On Discovery Writing

Writing advice. The one thing all authors agree that other authors probably got wrong. “Oh, don’t listen to that writer, all advice is subjective, but you know what you should do…” We all do it, and we all mean well. Helping others through writing troubles reminds us of how we got help when we needed it and gives us an opportunity to give back to the community that, for the most part, supported our dreams when most others wouldn’t.

But all advice is subjective, and few bits of subjective advice are quite so common as “try an outline.” This is so pervasive, even from authors who call themselves discovery writers, that I am becoming convinced that many authors don’t know what discovery writing even is. So let’s start with some definitions.

Discovery writing, often called Pantsing or Gardener writing, is the process of writing a novel (or other story) without pre-planning the path that novel is going to take. There’s several subcategories of this, because every person’s process is a little different so every time someone talks about it they tend to redefine the term to exclude some subset of people whose process is too different from theirs.

Plotting, also called Planning or Architect writing, is the process of writing a novel by completing an outline of the content and using that to create your story. Again, there’s several versions of how people do this, sometimes resulting in redefining the term to exclude people who seem to fit the category.

Most authors agree that, really, discovery writing versus architect writing are on a sliding scale and every author employs some amount of each technique in their process. Few people are completely pure architects who know every detail of their story before they start writing it, and it’s extremely rare to see a pure discovery writer sit down with no concept of what they intend to write and pound out an entire novel.

I’m the latter.

I start every novel with a rough idea for a character and a place where that person is standing. Little to no knowledge of that character’s backstory, motivations, or current crisis, and sometimes no knowledge of the world they live in either. As a result, I’m sure pure architects exist, and I’m sure they have as much potential to be great, innovative authors as anyone. However, as a result of my extremely low pre-planning, it baffles me to see some people call themselves discovery writers and then pull out their rough outline of how the plot arc of their next book is going to go. If you haven’t started writing it, how can you possibly have an outline? And this brings us to perceptions of writing styles.

Why Does Everyone Want to be a Discovery Writer?

Over the years, I’ve attended a number of writer’s conferences, been part of several writer’s groups, and talked to a lot of writers online. In each case, I’ve watched the definition of plotter shrink further and further. “Oh, I’m a planster. I don’t really outline, but I need to know where I’m going.” “I’m a discovery writer, but I like to tent pole. I set up a few important turning points and write those scenes, then start at the beginning and write towards the next tent pole scene.” I’ve been comfortable with these broadenings of discovery writing. Everyone’s process is different. What stunned me was when I watched a YouTube video of a somewhat popular YouTuber and author and she said “People misunderstand pantsing. Just because you’re a pantser doesn’t mean you don’t start with an outline.”

No. That is literally exactly what it means! That is the only hard rule that distinguishes discovery writers from architect writers.

Every push of the discovery writer definition toward the middle of the sliding scale has been to include people who don’t really outline, but don’t jump in blind either. If you actually outline prior to writing, however rough the outline is, you’re an architect writer. And that’s great! So why are so many people trying to include themselves in the discovery writer definition when they don’t really fit?

I would argue that there’s a misperception as to what it means to be a discovery writer, drawn from the mis-perception of what it means to outline. In school we were taught to outline by breaking down every significant point of the thing we were outlining and putting it on a bullet point. Every major event should be represented. As I said, very few authors do this before they begin writing. However, since that is the process people think of when they hear about outlining, they assume that outlined books are extremely formulaic. A growing subset of authors think outliners are boring writers or have flat characters. As a result these authors don’t want to be called plotters. So they expand the definition of discovery writer to include light outlining, or I had an outline but went off track because my creativity took over, or any number of other process decisions that really should fit more under plotter. Because of this, discovery writers are sometimes seen as more creative, and maybe even more intelligent.

That is not true.

Of course most people know, if you talk to them, that the process you use to write doesn’t indicate your intelligence or creativity. For the most part, people aren’t even aware they think this. But listen to the awe with which some writers speak about being a discovery writer. “Wow, that’s just amazing. I could never do that.” I’ve even heard “I wish I could write like that.” Why? It’s just another process, no better or worse than anyone else’s. So to anyone who writes rough outlines and is upset that I’m calling them an architect writer, remember this:

Brandon Sanderson is one of the most prolific fantasy authors of our times, he is wildly imaginative, and he is an architect writer. He excels at combining concepts, plotting out interesting story ideas within those combined concepts, and writing engaging stories with compelling characters. You don’t have to make it up as you go to be creative or innovative, and your rough outline isn’t something you should have to defend. Discovery writing is no better, as a writing process or personality choice, than plotting.

