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To Plan or To Plunge? A New Way of Looking at the Outlining Debate

Categories: Craft & Technique, There Are No Rules Blog by the Editors of Writer's Digest, WD Magazine, What's New Tags: Don Fry, jessica strawser.

Writing Your Way Get Personal With Your WritingFew questions inherent to the writing process spark as much passionate back and forth among writers as this: To outline, or not to outline? In my years as editor of Writer’s Digest magazine, I’ve had a front-row seat as equally brilliant writers on opposite sides of the field have gone head to head (perhaps most memorably in the joint WD Interview I conducted with legendary thriller authors David Morrell, who likes to let his stories lead him, and Ken Follett, who writes the most detailed outlines I’ve ever heard of).

So when we published Steven James’ thoughtful piece about how to leave outlining behind and instead develop an organic writing process in the March/April 2013 Writer’s Digest, as part of our “Get Personal With Your Writing” feature package (brand new to a newsstand near you, and available for instant download now), I had a feeling we’d get a lot of interesting feedback both in agreement and opposition. But I was surprised and pleased when another kind of response entirely arrived in my inbox from writing coach and Writing Your Way author Don Fry. “I’ve written a reply to Steven James’s fine article, ‘Go Organic,’ ” his email began. That “reply” turned out to be in the form of a full article of his own—one he has graciously agreed to contribute as a guest post here.

After you’ve read Fry’s post, I’d love to hear what you think. If you’ve read James’ article, will you be giving his organic method a try? Do you find fresh perspective in Fry’s ideas here? Leave a comment below, and let’s keep the discussion going!

How to Write Better, Faster & Easier by Matching Your Writing Process With the Way You Think

by Don Fry

The debate about outlining continues, mostly because writing gurus and teachers and handbooks keep demanding outlines. Steven James opens a new phase of this discussion with his article, “Go Organic. Are outlines and formulas polluting your writing? Cultivate more satisfying stories by mastering these 6 secrets of writing organically,” in the March/April 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest (pages 36-39).

“Outlining is still taught as if it’s ‘the right way’ to shape a story,” he says, “and if you don’t follow those formulas you’ll be labeled an SOPer (that is, a ‘seat-of-the-pantser,’ or sometimes just a ‘pantser’).” He regards outlines as straightjackets on writers’ creative thinking and flow, making them rigidly follow a plan rather than “a more personalized, organic writing process.” He invites writers to join his “rebellion … to throw away your outline and uncover a story word by word.”

As a writing coach, I find that outlines help some writers and hurt others. You write best and easiest using techniques that suit the way you think and act. You need a writing process that works for you, not for other people’s gurus.

The key is matching your writing techniques to your personality, your real self.

PLANNERS VS PLUNGERS

In their real lives, people come in two flavors: PLANNERS and PLUNGERS. Planners decide what to do, and then they do it. Plungers do things, and figure it out later.

Think about a buffet lunch. Planners walk around the whole spread, surveying all the food, deciding what they want, and then pick up a plate. Plungers fill their plate with whatever looks good. Planners plan their meal; plungers pick up food, making decisions as they go along. Planners come back for seconds; plungers overfill their plates on one run-through.

Think about navigation. How will I drive from here to there with my wife, Joan? As a planner, I figure out my route by studying my map. If Joan, a plunger, drives, she’ll aim in the general direction and adjust as she gets closer. We both arrive at the same place at the same time, but each of us thought it out in our own way.

How will we drive to the same place the second time? If I have the wheel, I’ll study my map again and go the same way I went before. Planners are rigid. But Joan will start off in a different direction and correct until she gets there. Plungers like variety. Again, we both arrive at the same place and time.

In their writing lives, planners create a plan and follow it. Plungers start typing to discover what they want to say.

In the simplest form, planners jot down some sort of outline. Or they may spend months developing their plot and subplots and character sketches. Plungers just start typing to find out what they think. Planners organize so they can start drafting. Plungers organize by drafting.

Are you a planner or a plunger? You might think you already know, but there’s more to think about.

As a devoted planner in my life and writing, I always create a plan before I type anything, but it’s not the traditional multi-layered outline we all hated in school:

I. Planners versus Plungers
A. Planners decide what to do and do it.
1. Planners make lists of things to do.
2. Planners consult maps before driving.
B. Plungers do things to decide what to do.
II. Writers act like Planners and Plungers
A. Planners write plans and follow them.
B. Plungers type to figure out what to say.
III. Dark side of Planners and Plungers.
A. Planners are rigid, following bad plans.
B. Plungers write long in time and space.
Etc.

What’s wrong with that tool? Nothing, if you use it to analyze a piece of existing writing, but it’s a hard way to organize something, unless you think that way. My high-school mentor demanded outlines down to the sentence level before we could write one word. It took me decades of struggle to escape her influence. The word “outline” offends me so much that I call my writing preparations “plans.”

I mostly write articles and columns, with a beginning, not many sections, and an ending. I jot down a simple plan of labels for the parts and their order. Here’s my plan for the piece you’re reading:

OUTLINING DEBATE
PLANNERS & PLUNGERS
SCHOOL
DARK SIDES
ENDING: DO WHAT WORKS

Then I follow my plan, not necessarily in order. I always write the beginning last.

