Writing Tips: Outlining/Plotting Vs Discovery Writing/Pantsing

Every fiction author will (eventually) find their own method for writing but all fall somewhere on the spectrum between outlining/plotting and discovery writing/pantsing/writing into the dark.

In this excerpt from How To Write a Novel, I share two chapters on the topic from the audiobook, narrated by me (Joanna Penn).

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.

Show notes:

  • The benefits and difficulties of outlining
  • How to outline and examples from authors who use this method
  • The benefits and difficulties of discovery writing (and why I hate the term pantsing!)
  • Examples of authors who discovery write
  • My writing process: Discovery writing with a hint of plotting
  • Links to books and resources that might help you

This is an excerpt from my audiobook of How to Write a Novel, narrated by me.

If you’d like more on How To Write a Novel: From Idea to Book, you can buy in multiple formats directly from me here, and you can find it on your favorite online store, order from your local independent bookstore, or borrow from your library (just ask your librarian to order it).

Outlining (or plotting)

“Outlining is the most efficient way to structure a novel to achieve the greatest emotional impact… Outlining lets you create a framework that compels your audience to keep reading from the first page to the last.” — Jeffery Deaver, Wall St Journal

Writers who outline or plot spend more time up front considering aspects of the novel and know how the story will progress before they start writing the manuscript. It’s a spectrum, with some outlines consisting of a page or so and others stretching to thousands of words of preparation.

The benefits of outlining

While discovery writers jump into writing and spend more time later cleaning up their drafts, outliners or plotters spend time beforehand so they can write faster in the first draft.

When it’s time to write, outliners focus on writing words on the page to fulfil their vision rather than figuring out what’s going on. Outlining can result in more intricate plots and twists, deeper characters, less time rewriting, and faster production time.

If you co-write, outlining is the only way to ensure your process works smoothly. As a discovery writer, I have found it particularly challenging to co-write fiction, which is why I rarely do it!

If you have an agent or a publisher, or you want an agent or a publisher, you might have to write an outline anyway, so learning how to do it well can help. If you’re a discovery writer, you can always outline after the book is finished, if you need to.

“When you plan a story the right way, you guarantee a tight, compelling structure that keeps readers turning pages and delivers a satisfying reading experience from start to finish. And really, a satisfied reader is all you need for a ‘good’ book.” —Libbie Hawker, Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing

The difficulties of outlining

Outlining and plotting suit some writers very well.

But not all.

Some authors get lost in outlining and plotting and world-building and character bios and theme exploration and symbolism… and never actually write full sentences and may never finish a book.

Such writers may go astray through a combination of procrastination through preparation, a delight in the learning process without a desire to do the work to turn it into a story, or perhaps fear of what might happen if they do write.

Some authors outline a book and then decide it’s too boring to write it and never finish.

Some authors become so obsessed with the technicalities of outlining that they decide writing is too hard, so they give up.

Other writers try outlining only to find it is no fun at all.

If you can do it, brilliant!

If you can’t, don’t worry. See the next chapter on discovery writing.

How to outline

“Every hour spent outlining prior to starting a novel saves you many hours in the actual writing process. It also helps you to write a better novel, as you will ‘tighten’ down the story in your outline before you write, rather than having to do it in rewrite.” —Bob Mayer, The Novel Writer’s Toolkit

There is no single way to outline, but options include a text document, a spreadsheet, mind maps, and/or Scrivener or other software. Outlines can also vary in length and complexity.

Shawn Coyne describes the Foolscap Method in The Story Grid, where an entire book can be outlined on one A4 page with just a few lines describing the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

[Interview with Shawn on The Story Grid here.]

You could expand this brief outline into a document of a few pages by describing the main action points and characters of each scene in a couple of lines or a paragraph. This is often what agents and publishers mean by an outline.

At the more extreme end of the plotting spectrum, thriller author Jeffery Deaver creates a lengthy outline for his thrillers. As he said in a Wall Street Journal interview in 2012, “The finished outline runs about 150 pages, single spaced, though with very wide right margins, so I can jot references to the research material relevant to the plot.”

