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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

The Great Debate: Outline-and-Order vs. Draft-and-Discover

By Rosanne Bane

DebateWhat’s your writing style: rational or intuitive? Do you prepare an outline before you start drafting? Or do you discover what the structure will be as you draft?

Outline-and-Order writers prefer to know where they’re going; they check the map before they start the engine. Actually, they draw the map, then double-check as they drive to make sure they’re still on the planned route. They prefer the comfort of knowing where they’re going and how they’ll get there. They know that working out the kinks in advance will save them time and suffering later on. They fear that the blank page will be too intimidating and shut them down or too unstructured and let them ramble too far afield.

Draft-and-Discovery writers take an organic approach; they start the engine and see where the writing will take them. They trust the process and their own unconscious to sniff out a path they know is there even though they can’t see yet. They prefer the surprise of discovering where they’re going as they go. They know that deep creativity comes from the unconscious and their primary job is to get the conscious mind out of the way. They fear that too much planning will kill the creativity.

One Hand

My fellow Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center  Lori L. Lake says “Oddly enough, the outliners always seem so proud (almost sanctimonious) about their lists and charts and character arc templates and so forth, while the organic writers are so embarrassed to be floundering around.

“I’ve only had two outliners in all my classes who have actually finished their books, though. Sometimes, heavy emphasis on outlining takes the joy – and the mystery – out of the story, and they lose interest and don’t finish.

“I also think that all the focus on the left brain and being organized can sometimes overrun that soft, quiet creative voice and slow down the creative process.”

The Other Hand

Another seasoned writer who teaches at the Loft Literary Center Greg Breining writes “I find that if I write for too long without considering the larger picture (through some kind of outline) the piece takes off on its own – and rarely in a direction that is helpful.

“I may write that way for awhile, but then I feel I have to consider the overall direction before I simply get lost. I find that by having a grand design in mind, I can better exploit the material, because I have a better idea of what purpose it performs in the piece.”

Are Both Lost?

In From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler highlights the difficulties faced by two types of novelists (but it’s a distinction that can apply to any genre):

“First there are those who preplan. They outline. They know the end before they begin. But those who figure out what they’re going to say before they begin to say it are utterly lost, because if they adhere to the stages of their plan in a kind of ‘all right, that’s done’ sort of way, they will end up writing from their heads, automatically.

“Then there’s the draft writer, who leads an admirably dismal existence… The draft writer… is rightly afraid of being drawn into his mind and his analytical self. He would never preplan, because that would trap him like literal memory, like a ‘message,’ like preconceived ends, and thereby destroy his ability to get into the unconscious. So the draft writer feels the necessity of taking the merest hints to start a novel and then plunging in, making approximations, writing rough, by any and all means continuing to write and write through a great sprawling draft. And the draft writer relishes this. ‘Ah, I’ve got this mass of stuff, and OK, I’ve got to do the second draft now and the third and the fourth, and the seventeenth, and that’s fine.’ Great works of art have been created this way, and I suspect statistically it’s the more common way to write a novel. It’s done because those artists understand the danger of being sucked into their heads.

“But you know what? They’re just deferring the problem. Because once you have this great raw sprawling first draft, how do you find that leaner, more coherent second draft? The dangers of analysis are very powerful in that search.”

Where Do You Stand?

Before my next post explores how writers can resolve the great Outline vs. Draft Debate,  I invite you to weigh in. Please comment with your difficulties and your solutions to this challenge.

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12 Comments on “The Great Debate: Outline-and-Order vs. Draft-and-Discover”

  1. Torey August 17, 2009 at 4:18 am #

    I’m not sure exactly where I would fall since I’m novice enough to have not even realized there was a debate between outliners and drafters. I’m fascinated to read the opinions on each.

    I try to write short stories. As to what I do, outline or draft…
    I get an idea and I think about that idea. If that blossoms into something that could be an interesting storyline, I’ll write it down. I’ll dump every possibility, twist, character motive I can come up with down on the page, stream of consciousness-esque. After that, I’ll look back over it and see if enough of what I have could be pulled together to make a good story. At that point I seem to usually have a start, middle, and end. Then I’ll write a first draft that incorporates everything that I liked from my notes. Some of it might flow nicely, other parts I have no idea how to properly convey what I want, so I say “This is where happens.” as a place filler to come back to later. Once that’s done I’ll go back and work on the parts I didn’t get done or revise the stuff that did come out. I guess I just repeat that until it’s done.

