Which Is Better, Outlining Or Organic Writing?
To outline, or not to outline, that is a fiction-writers battle as old as fiction-writing itself. Books on writing are as polarized about the subject as authors.
Julia Cameron pretty much paved the path of organic writing in her famous book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Although I don’t think she called the process “organic writing” she showed how anyone can channel their own creativity into writing without using an outline.
On the other hand, Larry Brooks latest book Story Engineering trounces on the process of organic writing, calling it “…nothing short of insane,” and stating that “A scene written organically – without a mission – is already being fitted for a casket.”
So who’s right? I’ve tried organic writing myself several times. One result was my first published short story, Big Game which sold on its first submission, and has reviewed quite well. Another result was a disasterous mess of dark fantasy pseudo-manuscript that shall not be named here, and made me wonder if Larry Brooks was right.
I did some research on plotting methods and the comparison of outlining vs organic writing. Here’s a look at the differences between these two methods and my answer to the question of which is better.
What is Organic Writing? (aka ‘Pantsing’)
Organic Writing is writing free-form, without plan or structure, and no real concern about where the writing is going. Check out free writing or automatic writing. The visual equivalent would be an artist doodling until they stumble upon an image. The musical equivalent would be ‘jamming’ in which a person or group simply plays until some musical structure jumps out of the ether and manifests into a song.
Some fiction writers use organic writing as a tool to flush out a scene, a character, or even a story. They write to find out what their character is like, or where the story or scene leads. The author just… writes, letting a spontaneous flow of words rush through them. The author might be as surprised as anyone else about what hits the page. This is sometimes called discovery or exploratory writing.
I call this exploratory writing tactic “Chasing The Muse.” You let the muse out of the bottle and see where she goes. Sometimes she won’t move even if you prod her with a Tazer. That’s called writer’s block. Sometimes she plods along, (which is where this method also gets jokingly referred to as ‘plodding’ as opposed to ‘plotting’) feeding you a stream of words, and you write it all down.
If you’re lucky the muse runs, and it’s your job as an author to keep up. If it’s 2AM and you’re dead tired but you can’t stop because you’ve been possessed by the spirit of an amazing writer with words flowing faster than you can type them… congratulations, you’ve experienced true organic writing.
Some people call this “Pantsing” which is short for “Seat of the Pants Writing.” Mr. T from The A-Team would call it being “On The Jazz.” Some people call it “insane” and begging for a rejection letter. Those opposed to organic writing suggest a different method – Outlining.
What is Outlining?
Outlining is the method of defining the structure of a story before writing any of it. The analogy is often made to building a house. Planning the structure down to the nearest sixteenth of an inch is crucial if you want to build the house with maximum efficiency and minimum waste.
Likewise with story construction, if you plan out how the story will start, end, and all the pieces between, then when you actually sit down to write the story, you know not only what goes where, but why.
There are various systems of outlining. Some people use notecards. Some use the Outline View in Microsoft Word. Some use the Snowflake Method software by Randy Ingermanson. Some just have the story structure in their head.
Regardless of how they do it, the primary difference between outliners and organic writers is that outliners write from A to B, and organic writers write from A.
Which writing method is better?
Which method is better? Let’s take a look at several different aspects of writing that can be affected:
In both methods, you will do lots of work up front on something that influences the final product but will not necessarily be part of it.
Outliners like to point out that much of the organic writer’s work will be edited or cut later. This is true. This is why organic writing is sometimes called “discovery writing” in which case you are discovering the outline.
But isn’t it also true that you’ll spend a lot of time on outlining? And once the outliner’s work is done, isn’t the organic writer thousands of words ahead?
It’s impossible to say which is a faster method for you. There are just too many variables. How fast do you outline? How fast do you write? How detailed an outline do you need before you start writing? You’ll have to answer these questions for yourself, probably by experimenting with both methods to see which is faster for you. And, as my own experience has shown, which method is faster could change on a project-by-project basis.
Which method results in the best quality writing? Outliners make a good case that your writing will flow better if you know where it’s going before you start. But some argue that outlining results in contrived writing and wooden characters, and organic writing begets more natural prose. I once heard someone remark that if the ending doesn’t surprise the author, it won’t surprise anyone else either.
Your mileage may vary. It’s impossible to say which method will result in better quality writing for you.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Which method is more difficult? It might be more meaningful to consider which method is more fun. If the thought of outlining makes you feel as though you are strapping the muse into a straitjacket… if the constraints of getting from point A to point B give you writer’s block… if the thought of writing thousands of words that might be reworked for hours and/or thrown away makes you reach for the liquor cabinet…
Again, this is a subjective measurement that only you can make for yourself. It’s impossible to say which method will be easier or harder for you.
