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Why Plot When You Can Discovery Draft?

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

There’s only one right way to start writing a book, right? Wrong.

People like to tell you that. They like easy answers and one size-fits-all solutions, but that's not how humans work. We all contain multitudes and some of those multitudes fucking hate plotting.

So what's discovery drafting?

Not to be confused with pantsing, a discovery drafter will work without a detailed outline, using whatever plot points that already exist to guide them from a to c to f to z. They often know their key moments in the story, but not how they're going to get there. Each discovery drafter works differently, but they're not working with a complete roadmap.

Seems pretty wild, right? But I've got a few suggestions.

1) Don't work without an outline

I know what I just said, hear me out.

It's up to you how much of an outline is appropriate. You might decide you only need the topics of your major plot points, or you'd like to have a list of each chapter and what goes in it. You might also only use discovery drafting when you get stuck outlining. It's a flexible tool that you can use however you like.

However, it can also be your worst enemy. When I started writing The Goddess of Nothing At All in it's first draft, I did it for fun. I didn't plot anything. (Thankfully that draft looks nothing like the draft I sent to my editor.) This was a huge mistake. I was so excited about writing that I didn't create any structure for myself. When it came time to work on Book 2, I tried to outline every detail. This was a torturous act, and achieved very little. So now I discovery draft, a perfect medium of both techniques.

2) Pay attention to how you feel

Writer's block is this amorphous thing we talk about when the writing isn't working, but there tends to be a reason for it. If you're outlining and you know something is wrong, experiment with your style. Write a chapter as if you have all the confidence in the world, even without all the plot points present. Did that feel natural? Was it fun for you to watch your world unveil itself in front of you? Depending on your answer, you can move your attempts incrementally towards or away from discovery drafting.

3) Write with confidence

Discovery drafting is like working on draft 0.5. You're not creating anything that can't be changed later. This isn't time to be concerned with pacing or structure or how bad you are at description. You're trying to draw a map of your story with more world than a plotter, that's all.

Part of writing with confidence is to keep going when you understand that something isn't working the way you'd hoped. While you're trying to get your characters from Town A to Town B by horseback, you might discover that they'd be better off taking a ferry. That changes some things, yes, but it doesn't change Town A or B. You may need different conversations, leaving and entering points, and perhaps different travel montages, but that's something you can deal with later. Discovery Drafting is just as much about learning what doesn't work as what does. Leave yourself a note about it in the margins and move on.

4) Nothing is wasteful

Some people find discovery drafting to be a stark waste of time, but it just isn't true. When I was trying to fully outline my sequel without discovery drafting, I killed a couple months just trying to get every detail correct. I'd stare at the Doc like an idiot because I couldn't see my story. Yes, I had some stuff on there, but at a certain point, I just got stuck.

Being stuck because of a method you feel obligated to use is a waste of time.

For some writers, this isn't a problem and it would be a terrible use of their resources to use discovery drafting, because they're very good a plotting and outlining and their brain can do magic that mine can't. And if you also struggle with this, you're better off taking the route that lets you reliably create instead of the one that has you pulling your hair out.

And finally

5) Don't let anyone tell you what the RiGhT way to write is

There is no perfect method, just the perfect for you method.

The internet thrives on black and white, right and wrong. People want to give you advice like this because it's easy and we humans love an easy answer. But the same as there's a hundred thousand ways to bake a cake, there's also a bunch of ways to bake a story. Advice like "You Must Be A Plotter To Achieve Success" doesn't take into account neurodiversity, learning and working methods, living situations, or all the other things that might factor into how you personally do your best work.

And before you go.

What's the best way to make sure your path is working for your story? Have someone else read it. Beta readers, critique partners, etc. If your lack of plotting is leading to story structure issues, that's something you'll hear from them. In cases like that, it's time to up your plottings, turn down the discovering, and find a healthy middle.

Happy writing!


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