Why Discovery Writing is the Best Writing Method Ever

on Tuesday, July 20, 2010
As you can see from the title, this is another one of those things where I "pretend" to be better and smarter than you, and state some extremely questionable and debatable opinion like it's fact.
I put "pretend" in quotes because, deep down, everybody knows I'm never wrong and agrees with me anyway. Anybody who argues is just playing the devil's advocate for the sake of playing the devil's advocate. Because I'm right. As usual.

And with that out of the way, on to my rant.

It has often been said there are two types of writers: Discovery Writers and Planners. Of course, we all know it isn't that black and white; these are more of two ends (with pure discovery writers and pure outliners capstone-ing the sides) and everybody falls in the middle gray spots. However, people often tend to lean more towards one or the other (I've never met an author who fell directly in the middle), and whichever side they are closest to is the one they claim their affiliation with. It's much like political parties; most people aren't 100% republican (except maybe my grandmother) or 100% democrat; we fall somewhere in-between when you get down to the nitty-gritty.

However, all you outliners really need to get with the program, because discovery writing is way better for the story. Or, at least, I'm going to point out some things that benefit from that process of writing. Maybe, if I'm feeling particularly generous, I'll throw a bone to outlining as well and post some positives, but don't hold your breath.


Why Discovery Writing is the Best Ever (For Reals)
By Nathan Major

POINT 1: Characters are more realistic in discovery writing

People don't usually plan what they say. Ok, that isn't completely true - I plan like the next sentence or two in a conversation - but there is still a level of spontaneousness in conversations. Things don't always go the direction people want, people get off on tangents, etc. In the natural flow of conversation it is just that: a flow. It isn't meticulous or plotted out. It just happens.

Which is why discovery writing works better for this than outlining. Many authors outline conversations or plans, have ideas for exactly what everybody is going to say long before the words come out of their mouthes. Is this good? Well, sure, all the info gets there. But the spontaneousness of being in the characters and seeing how they respond to each other is lost. Conversations just work better.

This can be applied to more than just talking, of course. People don't often react rationally to situations. In fact, in crisis or frantic situations, people usually do the wrong thing. However, if the author has planned out a scene for months down to every detail, it might show in their character actions. People might do something a little too well thought-out when the sudden plot twist appears, rather than react realistically. Is this a terrible thing? Not really; it certainly makes a person seem more competent. But it also makes them less human and more pre-planned robots.

Which brings me to my blanket statement: Characters in outliners' books are robots, characters in discovery writers' books are real people. FACT.

POINT 2: A Discovery-Written Book is More Exciting and Spontaneous

You know what is boring? The Council of Elrond chapter in Lord of the Rings. Yes, I'm hating on what might be the greatest fantasy book ever, but every time I re-read that book I skip that chapter. You want to know why it's boring? Because it looks really good on paper or an outline, but in execution it is just a slogging infodump.

Ok, that isn't completely true, I actually don't mind that chapter anymore. And also, bashing J.R.R. Tolkien is just asking for trouble. But the point is, a lot of things that seem great when planning are actually quite boring. Or, as stated in POINT 1 above, when the execution for scenes happen, the results can be very stale. Due to overplanning and this need to follow an outline, all the life has been sucked away from a scene. Nothing seems spontaneous and new; it was all just a huge plan.

Discovery writers don't have this problem. When you write as a discovery writer, you are bombarded with cool ideas all the time. It's like having ADD, only it actually makes sense (which, I sure wish my ADD made sense sometimes). You can do whatever you want, blast whatever twist you want, make people weird or crazy or exciting. It all seems natural and totally ballin' (that's the technical term, for the record), and your readers are just caught up in the excitement and action. There are few boring spots because, who plans that far ahead? If there is an infodump, it is often interspersed into an exciting scene or crazy setting. The pace is kept fast; nobody ever sits down in a discovery-written book for more than like five minutes. They are...

POINT 3: The Main Characters are WAY More Proactive

People sit around a lot in books. I hate that. That's why I usually read YA, because the length constraint makes it so stuff is always going on. In most Epic Fantasy, people sit around all the time. And, hey, guess what? Most long-winded Epic Fantasy guys are planners, and YA authors are discovery writers. That's a huge generalization, but it's also 100% fact because you read it on this blog and I am a creditable source, like Wikipedia.

Anyway, people don't sit around in discovery written books. Usually, this is because the author projects themselves onto the main character, which means they keep doing stuff throughout the story without letting up. We write because our world is boring. There are no dragons, magic, princesses, or any of that stuff. We are sitting in some desk in a room, staring at a screen, putting words on a page. So we want those to be exciting words. We want adventure and action that we can't have in real life. So, if you are discovery writing, your protagonist soaks up the world he or she is in. He doesn't bumble around and go to meetings, he shoots monsters in the face and does cool magic. It doesn't let up.