Really Zero, stop screwing around and tell us! Which method is better?
Sorry folks – after all that analysis, it turns out the whole thing is a trick question. In the logic field of Philosophy, this is what’s known as a False Dichotomy – focusing on two possibilities when there are actually others. In this case, the question of “Which Is Better?” implies that the two can’t both be used.
The truth is you can use both. The wicked truth is that you have to use both.
Structuring and Organic Writing are ingredients, and finding the best possible mix for you is like trying to find the right combination of Jagermeister and Red Bull in your penultimate, writing Jag Bomb.
Let’s take another look at both methods, and see what we missed.
The structural method sounds efficient on the surface. Once the structure is complete, you won’t waste many words filling that structure. Every word you put into that structure will be used to make the story go forward as it should. Very little rework, very little waste. Right?
What exactly are you putting INTO that structure? Well, you know you have to get the scene from plot point A to plot point B, but when it finally comes time to fill that space, how do you do it? What do you fill it with?
That’s right, Organic Writing. At some point you have to stop drawing the outline and start filling it in.
And what happens if you fill that space as directed and when you’re done the scenes are flat? Boring? Contrived? What then? You rewrite.
But what if you rewrite those scenes a dozen times, and they still don’t sing? What if you find the structure is limiting your writing? You restructure.
What happens if your muse starts coloring outside the lines? What happens if your characters won’t behave? What happens if you find a plot hole big enough to sail an aircraft carrier through? What happens if you start writing from point A to point B and discover you’ve ended up at point C, by way of F, Y and the color Blue? What if point C is a far more interesting place than B? Now what do you do?
If you want to keep point C in the story, you’ll have to revisit the structure and adjust everything! You’ll have to change all your foreshadowing, and maybe even the ending… oh boy. Maybe it’s better just to forget you ever discovered point C, get the train back on the structure track and rewrite your way to point B? Rewrite or restructure?
Not quite as easy as you thought, eh? Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
Organic Writing, Revisited
The organic writing method sounds pretty on the surface. Pretty easy too. So easy in fact, that many writers think they can shortcut the process by organically writing a bestseller out of the air. Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
You’re going to throw away or rework a lot of that organic writing. You’ll need to go back and check that the plot flows, and the pacing and that all subplots resolve, and you’ll have to go back and check your foreshadowing and make sure all scenes are leading toward an ending you weren’t even aware of when you started…
Wait a minute! What exactly are you doing to that organic writing?
Surprise! You’re putting structure on it. Yes, you can structure your work after it’s written. And you’d better, unless you are journaling or writing poetry.
The Question, Revisited
Every author outlines, whether they do it intentionally, intuitively, subconsciously, naturally or artificially.
Every author writes organically, unless they are writing technical manuals for the military.
Those who outline have to fill their structures with organic writing. Those writing organically have to rework their organic writing to check/create/enforce a structure.
Without a structure, you don’t have a story, you have a dictionary run through a blender. Without organic writing you have a sterile description of a story.
The questions are not “which method is best?” or “should you outline?” The questions are “how do you outline?” and “how much outlining do you do?”
The Middle Path
Structure is a necessary component of ALL fiction, but whether you apply a structural outline before, after, or even during the creative writing process is not important. In other words, you should have a structure to your finished story, but how you get that outline is up to you. Some authors need to discover the story as they go. Some authors need an outline before they can start.
Between the two extremes are an entire purgatory of options that are overlooked by most authors. What if you organically wrote a story structure? What if you loosened up the story structure, and instead of putting the muse in a straitjacket, you got one of those dog leashes that allows some play before setting a boundary? What if you designed multiple ending structures and wrote each one organically to see which was best?
What works best for me is to bounce back and forth between organic writing and outlining. I write organically for a while, then take a step back to look at the big picture, and adjust the outline as necessary. Here is a link to a process called phase drafting which is very similar to what I’ve learned to do on my own. Yes, I rewrite a lot. No, it’s not easy. Need I say it again? Good writing is hard work.
The method that will work best for *you* is… whatever works best for you. If you want to improve your writing, read about organic writing in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and read about story structure in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. But don’t let Julia Cameron, Larry Brooks or even me tell you how to write. Learn the ingredients and then mix your own drink to taste.
Part of the adventure of becoming a writer is making the craft your own, and experimenting to find a method that feels good to you and helps you release your best writing.