Plungers would write that column in an entirely different way.  They would type a lot of sentences, paragraphs, sections, just stuff, not necessarily related or in any order. Then they would collect bits and pieces into sections that make sense by moving them around, and later write transitions between the parts. Some write the beginning first, some later, some last.

Plungers type to see what they have and to figure out what they want to say. As they type, they begin to glimpse emerging patterns and meaning. Once they have the whole thing down, they rearrange it until it makes sense.

Planners and plungers can write at the same quality and speed if they use techniques appropriate to the ways they think and act. You can’t distinguish planners from plungers by what they write. You have to interview them about how they think and about their writing processes.

Plungers grow up with a problem: Planners rule the world of writing instruction and production. Most writing teachers and gurus are planners. All editors are planners. In my experience, about two-thirds of writers are planners. So how do plungers survive in a world dominated by planners? Simple, they pretend to be planners to get along with the ruling class: schoolteachers, writing instructors, gurus, agents, editors.

Steven James began his article:

“I have a confession to make. When I was in school and a teacher would assign us to write an outline for a story, I’d finish the story first, then go back and write the outline so I’d have something to turn in. Even as a teenager I thought outlining was counterintuitive to the writing process.”

Every writing coach hears that story over and over again. When I retell it in workshops, a third of my audience tries to suppress their smile of recognition. They all used the same tactic: creating a “back outline” to please the teacher. Notice that James calls it a “confession.” Plungers feel guilty for not being planners.

By now, about a third of you reading this have figured out that you’re plungers. Good. It’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with you. And there’s nothing wrong with your planner colleagues either; they’re just don’t think and write the way you do.

THE DARK SIDES

Planners and plungers have different dark sides. Planners can be literal-minded about their plan; they’ll stick with a bad one even as they realize it’s failing. You’ll notice that the plan I showed you above for this article does not match what you’re reading. I had to rejigger it after some struggling.

Plungers type a lot of stuff to figure out what they want to say, which makes them slow, because they write long and then have to cut parts they don’t use.

A good “debriefing,” talking to somebody smart just before typing, helps both planners and plungers. The debriefer listens to what the writer has in mind. If the debriefer doesn’t understand the plan, neither does the planner. So the planner rethinks the plan before typing. The debriefer listens to a plunger for things that have nothing to do with the piece, so they don’t get typed at all. A two-minute debriefing saves time and agony.

Plungers can save time by drafting without revising. Otherwise they later cut things they’ve revised. Plungers can speed up using this sequence: type, cut, rearrange, revise.

THE PLANNER/PLUNGER

Actually, few writers are one or the other: pure planners or plungers. I’m a devoted planner in life, but I plan nonfiction and plunge fiction. I outline articles, but start novels without a plot. Some writers plan long and plunge short, and vice versa. Newspaper writers tend to plan the top, and plunge the rest. You should do whatever works for you, but plan or plunge based on your strengths, not somebody else’s habits or prejudices.

For people who plan their lives, planner methods tend to produce better and easier writing. People who plunge through life usually feel more comfortable plunging their writing.

So you don’t have to outline, but you don’t have to rebel against outlining, either. You need to know who you are, and what works best for you.

Don Fry is a columnist, novelist, and writing coach in Charlottesville, Va., and author of Writing Your Way, Creating a Writing Process That Works for You. Visit him online at www.donfry.wordpress.com.

Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer’s Digest Magazine
@jessicastrawser

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8 Responses to To Plan or To Plunge? A New Way of Looking at the Outlining Debate

  1. sam111 says:

    Nice Blog.
    This is interesting and good topic.
    Thank you for sharing.
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  2. LindaAdamsVA says:

    I can’t outline, and Don’s book plus Steven’s article made me sit up and go “Wow!” One of the most frustrating things for me has been that nearly piece of writing advice is shaped in some way by outlining. I can’t outline — it’s not me stomping my foot and saying, “I’m not outlining and you can’t make me!”; it’s a process that might as well be in French, and I don’t speak French. So techniques that assume outlines have been useless to me. I wish there was more of this out there!

  3. jevon says:

    I’m definitely a planner. But like you said, I only plan at the start of my novel. I make several detours along the way when necessary, but get right back on track when I done.

  4. atwhatcost says:

    I agree, but I suspect my 10/80/10 Theory might help in this discussion too. I believe any group of people comprise of 10% who believe one extreme, 10% that believe the other extreme, and the rest are the 80% who are somewhere in between the two extremes.

    I wanted to be a plunger, but it didn’t work for me. I’m now somewhere closer to planner, but I’m closer to the middle than the extreme. I jam a doc with a bunch of notes to remember along the way in no particular order. Whether an article or a novel, the rest is planned all in my head, which means it gets off on tangents and has to be renegotiated later, much like a plunger. 80%er, not a pure planner or plunger. ;)

  5. fbxwriter says:

    A good addition to the debate, though I would have appreciated the last part to come much higher up. I’m generally a planner, but I plunge, too. Usually, I mix the two.

    And I have to point out that when Don Fry and others describe people as plungers, I can’t help but think of the Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians from Slaughterhouse-Five. Maybe that’s why I consider myself a planner!

  6. suz4505 says:

    Great! Wonderful article. I am a plunger – most definitely. I have always put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – and let the words lead me. I am happy to find that it’s not the wrong way to do it.
    Thanks

  7. JulieW1950 says:

    I read this book and it really fills the bill for non-fiction article writing. It is not at all helpful for fiction.

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