I’d lipeople-316506_960_720ke to start this story out by telling you about my senior year in high school.  I promise, this is relevant.  I don’t know about you all, but my algebra class had a rubric which accounted for showing your math.  This infuriated me. I’d get the answer correct, but lose a point because I didn’t demonstrate how I got there.

I didn’t know it then, but this was an early indication of my writing style.  When you get down to it, there are generally two types.   There are discovery writers like me, who think, formulas be damned, here’s the book as I made it up.

Then there are outliners.  These are the people who toil and stress over each plot line and scene.

A few of those big names out there have different terms, but they all mean the same thing.

But wait!  Matt, you said you outline all the time!

Yeah, yeah I did, but that’s because I, like most authors, have found a little bit of both worlds can be helpful.

detective-1424831_960_720The first book I ever finished writing was discovery written.  I wrote a chapter a day for a few months and finished a book.  I made it up as I went.  I knew what my ending was, and I had a few general ideas, but I just sat down and typed.  I’ve mentioned before that book never worked, but while numerous drafts are a consequence of discovery writing, the technique isn’t a bad one.  I was just so inexperienced and raw, I didn’t know what to do.

The first act of The Journals of Bob Drifter was also discovery written.  I had to revise that part a few times, but I was also more experienced.  I’d been studying and reading. I was practicing my craft.  Then I sat down with my brother (primary alpha reader and main supporter).    We set out a few plot points, and I had an idea.

I decided to use my discovery writing tendencies to develop an outline.  This let me keep the freedom of letting the story take me where I wanted with the ability to make continuity and development adjustments.  I could switch things around without having to do a bunch of rewrites.  (Don’t let me mislead you, no matter what you do, you’re going to have rewrites.  I just mean I didn’t have to do dozens.)

blueprint-964629_960_720This is what I tend to do now.  I develop my characters.  I plot their progress.  I do this by typing a summary of their through line of the story.  If I hit a scene I really like or just want to flesh some things out, I do.  If my pace starts to slow down, I just summarize what’s going on and move forward.  I’ve written whole chapters that way.  Once all my characters are done and their through lines prepped, I tie them together in an overall outline.  Again, as I copy and paste these plots together, I let the 17-year-old me come to all the conclusions he wants.

Remember that story I opened with?  I did that then too.  I’d write down a formula or do a step or two if I was stuck, but once I felt like I was moving, I just kept going.  All I cared about then was getting to the correct answer. All I care about now is getting the outline done.

When I finish, I have my outline.  BUT, the discovery writer in me isn’t done yet.  After my outline is finished, I start what I call my discovery draft.  The rules change a bit, but I still have some freedom.  The rule change is I have to complete a manuscript.  I do this the way any writer of integrity and skill does.

I cheat.

gardener-1015584_960_720My fingers still fly across the keypad.  I don’t stop for anything.  Inevitably, I come to a new chapter, a new character, or pretty much anything that needs description.   Description is the molasses in my swimming pool.  I get better with every book, but inevitably, I get frustrated, or just flat out bored.  So what do I do?  I use parenthetical symbols.

The good guy kicked in the door, his 9mm Barretta (CHECK SPELLING) held just at eye level.  The room was like a nightmare. (BORING, WHAT MADE IT LOOK LIKE A NIGHTMARE).

Inside the parenthetical symbols, I use all caps and write a little message to myself.  I’ll do everything from say (DESCRIBE THE ROOM) to (FIND OUT WHAT SORT TACTIC A HACKER WOULD USE TO RESOLVE THIS SITUATION).  I’m not a hacker, but I know people who know people.  (NOT ACTUAL HACKERS).

So I just motor through my draft.  Sometimes I go back and clean things up.  But whatever I don’t fix this time around, I don’t worry about.  I just get everything on paper.  I use my first draft to address all those notes.  I find experts who are willing to help me with stuff and get rid of those. Then the dreaded editing starts.

puzzle-1020002_960_720I’ve found that really works for me.  It took just about three years to write my second book.  (That first book I mentioned, I wrote it 21 times through a 15-year period).  This new system allows me to write about one a year.  It still takes a hot minute to edit and make them ready to publish, but not nearly as long as Journals took me.

I decided to sit down today and explain this because it helped me.  But what if you’re an outliner.

