Wright’s Writing Corner: The Great Debate

"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
"And every single one of them is right!"

From In the Neolithic Age by Rudyard Kipling


People love to debate things. Writers, being people who use words for a living, love to debate things even more than the average Joe. One thing writers really love to debate is: how to write.


How to write is always a lively topic because everyone does it differently. But it is generally agreed that it falls neatly into two categories: Those who make outlines, and those who do not. Until recently, the outliners were often considered the “right” way, and the others guys were the “wrong” way. Non-outliners were thought to be undisciplined.


I was, thus, delighted a few years ago to hear Super-Agent Donald Maass say that both kind of writers, outliners (can’t recall what he called them, Structured Writers, perhaps) and Organic Writers could both produce excellent books. The only real difference, according to Maass, is that the first group structured their books ahead of time and the second group did more rewriting, adding to the structure afterward.


This I liked. This sounded right. Organic seemed to fit what I was doing very well, and I sure did a lot of rewriting afterward.



Recently, however, I have been dismayed to see the Organic, non-outliners described as Pantsers.  First of all, everything else aside, it is an ugly word. It sounds like a word a 1950 detective who calls people Big Boy and Wall-Eye would think up. Second all, these writers are “Pantsers”—according to writing teacher Larry Brooks who coined the term—because, since they do not use an outline, they write by the seat of their pants.


My guess is that Mr. Brooks is NOT a pantser…either that or he is not a very good writer. One or the other…because it sure does not feel like writing by the seat of my pants to me.


It feels like taking dictation from the Muse.



A word about me and outlining before I continue—I cannot outline. When I say this, I mean it literally but not in the way you might think. I mean it the way a person  might say, “I cannot fly” or “I cannot eat the sun”.  I do not mean it in sense of “I do not know how” or “I am not disciplined enough to do it.


I can make outlines. I even LOVE making outlines. It is just that when I do, two things happen:


1) The story is much worse than if I do not, because the ideas that come to me when I am actually writing are much better than the ones that come to me when I am outlining.


2) The writing stops. Zip. Gone. Once I have an outline, it is as if my imagination thinks the project is done and will not continue. Either that or the Muses (or the angels. I do a lot of praying before I write) do not like it when I get in their way, so they bug out and leave me haning.

Either way, I  have never been able to finish a work I outlined without first tearing up the outline first and letting my imagination start over.


I have heard structured writers suggest that an outline is necessary to achieve a plot. This just is not true. Plot is just as easy to achieve backwards…going back and setting up the end…as it is forward. The same kind of thought goes into it. It just goes in at a different time.


And that is just me. I have several friends who have written beautiful beginnings to things that they never finished. Instead, as soon as the outline was done, they put the project aside. One friend wrote over a hundred and fifty pages before saying sadly, “There’s nothing left for me to make up about this story. I am finding it hard to think about it.”


Outlining actually harmed these writers. They might have finished works now had they trusted their muse more and let their imagination play.


On the second hand, my husband, who normally both just writes and does not need to revise, outlined one of his novels and loved the process. He said that it made the writing easy and fun and was just enjoyable.


On the gripping hand, that did not work for his next novel, no matter what he tried. He even had to rewrite it—a first for him. So, I suppose the Muses had their revenge.



Okay, back to the subject at hand: Structured Writers think Organic Writers write by the seat of their pants, and Organic Writers think Structured Writers are unimaginative sticks—which is what leads to the aforementioned debate.


But recently, when discussing the subject, I had an epiphany. It came from a comment made by fellow writer marycatelli. I have not been able to find the original quote, but we were discussing a quote from Terry Pratchett about writing being like going through misty valley and discovering the wonders therein, and she said, in gist, that she could discover all sorts of wonders in the mist while outlining.


I thought about this and realized: Of course! Some people’s muses speak to them in the writing phase and some in the outlining phase!


Which leads to my epiphany. There are not two types of writers. There are four.


1) Structured, Creative Writers – people whose muses speak to them in the initial organizational stage. They have the same powerful imagination as those who do not outline, but it kicks in here.


2) Unstructured Creative Writers – people whose muses only dictate when they do not get in the way. These people must write as the Muse instructs and add structure later. However, just because they did not plot it out ahead of time does not mean that they are not disciplined writers. They are not writing “by the seat of their pants” They are writing on faith.


3) Structured Uncreative Writers – people who use structure to replace creativity. They do not listen to their Muse. They try to intellectually produce a story by structuring it without any  particular spark of insight.


4) Pantsers—people who really do write by the seat of their pants, without discipline or, often, plot.


Both 1 and 2 produce good books. The existence of 3, however, makes 1 look bad, and 4 makes 2 look bad. The authors who write according to an outline pride themselves on not being plotless and undisciplined.  The authors who write by listening to the Muse look down on outliners because they believe they are all using structure to replace creativity.


Hence the debate.


But…according to high-power agents like Maass, both one and two produce good books. This means that it really does not matter how other people write. All that matters is which way helps you produce a finished work.


Now, you would think this would end the debate, but it does not. Because new writers still need   way to discover which category they fit in. Where should they start?


Here is my humble rule of thumb for the newbie:


If you can outline, do. It is always nice to know where the story is going, and outlining leads easily to strong plotting.


If you find your imagination is drying up, that your promising beginning is not coming to fruition, abandon your outline! Pick a point in your manuscript. Make up something different to happen next than you had originally planned. Write a new story from there.

Whichever you do, make sure you bring a creative joy to it and that you do it with discipline. Then, it will not matter with what fervor everyone else debates the issue, you will have found your right way.



Suggestions for more cogent names for options 1, 2, and 3 welcome!