There are many terms for these two types of writers. Discovery Writers, Pantser, Plotter, Outliner. (To name a few)
What are they?
And what kind of writer are you?
Is one better than the other?
What is a Discovery Writer?
Discovery writers may also be called Pantsers because they write by the seat of their pants. These writers tend to have an idea for a character or a situation, so they sit down and start writing. They write to discover what the character has to say or do. They write to discover what would happen given a certain situation.
What is an Outliner?
Outliners can also be called Plotters because they plot everything out ahead of time. These writers have an idea for a character or a situation and they sit down and outline. They may do a character sketch, they may use a specific formula to organize their thoughts, or they might not. They do a lot of planning before they write the first scene.
Which one are you?
The way people categorize authors as one or the other it makes you think there are two boxes and you fit into one or the other. The truth is very few or possibly nobody is exclusively one or the other. We all fall on a spectrum that leans one way or another.
Outliners may have the major plot points planned out, but they discovery write when they connect the dots. Often Discovery writers don’t have an outline written down but in their head they have certain events that they know are going to happen somewhere along the way. So really it is a matter of where on the spectrum you fall.
Advantages and Disadvantages
There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods of writing. Many new writers begin as discovery writers. One disadvantage to discovery writing is that it is sometimes circuitous. You may write a few thousand words which will later need to be cut from the story because they were irrelevant. It is like archaeology, a ton of earth must be dug through before you get to the goal of your dig. Writers put a ton of words on the page.
Most writers have notebooks to collect words, phrases, snippets of ideas. Both Discovery Writers and Outliners have some kind of computer folder in which they collect words which had to be cut. I can’t remember for sure who it was but I think it is Dan Wells that has named his folder “Graveyard” for story “bones” which he can’t use now, but may at some point be able to resurrect for another story. (He writes excellent horror and sci fi stories!)
The advantage of this is that these writers are often in tune with their characters. They listen to them, so the characters behave naturally on the page. Sometimes I’ll discovery write a little bit to find out what the character’s voice sounds like. (Usually that text gets tossed, but it served its purpose, so it wasn’t a waste. Maybe one day that could be a Patreon treat if I ever go that route.)
Sometimes writers are more inclined to outline. I moved further down the spectrum towards Outliner when I learned that Discovery writers tend to throw out more words. (I like order and organization, though I’m not terribly good at that in some areas of my life.) Much of the discovery for an Outliner happens in their head rather than on the paper or computer screen. I have been known to stare into space with my fingers on the keyboard at the ready for half an hour. My husband actually asks me if I’m okay when I do this in the living room. I’m fine. I just have a lot going on in my head.
The disadvantage to being an Outliner is that sometimes the story becomes stilted. It becomes movement from plot point to plot point without the necessary heart. New Outliners tend to stick too closely to the outline and are afraid to deviate when necessary.
As I said, I lean more toward being an Outliner but I still do some discovery writing. I discovery write to get a character’s voice. For my most recent short story, I rewrote the first page three times before I finally feel like I got it right. I jot down and plan a bunch of stuff before I get started on the first sentence of the story. I brainstorm the magic system, the setting, the personalities of characters, and the major plot points of the story before sentence number one. I do discovery write individual scenes between the major plot points. Sometimes characters lead me down a different path than I expect. If it is a better path, I will change my outline as needed. Usually though, the characters aren’t such divas that demand major changes. Often, the are more clever than I, at connecting the dots between scenes.
This post is an over simplification of a large topic, so know that there is much more to each type of writer. Neither Outliner or Discovery Writer is right or wrong, better or worse than the other. They are both valid methods. Successful authors exist at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere between. It is important to try both methods to see where on the spectrum you feel most comfortable. Additionally, it is important to learn the pitfalls of each, so you can overcome the weaknesses within that method.
I would love to hear from you! Are you an Outliner or a Discovery Writer?