POINT 4: It's More of a Challenge

Discovery writing is hard for a lot of people, even discovery writers themselves. Being able to sit down with very little (we secretly do plan a reasonable amount, just not meticulously) and just rely solely on imagination to do the job at your beck and call is a huge amount of faith. Lots of outliners sit at a desk with pages strewn everywhere, maps, pictures of various flora and fauna of their magical world, family trees, all that garbage. If you discovery write, often you have to remember all that stuff in your head, or make up something completely plausible on the fly. That's not easy; that's tough. Especially if you gave a title to nobility in your novel, and every time you need that word you can't for the life of you remember it! (curse you, Effulgent Corruption!).

Planners have like four years of research to lean on. If they get stuck, they can just pull out chapter 34 and write that instead, because it's already planned ha ha. But you know what? You are just a wimp. Real men write with nothing.

POINT 5: Discovery Writers Finish Books

Let's be honest here: everybody plans their first book. Nobody just sits down and starts writing. They write because they've had the BEST IDEA EVER (tm) for the past six years, and they are FINALLY WRITING THEIR MASTERPIECE (tm). They get pumped, tell all their relatives about their new career, and decide they are real authors now. 

Then they write one chapter and never write any more. They just keep planning.


This is the plague of most outliners (Jason, I'm looking at you): they plan too much. They plan their "masterpiece." And they keep planning it forever. It'll never be perfect, it'll never have the best magic system, it'll never be ready to go. It'll be so close, but it won't ever hit that point. This is probably because, as time passes and you read more/different stuff, your opinion of what is the BEST IDEA EVER (tm) changes, and thus your outline changes to accommodate. So, you write like one book every five years, or one book ever, and then you are done.

Discovery writers look at this problem and laugh. We don't get stuck on maps or graphs or city names that have to all fit perfectly. We just make them up as we go! It's called being creative, and we can do it on command. That's because we are better (see Point 4) at doing hard things, like putting words to pages. You outliners are good at planning things and then not carrying out those planes. I'm sure you'll have a nice seat in congress one day. 

POINT 6: Discovery Written Books are Shorter and Less Boring

Yeah, see, we don't have to put every little detail from our plannings in. We don't have to cram all those cute, detailed histories you spent years laboring over into our books. Often planners want to show all these little bits of garbage they've put together over the years. If not IT GOES TO WASTE!

So, you write 500,000 word books that just drag on and are so full of wordy worldbuilding we want to use it as a cure for insomnia.

Discovery written books have a fast pace because they are written fast paced. They don't have slow starts or boring middles, because no discovery writer would subject themselves to that. They don't bog up in the politics of dwarves or the nobility of elves, because we don't plan all this useless crap and therefore don't feel obliged to throw you into the infodump quagmire. We keep it fast, fresh, and exciting. We want you to keep reading, so we do it that way. And so, our books are more readable.

POINT 7: We can just sit down and write, without having to go through "foreplay"

Ha, see that little sexual innuendo up there? I discovery wrote that. That's because I'm witty. 

Anyway, that's the point: outliners can't just sit down and write whenever they want. They can't just pop out something super-fast. If they are given a writing prompt, they can't just "have an hour to write," they need more. They have to go over details, plans, characters, city names, distances, geography, language, religion, all this crap. It just goes on forever, and that spontaneousness or satisfaction of just sitting down for an hour and writing the entire hour is a sweet, delicious fruit they'll never taste.

Discovery writers, on the other hand, just sit down and go. They don't get bored of their books, because they never have to plan. If they do get bored, they can just add stuff to make it more exciting. If they say to their spouse or significant other, "I'm going to go write my book for a few hours," they actually have something to show after it instead of a map or some family tree. They get it done, and get it done fast. No messing around, straight to business every time.

Which also means if you have people who want to read something new every day, then they'll have something. I don't think your readers want to look at your boring pictures of a city's market district. Boring.


So, there is a bunch of things that are good about discovery writing. Secretly there are a few "bad points" to discovery writing people have brought up. I use quotes, again, because it just isn't true: no real discovery writer has these issues. But, for those making the switch to the better writing style might have these problems (probably carried over from writing with inferior technique the past six years. Six years for one book, I might add), so it might be good to throw them out there.

SUCKY PART 1: You Can Get Stuck

Pulling imagination on command can be a huge pain in the butt, and often times it just doesn't happen. Had a bad day? Writing is gonna suck, if not be impossible. Unsure of where stuff is going to go at all? You'll probably write 500 words and give up. Discovery writing requires a very malleable and commendable imagination; if you don't have it, writers block will kill  you.

