When I was writing my first big project, Soldier of Nadu, I was under the impression that an author had to write an extremely detailed outline of not only the chapters of the book, but know everything about everything about the story they were telling. Paragraph after paragraph per chapter, and every major character needed bio sheets (basically questionnaires) five or more pages long.
If you’re anything like me, feeling like you needed to write several pages of what is essentially homework before you could even consider “writing” for real sucks. Any enjoyment I could have gotten from writing was drained away by forcing myself to answer “What is Character X’s favorite childhood memory?” over and over without actually getting down to any fiction.
As I’ve grown more experienced in the craft, however, I’ve learned that outlining is not the most important part of the writing process. In the end, writing is. I learned from Brandon Sanderson that there are two kinds of writers: outline writers and discovery writers. There is a spectrum that many people land in the middle of in regards to how much planning one needs to do before sitting down and actually writing “Chapter One”.
Outline writers are pretty self-explanatory: they are people who do fill out and plan everything about the book before or during the writing stage. They write down a synopsis of everything that’s going to happen in a particular chapter and when they get to it, everything in the outline goes in the chapter exactly as planned.
Discovery writers are the opposite. The more of a discovery writer one is, the less of an outline one uses before writing. A discovery writer may have an idea of where they want the story to go, or they might not. If an idea pops into their head as they are writing, they’ll often follow that idea to see where it leads. They write by intuition, rather than planning.
As I said, this is a spectrum. Very few people are strictly outline writers or strictly discovery writers. Brandon Sanderson considers himself an outline writer, and he writes very detailed story outlines before getting to work on his books. As I’ve gotten more experienced, I’ve started using less and less outlines for my stuff. For the novelettes I’m working on, I don’t plan ahead at all. I have a bunch of ideas and scenes I want to write in my head, and a loose base on how I want to tie them together, but the only ideas that go on paper before I start writing any story are because I want to make sure I remember things, not because I’m planning the story.
In fact, I very rarely have an ending planned to any short story I ever write. If I’m using a writing prompt, I don’t know where I’m going until I’m there. The only time I know which direction I want to take the story are in the instances in which I have a good idea for an ending, in which case I work backwards.
The biggest problem with all this is that it simply takes practice and experience. It’s difficult to say where somebody is on the spectrum if they haven’t written enough to figure out where they are. The best advice I can give is to use trial and error: for any big project, use various sizes of outlines, and see which one works best for you. You can’t “train yourself” to be a discovery writer or an outline writer, because that’s just not how it works.
But let me tell you, once you have enough experience to know where you’re at on the spectrum, writing gets so much easier.