Plunge v Plan: The Outline Debate Continues

I read a fantastic article by writing coach Don Fry about the debate between outlining first or plunging right in. As he puts it, “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.”


I once wrote a screenplay using Blake Snyder's Save the Cat's beloved beat guidelines (highly recommend). I used index cards on a bulletin board, having seen many writers use cards or post-its on their walls to help organize story/plot. But I learned after a month, that this did not work for me.


First, I had them in order on the floor. Then I had to reorder them. I meant for the cards to stay in little piles until I pinned them up. But I made mistakes in ink. I wrote too much on one card, too little on another. My piles became confusing. I ended up with messy cards; moving and re-pinning them was annoying (for my brain). I wound up hiding the entire board in the closet. I couldn’t work with it staring at me.


I assumed I couldn’t outline.. Turns out, I am not outline adverse - I just needed a method that worked for me. Index cards don’t work for me. Things that move around physically, confuse my brain when it’s trying to feel through a story idea. I wasn’t using my strength which is to have a loose structure, have it right beside me on the desk, and let the ideas fly. Then rework the outline later.


Don Fry wrote, “few writers are one or the other: pure planners or plungers.”

If there is mixture, what is your mix? I have learned I am a plunger and a planner, when it comes to fiction. With non-fiction essays, I am plunger all the way. Unless research is needed. Then I am a planner. I like to plan loosely with an outline, so long as it’s in pencil on unlined, printer paper. This meets my brain's needs.

“You don’t have to outline, but you don’t have to rebel against outlining, either,” he adds.

It helps to know our strengths and weaknesses, so that we have one less detail to think about at the desk. Know thy writer-self. Then we're one step closer to tapping into that brilliant creative brain of ours before we've even opened our laptops.