Outliners don't seem to be plagued with this. If they get stuck, they have an outline to lean back on. I imagine it like this: Discovery writers, when approaching a chapter, have a big block of clay that is just a huge blob. They have to turn this into something, with no basis at all. Outliners, on the other hand, have it already in a shape (such as a person or an animal), they just have to fill in the details. They have a place to start, and so getting to the end can be easier.

Of course, we all know this is BLATANTLY CHEATING, but it is something worth mentioning.

SUCKY PART 2: The Endings Can Be Huge Messes aka Foreshadowing Problems

As stated, most discovery writers do plan a little (that whole "not black and white" thing above). No human can expect to write something good just pulling it out of the hat. We have to have a spark or muse, something that made us write. Often, this is a particularly compelling scene, setting, etc. that prompts us to write the story (like, say, magic that kills you).

The problem is, that means a lot of the other planning is forgotten, so when you get to the end your book might turn into some trainwreck. Final twists aren't foreshadowed. Characters go all crazy. The ending is totally forced. Twists come out of nowhere. What started out as a cool, exciting concept completely falls into the nut-house and it becomes evident that the author really wasn't sure what was going on.

I don't have this problem, mostly because I'm a superior being, and also because the ending is the first thing I usually figure out before I put fingers to keyboard. But some people don't.

And that can totally ruin your book. Having one or two cool ideas that show up in the middle is nice, sure, but that can't carry a novel. Just because the girl's boyfriend is a vampire doesn't mean the other 99% of the book is worth anything. Because of this, twists (as stated above) seem forced, not foreshadowed, and whatever "Aha!" moments there might have been die.

Outliners, obviously, don't struggle with this. They might have this problem in the planning stages, but nobody sees their notes (unless they sell them on eBay or something). By the time they are writing, all these issues are ironed out; their skeleton is stable, they just have to put meat on the bones. If they can make it past Point 5 above, then they'll usually run through it without too many hiccups.

SUCKY PART 3: You have to edit it like 20,000 times

As said above, once you finish your book, it probably has some wrinkles, and these are usually larger for discovery written books rather than outlined books. Of course, this means you have to do the worst thing ever: edit. And not just edit, rewrite. Chapters get completely nuked and new ones fill their spots. Characters get nuked and new ones are added. Things you thought were "OMG SO COOL" at one point are just hindrances and you have to go Old Yeller on them.

And you don't get to just do this once, you have to do it a lot, because you probably messed up a lot.

So, truthfully, you are doing your "planning" after the book is done. You have to figure out the world, how everything fits together, etc. after the rough draft is on paper. Outliners just do it before. It's the idea of the guardrail on the cliff vs the ambulance at the bottom. Outliners have the guardrail. Discovery writers rely on a lot of band-aids.

However, I'll go so far as to say that usually, even with all the required editing, the time spent from start to finish is usually shorter than outliners still. Outliners still have to edit, just not as drastically. Plus, if the outline is terrible (you'd think you'd run it by your writing group before writing it), then you might be in the same boat as discovery writers. Still, it is a common theme among discovery writers that editing is going to happen. A lot of editing.

And I hate me some editing.


So, there you have it. Discovery writing is far superior to outliners. If you are one of the sinners, I think you should try and give the other side an attempt. Write a chapter without planning it. See how it turns out. And, when it is inevitably better than every other thing you've written, feel free to send me gifts in the form of money via PayPal for opening your eyes to this better way of writing.

If you keep outlining...well...I look forward to reading your book.

Ten years from now.


Jason L Secrest said...

For your information I haven't even really looked at my *masterpiece* for many moons/years. Don't care to mess with it until I can prove to myself that I can finish anything and have it be decent. THEN I'll spend another year re-plotting.

Aside from that, I get in to trouble with either kind of writing. If I'm planning, I plan and then start writing and then decide that my outline/plans are garbage and make no sense. I then discard them and start over several times and finally give the project up for dead.

If I'm discovery writing, I get about three chapters in, decide that nothing makes sense, try to plan an ending to work towards, revise the existing chapters several times and finally give the project up for dead.

I propose that it's a good idea to bounce ideas off somebody so that you can hear them out loud and instantly hear the stupid ones. Then your buddy can help you refine the good ones and pull them together into a working sudo outline. Then, when you say your book is crap and you're not writing it anymore he can take offence because he has a stake in it and make you finish. (thanks for planning with me till one last night. =p)

Anonymous said...

Anxiously awaiting your next book...

Anonymous said...

I'm writing a rebuttal. Be prepared.

Nathan said...

@ Chuck

If you'd discovery written that comment, it would be done by now. You have to outline your rebuttal, and that's why it's taking so long.

See point 5 and 7. ;P

Anonymous said...


It takes so long because I only post once a day and I wasn't on a computer yesterday.

So suck that. :P

Nathan said...

Discovery writers are ALWAYS on computers. FACT?

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