Discovery Writing is Not a Thing People Grow Out Of

And then there’s the other side. Architect writers who think discovery writers just haven’t learned how useful an outline is yet. Almost every piece of writing advice, every writing class, and just about every recommendation for overcoming difficult writing sessions encourages this belief. “Write an outline, it’ll help you make sure you’re headed in the right direction!” Just…please stop. We’ve tried, I promise. If that worked for us, we’d be architect writers.

Despite my frustration at this advice, I actually understand why this is so common. Most discovery writers can’t explain why they don’t use outlines. They say things like “It just doesn’t work for me.” When pressed for specifics, they add “If I outline, then I lose all the fun of writing and can’t write it anymore.” I’ve used these explanations. Steven King very famously uses these explanations in all his interviews where this comes up. It even makes sense that an architect might hear these explanations as “I just don’t like doing all the work beforehand and don’t have the drive to push through frustrating writing sessions.” But that’s not actually what’s going on. Here’s a few things I’ve discovered through several years of refining my personal writing process.

Discovery writing is about building a plot line and character arcs out of the logical results of the events that just happened. As a result, when I outline my story, every event feels unnatural. It’s not that I can’t write it after outlining, it’s that the resulting writing is bad. And I mean really bad, the unsalvageable kind of bad. The best explanation I can come up with is that until I have written scene one, I can’t tell what logical progression leads into scene two, and without scene two I can’t predict what is going to work for scene three, etc. Architects function in the exact opposite way. Without knowing the scope of the story, even in some rough form, they can’t tell if the scene they just wrote works for the story.

Discovery writing does not mean you don’t use structure in your first draft. I use structure pretty heavily in my first drafts, actually, but story structure is not the same as an outline. I know the approximate word count that I want for the book. I break that into an approximate chapter count, and I mark where the plot points are going to be. I have no idea what those plot points are, or often even the names of my main characters (I have drafts riddled with “MC1 strode across the room, his/her arms folded in anger.” and the like). But the structure and location of turning points and important moments don’t really change. So when I sit down to write a scene, I know how close I am to the next plot point. That tells me whether this scene needs to be rising action, climax, character building, or something else and I pick a starting moment of the scene that supports that. From that starting point, I see where it goes. Logical progression from previous events.

I live the story as I write it (figuratively speaking). This is true for a lot of writers, but the architect writers who do this imagine out from the outline or rough vision of the story they created. As a discovery writer, every moment I write is deeply personal at the time of writing, so if it doesn’t fit right, I have trouble writing it. This is my theory for where the “if I outline I can’t write the story” actually comes from. Many discovery writers are like me. Their outline attempts result in plot arcs that aren’t logical or well placed for the story, and when they try to write those scenes that don’t fit their instincts rebel. Not because they struggle to push through a difficult writing session, as all writers sometimes have to do, but because they can’t feel a connection between what they are writing and its place in the story they’re living. The scene feels unnatural, so the writing doesn’t work.

I struggle to deviate from outlines. This is a hilarious contradiction, because outlines choke my ability to write, but if I have one, I feel compelled to find a way to include every bit of what I outlined in my story. Any architect writer will tell you that your outline can’t be set in stone, especially if it’s more detailed. You have to be willing to make adjustments to the plan when needed to fit the needs of the story you’re telling. So, having an outline forces me to write a lower quality book, because I can’t deviate from the plan once it’s made unless I throw the entire plan out. And if I’m ditching the outline a quarter of the way through, I’m probably rewriting the opening quarter of the book anyway, and then why did I outline to begin with?

None of the process elements I’ve discussed above are related to being a new writer. Discovery writing is a way of visualizing your story, and that method of story creation doesn’t go away simply because I (or anyone else) have now written more books than when I started.

Some Tips for Discovery Writers

For those discovery writers out there who are looking for writing advice (and are tired of hearing about the wonders of outlining), let’s talk about process. I said earlier that I rely heavily on story structure when I begin writing. This is something I recommend. As a discovery writer, you probably have pretty strong instincts on how story structure works, but you should still research and study it. Learn three act structure, hero’s journey, and all those various systems of describing story structure. I know that all the guides on these talk about how to outline, but try to think in terms of how the ideas apply to books or stories you’ve already written.