James Patterson outlines his books and uses the process to complicate his plots and come up with twists that surprise readers. Patterson is a prolific story machine and works with co-writers to expand his story worlds. Whatever you think of his books, he is the highest-earning and bestselling author in the world. I highly recommend his MasterClass online course, in which he goes into detail about his process.

In the MasterClass, Patterson says, “I’m a fanatic about outlining. It’s going to make whatever you’re writing better. You’ll have fewer false starts and you’ll take a shorter amount of time. I write them over and over again. You read my outline and it’s like reading a book. You really get the story even though it’s condensed. Each chapter will have about a paragraph devoted to it, but you’re going to get the scene and you’re going to get the sense of what makes the scene work… The ending almost always changes in the writing, though, it’s because I learned to listen to the characters.”

Some writers use paper index cards for plotting scenes and characters. Lauren Beukes used a wall of index cards to physically plot the details for her award-winning thriller The Shining Girls, later adapted for TV. It is a time travel thriller, so the plot lines and characters needed to be interwoven in multiple ways.

If you don’t want to use paper, you can use plotting software like Scrivener, Plottr, Granthika, or other tools to create electronic versions of index cards that you can drag and drop into a different order as you need to.

J.K. Rowling outlined the Harry Potter series with hand-drawn matrices tracking the characters against the plot and timeline.

Prolific thriller author Russell Blake uses a spreadsheet with chapter numbers down the left, character names across the top, and a few sentences in each cell. “I will typically capture the whys of the chapter, meaning the motivation for writing it. To make it into my final outline, it will need to either reveal something about the characters or the plot, or move the story forward. If I can’t articulate to myself the purpose of the chapter in that manner, I cut it.”

You can include whatever you like in your outline and it can be as long as you want it to be.

Outliners often change things as they write, so don’t feel that the outline is a constraint on your creativity. It’s just a tool to help you write your book in whatever way works for you.

“A good outline should be a spur for creativity, not a stumbling block. The author is the master of the outline, not its slave.” —K.M. Weiland, Outlining Your Novel

Outlining a series

If you have a series in mind, particularly if there is a clear character arc and a final ending, then it can be a good idea to outline more than one book at the same time so you know where the series is going, even if it’s just a few lines.

However, remember to write the book at some point. Don’t spend forever outlining!


  • What are the benefits of outlining?
  • What are the potential difficulties?
  • Are you excited about the prospect of outlining? Or is it something you feel like you ‘should’ do?
  • Which methods of outlining might work best for you?
  • How much time do you want to spend outlining before you move on to writing?

Discovery writing (or pantsing)

“If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it.” —Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

The word ‘pantsing’ comes from the term ‘fly by the seat of your pants,’ and essentially means that you write what comes into your head and work out the story along the way.

For some people, this means literally starting from the first sentence of the first page and writing until the story is done. For others, it involves writing out of order and stitching the story together later, which is my approach.

Let’s first address the term ‘pantsing,’ which is frankly terrible! It’s based on the American word ‘pants,’ meaning trousers, but I’m British, and pants are underwear. I much prefer the term ‘discovery writing,’ so that’s what I’ll use and perhaps together we can get rid of the term ‘pantsing’ altogether.

The benefits of discovery writing

It’s so much fun!

Many discovery writers feel as if knowing what happens or planning it all in advance makes the writing process boring, but if you don’t know what will happen next in your story, the writing process has the intensity and excitement of discovery. This can make the finished product just as interesting for the reader as it was for you in the writing process.

I also find these extraordinary moments of synchronicity happen when I discovery write and research as I go. They happen during the writing of every book, although I can’t force them to happen.

There’s a moment where the story clicks, it all suddenly makes sense, and things that I invented cross over into the real world in unexpected ways. That feeling makes the creative potential of the discovery process almost addictive.

You need to have a certain amount of trust in your innate story sense, but that is also part of the enjoyment. We have all read so many books and watched so many movies and TV shows that we have a deep understanding of story as human beings. There’s a sense of ‘knowing’ how a story works, and in discovery writing, it’s about leaning into this feeling. Trust that your subconscious story brain will give you what you need along the way.

“Writing with intentional plot structure is not necessary for the story to be compelling.” —Becca Syme & Susan Bischoff, Dear Writer, Are You Intuitive?