That’s okay.  You’ll probably hate yourself less during editing, but if you find yourself stuck, I don’t want you to be afraid to just pound something out.  I have a few friends who can’t turn off their internal editors or cure themselves of world-builder’s disease.  If you find that you’re stuck, do something different.  I found that I hated how many rewrites I had to do, so I decided to outline in a way that still fits the way my mind works.

So what are you? Outliner or discovery writer?  Do you have a process you think works for you? Please share it in the comments below so everyone can try to add a new tool to their toolbox.

Thanks for reading,


15 thoughts on “Discovery Writers and Outliners

  1. Nice post! I lean toward outliner, but with certain stories my outline just won’t hold still–or I realize halfway through that the ending I had so carefully planned and crafted, that looked so airtight, actually won’t work. So I become a pantser–er, discovery writer–for a bit until I brainstorm a revised outline. (This happened to me three times with Crevlock Tower.)

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I couldn’t agree more. What I hope most take from this is one must notice his tendencies and then try to use pieces of the other tendency to help address the weaknesses of the other. Thanks again for the reblog and stopping by to offer your thoughts.

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I don’t worry over much about that first draft, but that’s the discovery writer in me. I think the advantage is in the ability to roll with it. I try to limit it, because I HATE revisions. As long as writers are working toward getting things finished. Thanks again for stopping by.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I recently mentioned in a post over at QE how you do the parenthesis, and how I stole the idea and use it myself. I’ve been lucky to have such good friends who are writers (people like you) and were willing to show me their scars. I know many of your processes have shaved months off of my current WIPs.

    I also have a hybrid method of burning through my draft. The only difference is I don’t adhere to word counts as religiously as you do. For me, I develop a rough outline, which is basically a bunch of boxes I draw and link together on an artist sketch pad (one of the ones that are giant pieces of paper). Then I take a few days to develop rough character sketches and outlines. Then I just put my head down and fly with it.

    If I hit roadblocks, I don’t stress. Stress = Writer’s Block. I just bust out all of my printed visual toys (outlines, character sheets, world building notes) and spend a day or so revising and improving the outline. Often times, my writing sputters because (1) the story deviated from the basic outline I had perceived it would follow and needs to be reigned in, (2) I’ve lost sight of my character motivations, (3) I’ve introduced a plot element I didn’t take the time to fully realize, or (4) the analytical half of my brain wants to plan and my creative side wants to take a few days off.

    For me, this method keeps me engaged in the story and also helps me fight off self-doubt. If I can go to bed and honestly tell myself I made progress (even if it isn’t word count progress), then I am more motivated the next day to continue forward progress.

    There is something MAJOR I do that you don’t though…wait for it…I use [brackets] instead of (parenthesis). I know…it’s revolutionary! Great post, Matt. Thanks for sharing your process with us and really taking the time to break it down.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What!?! I’ve just totally changed the way I write. Parenthesis are overrated. Brackets it is! HA! I don’t begrudge those who take a day here or there, especially if they’re still just looking at plot and structure. Maybe they’ve added a character. I once deleted somewhere around three characters from a book. That required me to really think about what I was up to. So a day here or there thinking MORE than typing isn’t bad so long as it doesn’t perpetuate. Thanks for stopping by. I’m pretty sure I ping you back tomorrow. I’m talking about how to measure a character’s interest (more or less).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was just teaching today about process, and how it’s more important each writer find out what works for him (I’m a dude, so forgive the sexist neutral pronoun). The goal will always be to develop a compelling story, so I’m right there with you. So long at the story works, how you wrote it is simply there for the behind-the-scenes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I basically wrote WoEM through discovery, but I outlined as I went, which sounds strange even as I type it. But basically, I kept track of my POV character for each section, what they did/saw, and how it moved the story forward. By the midway point of my book, I had a pretty solid idea of where I was going.

    Now, I’m doing a hell of a lot of rearranging and revising to that draft, but I like the bones of it. I keep telling myself that I will make a full outline for my next project, but the jury is still out 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll always be a discovery writer at heart. I’m just trying to limit the rewrites. I just feel I gain more satisfaction from watching the story take shape AS it takes shape. That’s why I tweak my process here and there. Best of luck with those revisions, and thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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