In the Name of Discovery: Outlining vs. Free-writing

Anthony Reese

As primarily a fiction writer, one of my favorite moments in the midst of the daily grind is the point of discovery. Every writer knows what I’m talking about. It’s a Wednesday, and I’m avoiding my laptop at all costs—thinking to myself that if I have to stare at a blank Word document for one more second I’m going to scream—walking through the grocery aisles with my two kids or driving out to my favorite lookout spot in the mountains. Anything, really, to get my mind off writing. And then it happens. The tail-end of some strangers’ conversation reaches my ear, or two squirrels scuttle across my footpath, or the smell of fresh-mowed grass fills my nostrils, and suddenly I’m inspired. Suddenly, I have a story—or a scene of a story, anyways—and I couldn’t be happier. But then reality sets in.

What is the plot of my story? Who are its central characters? What do they look like? Sound like? Smell like? How do they interact with each other? What do they wear? How old are they? What scenes will drive my story along? And where will they take place? Are the settings real places, or are they fictional? What year is it? What’s my motif? My theme? My tone? My perspective?

I ask myself all of this and more when I sit down to write, and before I know it, I’m back to square one: treating my laptop as though it’s a source of some terrible disease, something I shouldn’t touch, can’t bear to look at.

From where I’m standing and based on what I’ve learned so far, two methods exist for answering these questions. One—from a logical standpoint—seems obvious: outlining. You sit down with a notepad and a pen, and you force yourself to answer all the questions that keep bugging you. What color hair does your protagonist have? Your brain tells you brown, so you write down brown. What is the climax of the story? The resolution? You put the answers down on paper and craft your story around them. The crux with this premeditated strategy of writing is that it often results in stories that feel, well, premeditated–unnatural, forced.

On the opposite end of the spectrum another, less obvious strategy seems to avoid such problems. Most (if not all) seasoned writers are familiar with discovery writing. Critically acclaimed authors of all genres swear by the types exercises that give you a one-line prompt and thirty minutes to scribble out as much on the topic as possible. The reason? Because the most well-informed writers know that we tend to get in our own way. We question our stories, our characters, our plotlines, and our themes with the preconceived notion that we have to know it all, that we have to understand every single detail of our works in progress in order for them to be great. But that’s the cool thing about language, right? It doesn’t depend on us. Sometimes, we writers have to accept that our stories, our characters are going to surprise us. They’re going to take us on their own journeys, lead us down their own paths.

But can it be so simple? Choose one strategy, stick to it, and you’re good to go? Personally, I don’t follow either method orthodoxly. For example, while I understand the benefits of discovery writing, I have to know what my characters look like before I can go any further. Or on the flip side, I try my best to avoid asking the question, “What is the resolution?” My reasons are my own, and I’m sure you have your personal preferences as well. I’m curious, though. Where do you fall on the spectrum? Are you a discovery writer or an outliner? A fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy (or gal) or someone who airs on the side of caution? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. Let me know in the comments below.


Anthony-ReeseAmong many things, Anthony Reese is a father, a husband, a travel addict, and a writer. He has a Bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with concentrations in English and print media from North Greenville University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Converse College.