The difficulties of discovery writing

If you don’t know how the story will work, you can end up writing yourself into a corner. Many discovery writers discard words, scenes, characters, and plot points later. Some may have to redraft altogether to make a story work. Some consider that a ‘waste,’ but it’s just part of the discovery process.

You will also face the blank page regularly in your writing sessions, as you might not always know what to write next.

Dean Wesley Smith addresses this in Writing into The Dark

“Getting stuck is part of writing into the dark. It is… a natural part of the process of a creative voice building a story. Embrace the uncertainty of being stuck, trust your creative voice, give it a few moments’ rest, and then come back and write the next sentence.”

Reframe the blank page as the promise of unlimited possibility, rather than the fear of the unknown.

How to discovery write

“Story emerges from human minds as naturally as breath emerges from between human lips. You don’t have to be a genius to master it. You’re already doing it.” —Will Storr, The Science of Storytelling

Write a sentence.

Then another one.

Then another one.

Repeat until done for the writing session.

You don’t have to tell the story in a linear fashion. You can jump around and write what the Muse wants to write and piece it all together later. That’s how it works for me. I never write in order.

When you sit down to discovery write, you need to trust that something will emerge from you somehow, even if it feels like you have nothing when you face the blank page.

Of course, you must learn the craft. There must be an element of understanding the principles of story.

But there is also something ineffable, something unexplainable, something magic that happens when you trust the discovery process.

You may not even realize what is in your mind until it spills out onto the page. As poet Ben Okri said, we are “magnificent and mysterious beings capable of creating civilisations out of the wild lands of the earth and the dark places in our consciousness.”

As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

You can do this. Trust emergence.

Authors who are discovery writers

Lee Child used to start writing his next Jack Reacher thriller on 1 September each year and continue writing until the book was done (before he handed the franchise over to his brother in 2020). 

In an interview with Marie Claire magazine, he said, “I just start somewhere, somewhere that feels good, and then literally think ‘Alright now what happens?’ So a million times in the process it’s a question of ‘Alright now what happens?’ and so the story tells itself.”

I’m a Jack Reacher fan and the storylines are linear and work well for this kind of writing style. Reacher arrives in a town, something bad happens, he must find and punish the bad guys, and there’s some fighting and (occasionally) some loving along the way. There is a clear protagonist, and the story unfolds in real time as Reacher experiences it.

But not everyone writes such a linear story and you certainly don’t have to.

Stephen King is a discovery writer and his books are usually sprawling stories with many characters, multiple points of view, and often a complicated plot. 

In On Writing, he talks about starting with a character in a situation and writing from there. “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground,” which must be uncovered through the writing process. King does multiple drafts and revisions to deepen the story, but his first draft is all discovery. He says, “I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

Tess Gerritsen talks about her discovery process in an article on her blog: 

“Since I don’t outline ahead of time, I don’t always know the solution to the mystery. So I’ll wander in the wilderness along with my characters until I get about two-thirds of the way through and I’ll be forced to find answers. And then I can finally write to the end… I don’t stop to revise during the first draft. Because it’s all going to be changed anyway, when I finally figure out what the book is about.”

Nora Roberts says in a blog post about her method

“The first draft, the discovery draft, the POS (guess what that stands for) draft is the hardest for me. Figuring it all out, creating people I’m going to care about enough to sit here with for hours every day in order to tell their story. Finding out information about the setting, the careers involved, and so much more. I don’t outline. I have a kind of loose mental outline, then I sit down, get started and hope it all works one more time.”

Dean Wesley Smith has written several hundred novels and shares his process in Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel Without an Outline. He talks about ‘cycling,’ where he writes a scene and then cycles back to read through it and make changes as necessary every time he sits down to write. He might deepen the character or add to the plot, or make other changes. Sometimes he might find a plot issue and have to cycle back further, but when he finishes the first full draft, the book is done. He has a proofreader check it and then publishes.

My process: Discovery writing with a touch of plotting

I have tried so many times to become an outliner. I’ve read all the books on structure and plotting and done lots of courses, but my Muse just won’t comply. It frankly makes me miserable to try and outline in any detail. My creative brain just doesn’t work that way. It sucks the joy out of the writing process — and what’s the point in that?!

