Historical, fantasy, horror, science fiction, historical fantasy, action-adventure, crime, detective, mystery, romance, urban fantasy, legal thriller, paranormal, military; there are many different genres of fiction to write, each with its own subcategories and crossovers. And with all those different genres it is incredible to believe that there are generally only two types of writers. There are discovery writers and outliners. The two types can bleed into each other and any writer can try both, but an author will fall more into one category or the other. They each have their strong points and weaknesses and neither is inherently better than the other; the difference is that you, the writer, will find yourself more comfortable and ultimately more successful at one or the other.
Discovery writing means that you discover the story as you write it. You start with an idea. It may be a character, a setting, a conflict, or just a scene that pops into your head and you write it down. That becomes the starting point of your manuscript. Then you work around it, flesh out more characters and keep going, discovering more about your characters as they come to life on the page in front of you. It’s very exciting and fresh as it comes out of your head and onto the page in front of you.
For some discovery writers, the more often you tell the story the less enthusiasm you have for it, so outlining the story from the beginning takes some of the joy from the process. Outlining is, after all, just telling the story in bullet points. You learn the parts of the story as you go along, sometimes hanging on to your characters by your fingertips. If they run away with the story, you can follow them to see where they go because it might be more interesting than where you were going to take them. Things happen you didn’t expect. You’ve discovered the conflict already so you have in mind a solution that you’re working towards, but getting your characters from the beginning to the end is a journey you get to take with them. It’s very exciting every time you sit to write.
It can also be a frustrating, seemingly never ending process. It’s similar to driving across the country from Washington D.C. to Hollywood without a map or GPS. You know where you want to go and have a general idea how to get there, i.e. go west, but it’s incredibly easy to get lost along the way. The stories are exciting, but once you finish your rough draft your editing can take twice as long because you have a lot more manuscript than you have story, or not enough. If you discover a big twist at the end you have to go back through and make sure it’s supported and foreshadowed. You’ll have to cut scenes, great scenes, because they don’t fit your story (but don’t delete them, cut and paste them into a “Reuse” document. Great writing should never disappear). And the hardest pitfall of all in discovery writing is writing thousands of words in a story that never goes anywhere or ends too abruptly.
Outlining is aptly named, because it is writing out an outline for your story before you begin to write it. You still begin in the same place, with a character or idea or setting that you write down. But instead of starting your story there, you begin to outline. What is the conflict? Who is the main character? What does the main character want? Who/what is standing in his way? These questions are all answered in the outline. And outlines don’t need to be long- decide what needs to happen in each chapter and write 3-5 bullet points. Chapter One: Main Character, brief description, does this or has this happen. MC meets this person and makes this decision. Side Character one is in this peril. Chapter Two: Main Character meets love interest looking for Side Character and they have this interaction. They don’t like each other. Introduce antagonist and central conflict in this setting.
It feels dry writing like this, but there are several benefits. When you start writing your manuscript, you’ll write faster. It helps you stay focused on the story and know where you’re going. Any time you spent outlining instead of writing is more than made up for in the time you save editing, because you were able to put all the important plot points in place. You’ll have your research done, because you’ll know beforehand what research needed to be done. Character name choices are easier because you know them and what they want before you start writing, which is key to getting excellent and realistic dialogue and thought from each character. Outliners have less writer’s block. And outlining doesn’t have to take a long time or be an arduous process. It’s your outline; you can do as much or as little as you want. And the best thing about outlining is that you get all these benefits but if you find something better as you write, you’re allowed to change it.
The drawbacks to outlining aren’t as many as the pitfalls discovery writing has, but they are perhaps more insidious. For some writers, writing out a full and descriptive outline pulls the joy out of their story. They already wrote it, why would they want to write it again? So the outline, no matter how brilliant, sits in a file that hasn’t been opened in months because in the writer’s heart, that story has been done. If writing a complete outline answers your need to tell the story, then it isn’t for you.
The second drawback has been called “World-builder’s disease” on the WritingExcuses podcast. Essentially it’s a writer who loves to outline and who wants to fill in all the details because they don’t feel ready to start writing yet. That’s all fine and good until your desire to detail out the setting and characters overwhelm your desire to actually write the story, and you disappear into a rabbit hole of increasing complexity in the name of making the world of your story authentic. A noble goal, but not one to sacrifice your story to attain.
I do something that’s more of a combination of the two. I outline, and I made a full, detailed outline that’s several pages long. Once I have the outline finished, I ignore it and write the story. The outline for me is a place to work out the bumps and kinks of the story so I have it in my head who the characters are and what they want. Then as I’m writing I follow the story. Sometimes the order of the scenes is changed; that’s no big deal. Then other times I introduce new characters and plot twists that I wasn’t expecting at all, but since I still know what needs to happen I know how to make them fit and work towards my conclusion.
I think most writers fit somewhere more happily close to the middle. Write an outline, make a plan, and get a map. Then as you drive through the story, feel free to stop in new and interesting places and enjoy yourself on the way. You can always refer to the map if needed to make sure you get where you’re going, but the exact route can vary as you grow and change with your characters. Because the most important thing about writing is to love it while you’re doing it. Not every day, not every scene, but overall to love that this is what we get to do. In every genre, love your story. And be thorough in your editing.