Outlined Writing vs. Free Writing

Writing is a very interesting art form. Like any art, there are any number of ways to complete it, longhand r typing, improvised or planned, as fiction or non-fiction and so forth. The biggest distinction I make when it comes to writing is whether it is outlined or done freely.

An outline is a writing tool, similar to a bullet point, where you map out your story and/or points from beginning to end, so you know precisely what goes where in your work before you even begin. This streamlines the writing process in many ways in that it becomes a journey of getting from point A, to B, to C and so forth.It is a tried and true method that helps keep your thoughts organized during the creative process.

Free writing is a different thing altogether. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Sitting down and just letting it all go without any organization or restraint. There are many great things about free writing, better improvisation, it helps with brainstorming, and generally is more energetic for the artist than outlined writing.

So, which process is better?

I’m not going to lie, but like so many things there is no clear black and white answer Different styles work better for different writers. Rowling for example had each of the Harry Potter books carefully planned by the time the first book hit the presses. Each plot point was carefully set up and foreshadowed in advance. Sometimes though, this planning comes at the expense of spontaneity, and the process of writing may suffer.

An outline can be a terrific road map for someone who is nervous about filling in that blank page, so that is personally the method I prefer. When the points are out before you, it allows you to keep things better organized in your head. When that happens, you can do a good deal of writing without ever stroking the keyboard.

Writing is mostly thinking, because there can be no words without a clear cohesive thought. I’m a very visual thinking person, and the organization of the outline makes it much easier to remember. With that tool, you can contemplate and elaborate on each point one at a time. By the time you do sit down, you’re overflowing with ideas that you can’t wait to put into words.

In spite of my love for the outline, there is a risk. Sometimes it prevents you from thinking outside of the box. My outlines are very specific, so when it comes time to sit down and actually write, I sometimes forget that venturing beyond them is also an option. In simpler terms, it can unintentionally put you in a box. In your outline you may have your hero rush into a burning building to save someone, so you may forget to consider what may happen if they don’t.

Free writing doesn’t have that unintentional effect. You just sit down and let it all go. I’ve taken part in free writing, mainly as an exercise, and it is surprising just how quickly the ideas and inspiration come sometimes. The spontaneity is quite refreshing after the sometimes dry  process of outlining. It’s also a very exciting process since you don’t know just what is coming next half the time. Writing free of an outline frees both you and your characters, and allows them to wow you in a variety of interesting ways.

The casualty of this spontaneity is organization. Good stories are, for the most part, very well structured. You look at classics from the Shakespeare plays to the Indiana Jones movies, and all of them have that certain organic flow that makes them work as cohesive narratives. Work like that requires a lot of careful planning, writing and re-writing, and time off to let your work fester.

There is no black and white answer as to which one is better overall. Perhaps it depends on what mood you’re in. Some days the planning may be the most effective way to get your creative juices flowing, while other days it may be best to just do a jiggy on the keyboard without any planning or foresight. Maybe outlining is a good place to get started and free writing is a good way to finish, or maybe it’s best to free write a first draft and structure it into a cohesive narrative later on.

I read so many articles saying one way is right and the other is wrong, but take my advice as someone who has done both. Ignore those. Nothing in the world is black and white, and this is especially true for art.

I’m personally more of an outliner because the stories I make are complex with a lot of layers and plot points that need to be sorted out, but I also enjoy the freedom that free writing has to offer. Find the one that works best for you, and should the day come that you find yourself stuck, consider trying the other way, if only to get yourself started.

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5 thoughts on “Outlined Writing vs. Free Writing

  1. I’ve done both in some way when writing the story on my blog.

    Originally, I used prompts from a site on Tumblr to form most of Arc 1, and part of Arc 2. After that, I pretty much did away with that and went with however I wanted to write.

    Personally, I already know how Chronicles is going to end. It’s all a matter of, “How do I get there?” now.

    I guess I do free writing, with a sort of outline to keep it from derailing like a wayward train. (if that makes any sense).

    I know what is all going to happen. Question is, when exactly in the story should it happen?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have the same feeling with my series. I know how each individual book ends as well as the final entry. It’s all about bridging the gap. Most people say the ending is the most difficult part of a story, but for me it has always been the middle.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s definitely something to think about.

        It’s like making a sandwich. You have two slices of bread (the beginning and end), but what kind of fillings do you want, and in what order do you want them (the middle, and the events consisting of the middle)?

        Liked by 1 person

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