I have written and published many novels (as J.F. Penn) at this point, so clearly my process works, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into the way many others say we ‘should’ write.

This is how I discovery write.

I have various ideas mulling around in my head for a long time before I start a book. They might be ideas about a character, a setting, a story question, a theme I want to explore, or a MacGuffin — an object of a quest (all of which I’ll cover later, in Part 3).

I have a folder on my computer in my J.F. Penn drive with sub-folders labelled with broad-brush working titles. Most of the folders are empty, but they are placeholders for the Muse. 

As I write this, I have sixteen folders in my To Write list, but they are pretty nebulous. For example, Volcano Botanist Adventure, and French Gothic Stonemason. I have vague ideas about what these stories might be some day, but they take years to emerge. I move the folders up and down depending on how I’m feeling about what I might write next.

At some point, I settle on the story I need to write.

That decision is driven by an urging from the Muse, or something external that triggers the choice, like a research trip where a story piece clicks into place.

I don’t write to a production schedule for my fiction and I have spectacularly failed to plan when my books might come out. I am incredibly organized in my nonfiction side as Joanna Penn and in my business, but my fiction self — my J.F. Penn side — cannot be constrained. This is why I don’t do long pre-orders on my fiction. I only ever put a pre-order up when the book is with my editor, as then I know the timeline for publication.

I’ll spend some time researching and, at the point of committing to a book, I usually have at least a character idea and sometimes a name, a setting for the opening scene, and ideas for what the plot might be about. But most of the time, I haven’t written any of it down. Sometimes, I draw a simple mind map in my journal. Sometimes I have the equivalent of an A4 piece of paper with thoughts, but it’s all pretty free-flowing.

I open a new Scrivener project and add some placeholders for scenes. These are just one liners. For example, in Destroyer of Worlds, my first place-holder line was: ‘Trafalgar Square bomb, something stolen from the ARKANE vault.’ I didn’t know what was stolen, but that emerged once I sat down to write.

[You can watch my tutorial on how I use Scrivener here.]

I schedule first-draft blocks of time in my calendar. I turn up at my desk or the writing café or wherever I’m working and I write.

I don’t write in order.

I write whatever scene comes to mind that day, or whatever is suggested as the next scene based on what I have already written. I might follow one character for a few scenes and then go back and write another timeline later. I add more placeholder one-liners as the plot emerges.

I research before I begin, but I also research as I write. For example, when writing a scene set in Cologne Cathedral for Tomb of Relics, I had the cathedral interactive site open so I could write as if I was actually there. I also check aspects of plot as I type. Yes, sometimes I end up down a rabbit hole during the draft, but that’s okay too, because there’s gold in the research process for a discovery writer!

I don’t do character profiles.

My characters emerge from the discovery writing process. I’ll often write a scene to expand on character motivations and back story later in the process, but then insert it earlier in the story. This is why I love writing in Scrivener. I can drag and drop and reorder my scenes as I go.

When I get to around 20,000 words of a full-length novel, I often lose track of what’s going on with the different threads of the story. I usually stop and reread what I have so far, noting down open questions, character issues, plot holes, and anything else. 

This process helps me figure out what else needs to happen, and I can usually write to the end after this reread. I can also use dictation at this point in the process as I know more about what’s going on, but it doesn’t usually work for me earlier in the discovery process, as I only know what I will write as I type.

My first self-edit is when I structure scenes into chapters and find what I need to cut and add — often that leads to a major reorganization of the material. It’s all part of the discovery process.

* * *

There are as many different ways of writing as there are writers, but we all end up with a finished book regardless of how we get there. You have to find the process that works for you.


  • What are the benefits of discovery writing?
  • What are the potential difficulties?
  • Are you excited about the prospect of discovery writing? Does the empty page scare you or represent unlimited possibility?
  • How do you think discovery writing might fit into your process?

If you’d like more on How To Write a Novel: From Idea to Book, you can buy in multiple formats directly from me here, and you can find it on your favorite online store, order from your local independent bookstore, or borrow from your library (just ask your librarian to order it).

How to Write a Novel

The post Writing Tips: Outlining/Plotting Vs Discovery Writing/Pantsing first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • October 3, 2022