Should Discovery Writers Outline?


Fiction writers can be divided into two broad types: architects who draw up thorough plot outlines before they start writing, and gardeners, or discovery writers, who just dive in and play it by ear.

Some writers are natural outliners. Others are natural gardeners. A common complaint of the latter is that they lose interest in writing once they "know how the story ends." These are the writers who feel like they have a story inside burning to get out, and writing the outline satisfies that urge.

An architect approaches writing a novel like a builder approaches a construction project. He drafts plans, lays the foundation, and knows exactly where the project is going and how much work is left at pretty much all times. This approach has several advantages:
  • Prevents you from writing yourself into a corner
  • Keeps your characters in line
  • Helps you make deadlines
  • Stronger endings in general
  • Lets you keep series continuity straight
But should discovery writers outline if doing so kills their motivation?

As a professional editor, I can confidently say that every author needs to outline. At least half of all developmental problems in my gardener clients' manuscripts would have been solved by outlining.

If you're a discovery writer, don't worry. Your "To outline or not to outline?" dilemma has a simple solution. 

Go ahead and fly by the seat of your pants on the first draft. Then write an outline, and revise your manuscript using it as a guide.

Don't know how to write an outline? My professional author client Adam Lane Smith presents an easy-to-follow outline guide in his best selling how-to book Write Like a Beast. Read it now!

Write Like a Beast - Adam Smith


  1. Thanks for this. I'm about 30k words into my first manuscript and after deviating from the outline a _lot_ I was beginning to wonder if I should keep going or get back to outlining. Truth be told, I haven't done enough serious writing yet to know if I'm a discovery writer or not, though it feels that way at this point.

    It's almost a relief to hear an author say it's okay to fly by the seat of my pants on the first draft.

    1. You're welcome. The only way to know which type of writer you are is to try both ways.

    2. Greg

      I've discovered I'm a fly by the seat writer who needs an outline :) in fact I find I need a general structure as a guide much like instruction sheets for model planes or cars. The structure paradoxically give me much freedom to become creative.

      But that's me.

    3. xavier- I think I get where you're coming from there. That sounds a bit like the approach I've had the most success with so far. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I've only ever tried writing casually, but I've always noticed that any time I try to write off the spur of the moment, the story dies almost immediately as soon as my initial urge or burst of inspiration does. Conversely, writing an outline makes the whole thing "make sense". Then again, I've never actually written any significant amount of text, so I don't know how much I should read into my experiences.

  3. Perhaps some authors feel that an outline would limit their ability to be spontaneous. I think that's a mistake, as nothing in the outline is carved in stone and can be easily changed. In the end, I see no downside to organizing your thoughts before you begin writing your "story that must be told."

    1. Chris

      Interesting. Jagi's booklet on novel writing discourages outlining and echoed it again at John's site.

      I dunno. I think both approaches are legitimate but an outline can't hurt either.


    2. Being spontaneous is overrated. Like it or not, formulas sell books.

  4. Sound advice. I find that I fall into the trap of early middles because I failed to plan an escalating event in the 2nd act. No one said, "If only I hadn't outlined, this book would have been great!"

  5. This is 1COMODIN9

    In his "Apostilles to The Name of The Rose", Eco says that the more detailed, and therefore constrictive his world is and it's rules are, the freer he feels to garden about within those confines... Now, I've written A LOT of essays, but I can't bring myself to write some bloody fiction. The closest thing is a short 2000 word story as a part of a workshop, and I cheated by lifting the plot off Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell and modding it to the local geography and personal story.

    I'll pick up ALS's book, but some advice on how to bring up the "stories that are already within yourself" or something to the effect would be brilliant.