Here’s an interesting debate I think all scribblers face. I have been thinking about recently and so, I decided to share my thoughts with you. I hope you find this informative.
What’s better, free writing or outlining?
I think the answer to this really is subjective, meaning that it depends on a variety of things.
It depends, largely, on whether or not it is fiction or non-fiction. It also depends on the story, the writer’s opinion and style, and their genre. Sometimes it even depends on readers too. Writer’s of short stories, or short informative articles know what I’m talking about here. There are a lot of different opinions on these two ways of writing – one planned, and the other free-thought.
Personally, I find both are required in one case or another. If you’re a serious writer, and I hope you are, you might agree. It really depends on the situation, and what you write.
Anyways, let’s go over these pros and cons, and discuss when they may be most useful.
Pro #1 – You get to sit down and think out everything. If you’re writing fiction, you can figure out what color your character’s hair is going to be; whether or not they have a bitchy attitude or a soft one, or if they love to play soccer or baseball. You can figure out crucial points in the story, how to get from one part to the next, being as many steps ahead of the game as you feel you want to be.
If you’re writing non-fiction, outlining your whole book is not only helpful but a requirement. However how much you outline, is up to you.
Pro #2 – With fiction, the future events of your story can be changed long before they happen, and anything that’s required to occur beforehand can be omitted from the story, saving time later on.
With non-fiction, you can move any of your topics around, along with their sub topics, at your leisure. This way you can organize your book and fine tune it, to find out where each subject and piece belong.
Pro # 3- Even if you are free-writing your book, plotting can help you when you are stuck. For example, when writing my recent project ,Web of Memories, I was stuck on a certain part that I was free-writing. Usually, free-writing isn’t a problem for me, but I honestly had no idea where I was going.
Now, normally, I just say, keep writing. I pull through it and delete any resulting garbage I may produce afterward.
Instead, I walked away, took a shower, played with my dog, ate some grub, did the dishes, and all the while, I plotted the scene in small points. Not quite all at once, that would have been a little boring, I think. But every once in a while I’d let my mind wander back over to the story and insert the next small piece to the scene, sometimes changing a few pieces around to see how they would work together.
When I went back to writing, I did a bit of free writing, using only one or two of the plot points I had imagined – and I had imagined dozens. That didn’t matter, because I knew where I was going at that point and I was excited about it. Really, that was all that was important.
With non-fiction, if you’re free-writing and you’re stuck, you should probably be outlining anyways (since you should be researching, your notes can always be used as a sort of outline) so just outline your next parts, and get back on track. Outlining will not only help you get on track, but once again, you need to do it when you’re writing non-fiction. Sorry kids, but unless it’s a short article in a subject you’re an expert in, you need to outline.
Onto the cons of the outline.
Con #1 : With fiction, I find if you plot out the whole story, it ruins the fun for the writer. That’s why I started writing in the first place. I found it relaxing, and I enjoyed telling stories to myself and to others. If you plot it all out, you don’t get the chance to see it all happen as you go, and that spoils a lot of it. If you know how it’s going to end, the story loses some of its hold on you, and that dulls it for the writer. It shows in the work, and it will dull it for the reader as well.
Con # 2 – Characters can lose their reality if you plan their lives to a T. Most people aren’t robots built on a white page, and your characters shouldn’t be either. That’s just my opinion; you can’t program them. If you outline all of your characters actions, they lose their touch as being real people.
Non-fiction characters need to be well researched, so yes, they need an outline. A very well researched, documented, referenced, outline.
Con # 3 – If you outline everything, than it loses room for imagination. Sometimes, when one outlines fiction, they tend to work only on what they see in their outline, instead of what is in their heart. A lot of the story get’s missed that way, and a lot of what could be read is left in the mind of the writer.
Let’s move on to free writing now.
Pro #1: In fiction especially, free writing the story keeps it exciting, which keeps the voice of the writer fresh, the characters fresh, the ideas fresh…All together, it stays fresh, like a good soup should be. But we’re brewing soup, we’re writing stories, so let’s not get off topic. I’m just saying, a fresh batch of soup is not only an edible one, but a delicious one. A stale one that has sat in the fridge for a day (or maybe, let’s hope not, a week) is neither one or the other. The same is true for your writing. Keeping it fresh keeps it original.
With non-fiction, free writing what you are able to, gives yourself a little bit of fun, especially in those places you may find you’re boring yourself. Opinions and personal thoughts can be added into non-fiction, sometimes, depending on what the book is about. Learn to work free writing into your non fiction, and it might serve you well.
Pro #2: As I listed in Con #2 of outlining, your characters develop more generically when you free write them. If you try to force their actions, behaviors, likes or dislikes, you might end up with a fake character that people are going to have a hard time relating to.
Pro #3: In fiction and even in non-fiction, just beginning a story the way you want to (and by that I mean, write whatever the hell you want) can produce the most amazing results. Sometimes the best things we have to write are deep within, and we don’t get to see them until we get to the page. You just can’t plan that.
Pro #4 : If you’re stuck, bored, and have written and outlined everything, free-writing a new scene or additional information can help spice things up. If you’ve outlined too much, you can mess up the book this way but it can always be changed. That is the beauty of writing, and the beauty of multiple drafts.
Now, it’s time for the cons of free writing.
Con #1 : When you’re just free writing, it is a lot easier to lose track of where the structure of your story is going. You could start off with a paranormal thriller and end up with a romantic comedy. As silly as this sounds, I have heard about it happening. A good portion of artists can draw without any outline at all, but others must color within some sort of border, whether vague or refined. Figure out what works best for you and make it your own.
Con #2 : With free writing, there is a little bit of a tendency for the author to stop caring so much about the work. This ties in a bit to Con #1 of free writing, but authors just move onto whatever seems convenient at the time if they are stuck. Sometimes out of laziness, and sometimes out of imagination. With the latter, it tends to bring out a powerful, thought-provoking story, but with the former it often comes out a sloppy mess. Don’t worry if you’ve made one of these messes. Every writer has.
Con #3 : Free writing can be overwhelming. When an author writes in the heat of the scene, they tend to overlook small, important details. Often, they forget (I’ll admit, there have been times I have forgotten) to take notes of crucial details, and then have to look back to see what they were. This can also cause the writer to miss crucial plot points that could destroy the story. Sometimes taking a step back to truly look at the tree you’ve just trimmed, before going into cut anymore branches, is the best thing that you can do. When you’re inside of the brush, it’s easy to get lost in the leaves.
So what’s our grand conclusion?
There isn’t one. I said in the beginning of this article that the answer to this debate is entirely subjective, and I hold by that statement. Whether or not to free write or outline is entirely up to you, what you’re writing, who you’re writing it for, and what kind of schedule you have to work on it, along with many other factors.
What I have given you is just some tips that I found work with both these types of writing. Sometimes using free writing is the best, most powerful way to do it, but sometimes outlining is the more efficient and cleanest way to go.
In the end, I think mixing it up, and knowing when each type of writing is appropriate, is the proper answer.
You may think differently than this, and I want to hear your answers!
Do you free write, or do you outline?
Do you do both?
Write your thoughts in the comments below, and we can start a discussion!