Another tip: think about the scope of the story you’re writing. You don’t have to break your story down into chapters with word counts like I do, but at least know how long you want the book to be before you start writing it. A young adult romance shouldn’t be 150,000 words, and an adult epic fantasy shouldn’t be 80,000. If you don’t have a sense for how long the story is (i.e, maybe you’re writing an epic fantasy and you have no idea if it’s 200,000 or 350,000 words), pick a length similar to some of your favorite books in that genre and adjust as you write. The point is, if you’re 80,000 words into your book and you can’t identify the inciting incident and/or at least one major plot turn in the book, you probably need to re-evaluate your plot. By this, I do not mean “map out what’s going to happen and make sure the plot is sound.” That’s what you would do if you were an architect writer. Instead, I mean “look at what has happened already and make sure the events are important enough to be in the plot arc of this story.” If you have three chapters of the character going about daily life with nothing having changed, you’ve probably started your story too early.

When you get stuck, many pieces of advice will tell you to outline. But you’re a discovery writer, so this probably won’t work for you. Instead, try re-reading the content you’ve already written. I often find that getting a feel for the existing flow of the plot helps me identify where the story should go next. Another option is to write some backstory for your characters, or jump forward in time and write a big decision they have to make even if it’s not in the current story. If you have a good feel for your characters and are just struggling with what the plot does next, consider what choices your characters would make in response to recent events. And remember that your villains are characters too. One of my favorite tactics is to explain the problem I’m having with writing a scene to someone who doesn’t understand the entire vision of the story. This forces me to explain all my reasoning, and typically results in identifying the thing that was holding me back. And if none of that works, go play a game or watch TV for a bit. Maybe you just need a break.

Most of all, if you think you’re a discovery writer, make sure you try different processes to find what works for you. Some people are architects who work best when they use loose outlines, but because they think of outlining as a rigid process, they avoid doing that and try to discovery write. This doesn’t work (and is another potential source of the misconception that discovery writers grow out of that process). Before committing to any one label for your writing process, try an outline, try discovery writing, and try all the combinations thereof. Then decide what system works for you and stick to your guns. Whatever your writing process, trying to fit yourself into a mold not suited to your style is just going to frustrate you…and probably hurt your writing quality, as well.

Preparing to Publish

Publishing as a discovery writer has a few unique pitfalls of it’s own. Namely, the Synopsis, blurb, and one-line pitch. These terrify many an author, but many of the best recommendations for overcoming these challenges again rely on an assumption of outlining.

  • When preparing to write the book, think about what the one-line pitch is to focus your opening
  • Write the book blurb and synopsis before you write the book. Then you’ll know it’s marketable
  • Consider the state of the market and how your book would fit in before you start writing

These all sound completely absurd to me. I know nothing about the story before I begin writing the book. I suppose I could sit down before every book and write out “MC1 has goal A, but trope B causes him/her to face initial challenge. MC2…” Does that sound helpful to anyone else? It’s never helped me. But there’s a point to these suggestions that actually shouldn’t be ignored. The marketing descriptions of your book are a part of your book, and too many authors see book blurbs and the synopsis as something extra you have to tack on at the end. This is a mistake. The marketing descriptions are tools, and you should use them for your own work so you know they describe what you’re creating. Here’s a process I recommend trying:

Write your first draft through whatever process you normally use, then take a break. This break should be at least two weeks long, preferably more like a month or two, and you may not look at your book in any form during this time. After the break and before you begin editing, write your book blurb from your memory of the story. This should capture the pieces of the story that felt especially important and central to the conflict to you. Then, begin editing. As you edit, consider if the scenes you’re working on contribute to the big picture you set out in the blurb. Whenever you get to a scene that feels particularly significant or to any scene which supports the themes of your blurb, summarize it in a single sentence as part of your synopsis. After you have a second draft, send the book to critique partners and begin refining and polishing your blurb and synopsis. This makes the creation of the marketing materials part of the process and forces you to look at the first self-edit through the lens of what the overall big picture of the story should be.

Discovery writers need structure in the same way that other writers do, but structure is not the same as pre-planning. Integrate the creation of the marketing materials into your writing process and use them to make sure your structure is sound. You’ll be amazed by how much you did this without even thinking about it.


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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