Discussion Topic: Free-Writing vs. Outlining

What are your thoughts on free-writing vs. outlining? Do you like to start writing and let the story evolve as your write, or do you plan out your plot points, characters, etc. before you ever begin your story?

I would say I’m more of a free-writer. Though I may switch to outlining the next time I start a novel. I could have saved myself a lot of time, I believe, because I ended up basically throwing the entire first two drafts in the trash.

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My life has been pretty simple. I grew up in Alabama and graduated from the University of Alabama with a Bachelor's in Advertising. I have spent about the last ten years in web development. In 1998, a friend of mine and I started a web design company we ran for three or four years before deciding to close it due to the demands of school. Since then, I stayed in the web working with various companies in Alabama. I worked for a brief period with Southern Progress, namely with Southern Living magazine and Health magazine, in their web departments. While there, I also wrote for Southern Living magazine, Health.com., and the company's internal newsletter. I write as much as I can. For the last five years, I have been working on my first novel. I am on the third revision now and hope to be finished with this draft by the end of the year. I also write short fiction, though not as frequently as I used to due to the time I spend on the novel. My goal is to have my novel published in the next three years. Other interests include: History (particularly medieval and ancient civlizations), Reading, Foreign Language (I currently speak Spanish but plan to learn as many as I can), Landscape Photography, the outdoors, sports (especially college football), and Travel.

16 thoughts on “Discussion Topic: Free-Writing vs. Outlining”

  1. Steve::

    I’ve tried making outlines and following them. It doesn’t lwork for me, because I just end up departing from them. In some situations, however, it’s important to have some kind of outline or at least a story development. Some historical novels demand this, just to keep your story straight. OTOH, some writers swear by outlines. All I know is what does/does not work for me.
    Anne G

  2. I have to have some sort of rough guide for my story. I sort of approach it as I did when I wrote programs–I knew where I had to begin (the input) and I had an idea of where I wanted the story to end (the output). Then the trick was to get from my input to my output in a logical and entertaining way (writing, not programing as I doubt the electrons cared). Then editing–other than correcting for typos, grammatical errors, and smoothing the awkward sentence–was like debugging a program. Since I’m really good at troubleshooting, I actually enjoy the editing process. That said, my first book, This Time had five major starts and a complete mid-book crisis where Richard refused to do what I had written. I had to toss about 30K words and let him tell me where to take him and how to get there. Needless to say, my back of the #10 envelop flow chart that I started with was discarded along with the 30K words.

  3. I like the programming metaphor. I do Web development work for my job, so I can relate. I like the editing process too. It’s almost as much fun as the actual writing now that I’ve gotten used to it.

  4. If it’s any help to anyone, I’ve discovered in my writing, that although I don’t write outlines or “rough drafts”(things keep changing in my stories as the characters grow and I know them better), but I usually have “key scenes” that form an integral part of the story. I have four of them from which I have constructed my “Invaders” trilogy.

  5. I thought I was a planner, but I have found recently that it’s quite refreshing to just go for it and see where the situation and the characters take you, but as you say it requires more revision after.

    From a psychological point of view I think I find that writing becomes more interesting and less of a chore (it shouldn’t ever be a chore, but some days…) if you don’t have a plan you have to stick to. I think it really depends on what kind of person you are. I would recommend that new writers try both approaches. If you do want to write free it is useful to have a strong sense of who your characters are and the situation that they find themselves in before embarking, otherwise you could find the story becomes a bit aimless. Every time you site down to write you have to make sure you reconnect with the important principles of writing – to tell a story to your readers.

  6. Anne — When I wrote my first draft, I had certain “key scenes” in my head that served as the foundation of the story, but I wish I had written them down first. I’ve only kept a few of those scenes from 1st to 5th drafts.

    Mark — I completely agree with what you’ve said. I do think it depends on the person. And sometimes, it really can feel like a chore. Often, there are plenty of things I can think of to distract myself from actually writing. At the moment, I’m trying to talk myself into writing right when I get home from work. I’ve been experimenting with a new writing schedule. Leave work at 5pm, get home at 5:30pm. Write for at least an hour before I sit down and get too comfortable to summon the will power to get up and write. It requires a lot of self-motivation sometimes, much like working out at the gym.

  7. Ridley Pearson’s description of his writing process was interesting, to say the least. I especially liked the fact that, like me, he works around “key scenes”. But I’m just not as organized as he is, so I’ve so far contented myself with working around “key scenes”. My next project will be to actually write down those key scenes(which I did’t do for my current WIP).

  8. This is so cool! I’ve been stuck with my third novel for over a year–not because I don’t know where to take it, but because I haven’t filled in the key events (all in my head) of what to do and how to work my characters into the time line. Heidi, thanks so much for that link–I have to do some head’s down time with the third book now. Humongous THANK YOU!!!!

  9. Wow, that is some serious outlining by Ridley. I’m not sure I’d ever make mine that involved. Right now, I’m okay with plotting out the key scenes and some information about the main characters, but I don’t know if I’d have the patience to fill out spreadsheets like Ridley and then end up throwing them away and starting over. The process of reading his process was exhausting.

  10. I agree about the work involved. But even though I’m not into detailed outlines, I’m far enough into the story and have enough detail in my head that I can see where it will help me to lay a fair amount of detail out chronologically. I wouldn’t do it at the beginning, but now that the story has sufficient shape, I think this will help me make it work–and get me off the dime, so to speak.

  11. Here’s one other link about the process that I think is interesting. http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2006/09/06/how-to-write-a-novel/
    About halfway down Larblestier describes using a spreadsheet to track the details in her novels (something she learned from her husband, Scott Westerfeld). The spreadsheet idea probably works better for my brain than outlining before the book is started. Justine’s advice is not to outline for the first book.

    I love hearing about writers’ processes. Everyone approaches it a little differently.

  12. I would agree with the advice not to outline for your first novel. I’m pretty sure I would have never even finished the first draft of mine if I had taken the time to outline. I would have likely gotten sick of it and decided not to start writing at all.

  13. This is for Heidi:

    I’m not really a fan of things like spreadsheets. However, I do think that perhaps detailing what your chapters are, and whose POV they’re in, after you’v finished your first(or even second) draft, is probably a good idea.
    Anne G

  14. I did just that after writing my first draft. I didn’t write a detailed chapter by chapter view, but I did something similar. I wrote about 15 pages on characters, settings, story lines, timelines, etc.

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