregard methods we don’t understand or don’t personally value.
DISCLAIMER: As a discovery writer myself, I’ve heard all the arguments about why writers should always, without exception, write to an outline. And I’m kind of tired of it. So yeah, this article is a little personal for me… I’m not gonna lie. We humans can sometimes be a judgy lot, can’t we?
So, what is discovery writing exactly? Discovery writing is a writing process where the writer jumps into the story without a detailed plan or outline. Instead, the writer relies on their instincts, imagination, and creativity to guide the story as they write. It doesn’t mean they necessarily have no structure for the story, but often it means that structure is undefined or accessed intuitively. This approach allows the writer to explore different directions, characters, and themes as they go, which can lead to unexpected twists and turns that enhance the story. Writers using this method hit on plot points by way of a subconscious level of knowledge of story structure.
Discovery writing is often compared to its counterpart, outlining, which is a more structured approach to writing. Outlining involves planning and mapping out the story before writing, including key scenes, characters, and plot points. Facts and data are externally available to this type of writer, and they can be spelled out in an orderly fashion. While outlining can be helpful for some writers, it can also limit creativity and limit the writer’s ability to explore different possibilities for others. Discovery writers develop ideas by exploring possibilities and potential outcomes and are stifled by a confined structure, while outlining relies on the establishment of a set of rules and guidelines to follow during the creative process.
But all the good writing programs teach outlining! It’s how it has to be done, and everyone should do it this way!
But do they?
I think you’d have to be living under a rock not to understand that neuroscience continually learns more and more about our brains. One just has to look around a modern classroom to understand that one student’s brain works differently from the next one. There is a beautiful variety of brain wiring across the breadth of the human race, and it’s just as easily seen in how authors approach the creative process. Just like one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to learning style, there is no one size fits all when it comes to being creative in writing.
This field is too large to really dive deeply into, so let’s just use one of the most common personality tests to show how this might be so.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a personality assessment that categorizes individuals based on four dichotomies: Extraversion (E) vs. Introversion (I), Sensing (S) vs. Intuition (N), Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F), and Judging (J) vs. Perceiving (P). Examining MBT in light of this discussion could be overwhelming, because it’s a very complicated tool, so for the sake of argument, let’s look at just two of these categories, the preferences of intuition and sensing.
Intuitive individuals (N) are more likely to approach creativity with an emphasis on big-picture thinking and abstract concepts. They are imaginative, future-oriented, and enjoy exploring theoretical and conceptual ideas. They tend to see patterns and connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, which can lead to novel and innovative solutions. They are less concerned with the details of a specific situation and more focused on the overall vision. As writers, intuitives might need to work their way into the details, from the top down. The details themselves might come out at the very end of the process only after they have come to know their characters, setting, and themes at a deeper level.
When faced with a creative challenge, an intuitive person might prefer to brainstorm different concepts and ideas, explore new possibilities, and challenge assumptions. They may be more open to taking risks and experimenting with unconventional approaches. This often comes through the writing process itself.
Intuition helps writers follow their instincts when writing. They are often able to create a vivid and engaging story without the need for a preconceived plan. This spontaneous approach can lead to unexpected and unique plot twists, which can enhance the story and make it more engaging for the reader. In reality, most often there is a plan. It’s just not consciously available to the writer, thus the phrase “discovery writing.” The story is a gem that needs to be mined, picking through the excess material around the goal. It needs to be uncovered, discovered.
In contrast, Sensor individuals (S) are more likely to approach creativity with an emphasis on concrete details and practical considerations. They are focused on the present moment and are skilled at observing and interpreting sensory information. They tend to be more realistic and pragmatic, preferring to work with facts and data. They are less likely to take risks and more concerned with the practical aspects of a situation.
As writers, this might mean that the details of a story are more readily available to their conscious mind and may very well be the first things they see. They prefer to have a clear roadmap in place before beginning a project because they don’t handle uncertainty well. A sensor might prefer to gather data and research to inform their decisions for the unfolding story, focusing on the details and practical considerations of the project. This will often incline them to rely on proven methods and established techniques outlining to flesh out a story. Once gathered, the facts and details can be aligned in a logical order, the story built outward from there.
But before I hear any complaints, let me be clear: being a sensor or an intuitive doesn’t automatically put you into one category or the other in terms of discovery writing or outlining. A lot of authors use a hybrid of both methods. But it can explain one reason different types of writers might approach their creative process differently at the start of a project. We all take in information differently, and we all process differently. We all make connections between data points differently, so it’s reasonable to conclude we will approach writing differently!
It’s all about the end result, right? The fact that, out of the general population, 70% of people show a preference for Sensing over Intuition when taking a personality test like the Myers/Briggs, it’s easy to see why intuitives are often misunderstood. They are in the minority.
So what do we do with all of this?
For certain types of creatives, discovery writing can be a more effective approach than outlining and can find it a much more liberating experience. These types of writers can often be heard to say, “I don’t know what to write until I write it.” That’s just a simple way to say that the very act of writing helps this type of writer process all the elements a story might need, knowing full-well changes will be made (and required) in editing. Often, vast amounts of written material will never end up in the novel because it was simply exploratory writing used for discovery.
That being said, discovery writing does have its challenges (as does outlining, to be fair). Since there is no outline to guide the story, the writer may experience a sense of disorientation or loss of direction. This can lead to a high number of rewrites and a greater amount of editing, which can sometimes be time-consuming and frustrating. Additionally, Discovery Writing runs the risk of resulting in an unstructured or disjointed story, which may be difficult to revise or revise without significant changes. Discovery writers must pay careful attention to editing, hiring a professional early in the process if a story becomes too unwieldy or disjointed.
Discovery writers have often received a lot of unfair criticism for their less traditional approaches to creative writing. The method is certainly not without its challenges, and writers who prefer structure and planning may find it difficult to adapt to this approach. The moral of the story here, however, is that the best approach to writing is the one that works best for you. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to creativity. If you’ve always been taught outlining and find it doesn’t work for you, explore Discovery Writing. You might find it’s a better fit for you!