    Is that outlining or drafting? It seems like it’s closer to outlining because I can’t really imagine not having a pretty good idea of where a story is headed and trying to write it. Maybe it’s neither because I don’t plan enough.

    I feel out of my league even commenting, but apparently not enough to stop me from hitting the submit button. 🙂


    • rosannebane August 18, 2009 at 2:12 am #

      You seem very aware of your process and that makes you well qualified to comment. Thanks for your insight.


  2. Larry August 15, 2009 at 10:47 pm #

    Must be something in the writing wind on this topic lately, as I’ve been writing about it on my site for a couple of weeks. I also have a guest blog on Menwithpens.ca next Friday on this subject, and had one yesterday on http://the-new-author.blogspot.com, and most coincidentally of all, I have a guest blog scheduled with Mary at Writetodone.com with almost the exact same title.

    Great minds, and all.

    My short take on this — the debate shouldn’t be about outlining or not outlining, both are viable processes. One is extemely more efficient than the other, but those who advocate drafting claim they aren’t able to be as creative or have as much fun if they outline, so that’s their process of choice.

    In my book effectiveness and efficiency trumps fun, but that’s just me.

    The thing is, a lot of drafters do so because they don’t really understand story architecture (structure), and they’re searching for it in their drafts. It’s like building a house without a blueprint, or worse, without an understanding of the principles of design (as in, what will hold up the roof).

    People who outline already know what percentage of the story needs to be devoted to the set-up, then to the response, then to the attack, and then to the resolution. It’s not a formula, it’s a proven storytelling model, one that agents and publishers expect to see. To many drafters don’t even know what all that even means. They’d rather write than ground themselves in the fundmental principles. It’s like trying to learn surgery by just cutting away and seeing what happens next.

    When you get story architecture, you know that you must have specific story milestones and plot points at certain places in the story — roughly — and if you “just start writing” you may or may not come upon them, and probably not in the right place. Which means, you’ll have to do another draft. Or if you don’t – and hey, who wants to start over after 300 pages? – you “settle” for something that isn’t structurally sound. Then, wonder why it doesn’t sell.

    Successful drafters know this — again, it’s their process. They accept the pain, and they don’t settle. When they’re done (who knows how many drafts down the road), they, too, will will have their component story parts in the right places and at the right lengths. It’s just that successful outliners have all that in place before they write a word of the draft.

    So in my view, if a drafter defends the process, they should do so with a comprehensive knowledge of story architecture. Otherwise, they’re defending flying the airplane without the benefit of ground school… hoping to “learn it” while they’re up in the air. Of course, competent drafters know their early drafts will certainly crash — and if they don’t, they’re kidding themselves — requiring a rebuild in the next draft.

    Hey, whatever works. But let’s be honest, drafters are too often covering for a lack of technical storytelling expertise, rather than the more noble claim to this process. Stephen King drafts… but because he KNOWS story architecture better than he knows his wife and kids, it all pours out of his head in the right order, in the right places, with all the Stephen Kingishness we expect from.

    Ifyou can do that, draft away. Otherwise, learn story architecture. Chances are you’ll consider outlining when you.


    • rosannebane August 18, 2009 at 2:13 am #

      Thanks for sharing your thinking on this, Larry.


  3. Amy August 15, 2009 at 8:22 pm #

    I think I am doing a bit of both, without particular success in either! Sometimes I get bogged down in details, and the order of it all, and yep, the charting of it all. But I think that is a procrastination technique I developed in my ‘other’ job. But when I let loose and just write without thought, I love the ideas I come up with but there is so much to be weeded out of it all. And the whole time I am second guessing myself.


    • rosannebane August 18, 2009 at 2:17 am #

      Amy, thanks for your perspective. I’d like to suggest you stop second guessing yourself, relax and focus on enjoying the different ways you write. Remember, no one gets it perfect the first time around, except maybe Isaac Asimov (and I suspect he stretched the truth about “never” revising…).



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