To think or not to think?

Silly question, I know. But one that people have been debating in response to a post about whether writers should start with a detailed outline or just let the words flow. The author, Larry Brooks, opted for a compromise he called story architecture. One commenter called it Outline Light.

Although I don’t write fiction, I do tell true stories in much of my corporate writing. Unlike mystery novelists, I don’t need to chart the plot twists. But I do not need to decide how to build the narrative and which details to select from the wealth reality presents.

With fact-based writing, I outline too, figuring out how I’m going to present the argument or information, then summarizing it in the first paragraph.

I understand why people enjoy what Larry calls “organic” writing. Nothing beats the charge that zaps the right words from brain to keyboard or the focus that forces out time, space and other distractions.

Some corporate writers get by with little feel for organic writing. But I don’t know any organic writers of merit who do not complement the rush of spontaneity with the discipline of at least partly thinking things through before writing begins and later fixing the inevitable mistakes and misconceptions that inevitably slip into the spontaneous flow.

Of course, writers should avoid the analysis paralysis that comes from outlines that are too controlling and inflexible. But they cannot sacrifice thinking. Whether you place your ideas in a detailed outline or let them swirl around your head, it’s still thinking.

As I pointed out in my post on planning, you need to think before you start to write.

The longer and more complex the subject, the greater the need to think and outline. The less thought at the front end, as in outlining, the more thought you’ll likely have to put into the back end, revising.

So, while I would choose a simpler word than architecture, I agree with Larry’s insistence of some outlining. And I would remind those who prefer the thrill of organic writing that their creativity will improve if they think, as long as they don’t over-think.

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3 Responses

  1. Well said, Barb. With fiction, at least effective fiction,everything that occurs prior to the ending of the story appears (or should appear) in context to that ending. That’s because effective fiction requires stakes, character empathy, conflict and tension, and pacing. Not to mention a strong thematic resonance. And each of those elements links to how the story ends. These are all matters of “thinking,” as you say.

    Organic writers discover these things through the process of encountering the “need” and place for them within the structure of their story. It is one’s ability to sense that need, either during preplanning (for outliners) or drafting, that determines the outcome of the story and its success with readers.

    As you say, it’s good to begin with a target in mind, and leave yourself open to surprise and spontaneous genius along the path. It isn’t an issue of outlining or not, outlining, As you so eloquently say, it’s an issue of “thinking” or not, and in context to the fundamentals of what makes a story work.

  2. Whether we’re writing nonfiction or fiction, we have a lot to learn from each other. Just subscribed to your blogs and look forward to more enlightenment. Love reading thinking, but it’s way harder to write well.

  3. Thanks Barb. I have subscribed here, as well. Looking forward to more sticky. Larry

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