The War: Outlining vs. Organic Writing

I was just a part of a an online exchange that seemed to interest a few people. The subject was whether or not you write a synopsis before or after you write your story/novel/book. The consensus was that they wrote the synopsis afterward but I was the one that was the odd man out (go figure. Story of my life). I posited that everyone writes a synopsis beforehand, whether they do it in hard copy on in thought only. But the basic beginning, middle, and end is written before you actually write the novel.I mentioned how I write a summary of every chapter of my book. That turned into the age-old debate of writing with an outline versus writing organically (a total misnomer of the word). I’m going to reiterate a couple of the points that I did in the exchange because I think it’s important to see that this debate is a pretty useless one.

1. All writers don’t think alike. 

This has to be understood from the get-go. If this is understood then the debate is over before it can begin. But the assumption many times is that every novelist is right-brained when in fact many are left-brained. To prove that, I went and took three of those left-brain/right-brain quizzes. You can take one by clicking here or here.

You’ll never guess what I am side of my brain dominates my thinking. If you said left-brained, you’re absolutely correct. Tell them what prizes they’ve won Bob!

The key word there is dominate. It doesn’t mean my right-brain is not working. It simply means that my left brain dominates who I am and how I think. My right-brain is pretty active, especially when it comes to my fiction writing but how I put that writing together is regulated by my left brain. The ideas are activated through my right brain. There are different levels of this for everyone. Therefore there are different approaches that we have to storytelling and crafting.

2. You still write organically with an outline. 

People equate writing an outline with rigidity and organically with freedom. There’s a false notion that if you write with an outline that it somehow limits your writing organically. That just isn’t so.

My method, for example, has me writing a summary of what is going to happen in the story before I write the story. If it’s a novel, I do this chapter by chapter. Now, you’ll never guess how I write those summaries. Come on now. All together-I write them organically or naturally. Even writing a more streamlined outline forces you to write organically because you’re seeing what works and what doesn’t work. You’re just seeing at a different stage which is ahead of time.

To be sure, it doesn’t end there. As you’re writing the story after an outline is done, it doesn’t preclude that it will take a turn that wasn’t included in the outline but that works within it or better than it. A smart writer includes those elements to strengthen their story even though it wasn’t in their outline. You don’t have to be a slave to your outline which is another notion that many writers have. It just ain’t so.

3. One way or the other doesn’t guarantee a good story.

When debating these things, the insinuation is that one way is better than the other in writing a good story. False. Wrong. Error. There are many famous authors who write without an outline. Let me give two major examples of names we all know.

Enter Harlen Corben and Lee Child. Bestselling authors. Both write organically. They don’t use any outline. It doesn’t seem to be hurting their writing one bit. In fact, they enjoy writing that way and couldn’t imagine using an outline.

Let’s switch gears now with two other bestselling (another misnomer term but that’s for another post) authors. J.K. Rowling and John Grisham. Both use outlines. Grisham states he simply cannot write a book without one and writes a fifty-page outline like I do, summary form of each chapter (Hey. I might be on to something here).

All of these authors are well known, write for a living, make a lot of money doing it, and have multiple bestselling books. But they don’t all write their novels the same. They write in the way that works for them.

So the outlining vs. organic debate is dead in the water. A red herring. It’s not about methodology. It’s about two main things:

1. Having an interesting story to tell.
2. Tell the story in an interesting way.

If you have those two main ingredients in place then it doesn’t matter what method you use to write the story. You just need to write it.

4 thoughts on “The War: Outlining vs. Organic Writing

  1. I just took the test. My right and left brain work in harmony with each other. Apparently I’m almost dead center– 58%– a little to the right. That was fun and interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I’m at 50 exactly on that left vs right brain test. It honestly does feel that way for me. I’ll jump back to the substance of your article to say that I am more of an outliner than non-outliner. That outline, for me, boosts productivity. It gives me a guideline from which to work. Even if I don’t do chapter-by-chapter I’ll still have some rough notes on what’s happening in my current chapter.

    But I diverge from my outline a great deal a lot of times. It’s usually because the characters take the reigns and take the story places that I (ironically) couldn’t even imagine. Sometimes my idea is so strong that I don’t even need or use an outline or I may just scrap a chapter outline entirely in order to write what I feel is a better chapter. That said I still consistantly use an outline and it really does make the writing easier for me and keeps those ideas from escaping and those details from being overlooked.

  3. It does help to have an idea and to go with that instead of trying to pigeonhole yourself to be something that you’re not. Every writer has to work out their own system and sometimes that means using a little bit of both.

    That’s great that you don’t become a slave to the outline Berlart. Mine is so involved that I find myself not diverging from it too much. But when I begin to write, how I thought it was going to be written many times doesn’t end up that way. That’s what I mean by you still write organically. I don’t think anyone writes by rote and if they do it’s because they’ve pretty much written the novel in outline form.

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