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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 Wrap Up


yin and yangBy Rosanne Bane

Many of you have found that your solution to debate about outlining vs. drafting is not to determine which approach is superior and rely exclusively on that. You’ve learned how to balance and blend both outlining and drafting.

Lori L. Lake, a fellow teaching artist at the Loft Literary Center, says, “I try to teach about both ends of the processing spectrum – Outlining and Organic – and the ways various aspects of each can play out, hoping that people will recognize which end of the spectrum is most comfy for them.”

Starting with where you’re comfy is a good strategy. You can get a lot of the advantages of a particular approach that way. Here’s a list of some of the benefits of both the draft-and-discover approach and the outline-and-order approach. (This is not an exhaustive list; feel free to add your own observations.)

The advantages of following your intuition to draft and discover as you go are:

  1. It’s fun!
  2. You get lots of new associations and fresh ideas
  3. It’s a resistance-buster because you can start with something random
  4. It gets rid of the perfectionism block because you’re just playing around and it’s okay to be imperfect
  5. It’s flexible
  6. You entertain the ideas your rational brain would dismiss as impossible long enough to see how to make those ideas possible
  7. Like E.L. Doctorow said “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” All you have to do is write a little bit each day.

The advantages of using your rational brain to impose order and organization to your writing are:

  1. It’s fast
  2. It’s efficient; you don’t waste time drafting stuff you’ll never use
  3. You have the confidence that comes with knowing where you’re going
  4. You plan the writing so it can have maximum impact on your audience
  5. It’s a resistance-buster because you can play around with the structure without committing to sentences
  6. You think about the audience and what purpose each piece of the writing will serve for them
  7. You can get suggestions and feedback at the level of structure before you spend a lot of time drafting.

But you can’t just stay where you’re comfy. You see, that spectrum Lori Lake talks about is a polarity, which is what you have when what seem like opposites are actually interdependent poles in an ongoing cycle. Breathing in and breathing out is a polarity. They’re opposites, but their mutually inclusive opposites; you can’t do one without the other and you need to keep doing both to stay alive.

The thing about polarities is that if you try to stay too long at one end of the polarity, you end up sliding into the disadvantages of that end. Here’s a list of the negative effects that come when you overdo either approach.

The disadvantages of relying too much on intuition and spending too much time drafting are:

  1. It’s slow and time-consuming
  2. You waste time writing stuff you won’t use
  3. Your writing lacks the structure readers need to understand it and be affected by it
  4. You get invested in what you’ve written and are unwilling to ‘kill your darlings’
  5. You are unwilling to revise because it will mean changing all that material you already drafted
  6. You end up with an amorphous mess and can’t figure out how to arrange it
  7. You can’t figure out where or how to end the piece.

The disadvantages of relying too much on your rational brain and spending too much time focusing on order and organization are:

  1. It’s bor-ing!
  2. It’s too rigid and limited
  3. It’s sterile; you don’t get enough new ideas
  4. You can’t get at the deeper emotional truths because you stop listening to your intuition; you lose touch with what you’re feeling and if the writer isn’t moved, the reader won’t be either
  5. You think you can’t start drafting until you have the plan completely nailed down so you get stuck when drafting could move you forward
  6. The rational brain is actually slower than the emotional brain and it misses important information
  7. You get bogged down in details and spend more time drawing the blueprints than you do building the house.

Not understanding what polarities are and how to manage them is a common cause of resistance. The strength of your preference for one end of the polarity determines how stuck you’ll get and how much resistance you’ll encounter.

The only way out of the downsides of one end is to embrace the upsides of the other end. You cannot avoid the negative effects caused overdoing something if you continue to do that thing. You have to go to the other end of the spectrum. You get back to the advantages of the approach you prefer only after you embrace and practice the other end of the polarity. If you think the other approach is wrong or inferior or a waste of time, you’ll just stay stuck in the disadvantages.

So if you’re experiencing the negative effects that come with over-focusing on structure, it’s time to try drafting to get the benefits of that end of the polarity. Likewise, if you’re getting the negatives of over-relying on your intuition to lead you through draft after draft without ever thinking about structure, it’s time to do a little planning.

We’ll look at pragmatic ways to move between outlining and drafting in the next post.

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