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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.

Outline-and-Order vs. Draft-and-Discover: Learning to Fly


learning to flyBy Rosanne Bane

Thanks to all of you who have commented so far on the Outline-and-Order vs. Draft-and-Discover debate (either here or in emails to me). I’m still gathering info, so if you’re thinking about commenting and haven’t gotten around to it yet, please do.

If you read Larry’s comment to my last post, you saw that he acknowledges the need to do both outlining and spontaneous drafting. Then he highlights some of the advantages of outlining and the limitations of a drafting, which demonstrates Larry’s preference for structure. We all have a preference – what’s yours? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches?

I do want to make two points in response to Larry’s observation: “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.”

First, as Larry points out in the next paragraph of his comment, Stephen King is a draft-focused author, and from what I can see of Mr. King’s process from reading On Writing, his early drafts don’t crash all that often. Certainly he rewrites, but not because his early drafts are doomed. I know none of us are Stephen King (unless Mr. King is reading this, in which case I’m deeply honored and sincerely hope you’ll let me know if I’ve interpreted you correctly), but we can take heart that being a spontaneous draft writer doesn’t necessarily mean every draft will crash as Larry predicts.

(You’ll find Stephen King’s declaration that he tries to plot as infrequently as possible and that he doesn’t trust plots on pages 163–173 of On Writing. And yet, Stephen King’s novels are not plotless. When he says he avoids plotting, I think he’s talking about intentionally, consciously developing plot the way a chess master plots the moves of the different pieces on the board, knowing at least 20 moves in advance. King’s plots arrive not from preconceived ideas about what should happen, but as the consequences of putting certain characters in certain situations.)

The other thing I’d like to point out is that “flying the plane without the benefit of ground school… hoping to ‘learn it’ while they’re up in the air” is not as indefensible as Larry thinks. In fact, I propose that learning while you’re up in the air is the best way to learn to fly – as long as you’re up in the air either with a qualified flight instructor or in a flight simulator.

Back to the wonderful book I mentioned a couple of posts ago – How We Decide – where Jonah Lehrer points out: “Despite a long list of aviation reforms, from mandatory pilot layovers to increased classroom training, that percentage [of plane crashes due to pilot error] refused to budge from 1940 to 1990, holding steady at around 65 percent… But then, starting in the early 1990s, the percentage of crashes attributed to pilot error began to decline rapidly.”

What changed? One of two major factors is the use of realistic flight simulators. These simulators transformed the former ground school approach of pushing pilots through a long series of classroom lectures before they got behind the controls of the plane. The lectures were abstract; they gave pilots information, but no way to apply that knowledge.

Lehrer writes, “The benefit of a flight simulator is that it allows pilots to internalize their new knowledge. Instead of memorizing lessons, a pilot can train the emotional brain, preparing the parts of the cortex that will actually make the decision when up in the air. As a result, pilots who are confronted with a potential catastrophe during a real flight already know what to do. They don’t have to waste critical moments trying to remember what they learned in the classroom.” (And we’re back to discussing this in terms of the brain, which delights me immensely.)

Writing requires the emotional brain and the logical brain. Learning how to write spontaneously will allow you to access the deep emotional truths, fresh insights and new connections that make writing powerful. Learning how to structure your work will allow you to put those truths, insights and connections into a form readers can understand. Learning structure is your ground school where you learn the rules and theory, still an invaluable part of training a pilot or a writer.

But let’s not loose sight of the fact that learning to move into the state of consciousness that allows you to dream with your eyes open and capture your dreams on the page – what Robert Olen Butler calls the writer’s trance and what Stephen King calls opening the mental eye – is your flight simulator, an equally valuable part of your training. I’d say it’s where we really learn to fly, but that would be revealing my preference and it’s not quite time to discuss that yet. (click here for the Great Debate Wrap-up.)

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3 Comments on “Outline-and-Order vs. Draft-and-Discover: Learning to Fly”

  1. Laura Sommers August 19, 2009 at 9:22 pm #

    I’m a self-taught novelist, and I do both drafting and outlining. It’s hard for me to draw a line where creativity ends and logic picks up. For me, developing an outline involves many of the same skills I use in writing a draft: brainstorming, problem solving, coming up with new events and twists, connecting the dots. I do a lot of outlines, and it keeps changing as I work on a draft. In the same vein, writing a draft, although it can often be a very loose, freeing “flow” experience, sometimes also involves an incredible amount of logical ability. Placing characters in a setting, picturing spatially where the character should set down the glass, sometimes even resisting fun but obviously off-point tangents… Both types of thinking are essential to telling a good story, because life is short. I use free writing sometimes when I feel stuck, or when my outline isn’t inspiring me. But there’s nothing wrong with being creative by following a loose plan—I relate it to musical compositions, chords for improvisation, choreography. All that said, I probably VALUE the unconscious, creative type of thinking more than logical planning. That is, I think other people probably think it’s cooler.

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  1. The Great Debate: Outline-and-Order vs. Draft-and-Discover « The Bane of Your Resistance - September 20, 2011

    […] my next post explores how writers can resolve the great Outline vs. Draft Debate,  I invite you to weigh […]

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