Discovery Writing.

A girl writing in a notebook by a river with a bridge in the background.

Pantsing, gardening, writing into the dark: whatever you call it, you’re writing without much of an up front plan. I’ve worked with a lot of writers over the years, and for some people this is terrifying. For others it’s the only way they can write. What’s surprising is the way it’s looked down on by a majority of writers I talk to, even ones who use the technique.

When it comes to writing technique, the sooner you learn not you not take anyone’s advice about how you should be writing, the better. Instead experiment and stick with whatever keeps you pumping out words. Here’s the thing, this might change from piece to piece. For example, when I’m writing mystery I tend to plan the crime up front. When I’m writing anything else I go without an upfront plan.

How to Tell If You Should Try Discovery Writing

Here are some things I’ve seen that indiciate that someone is a discovery writer.

  • Get stuck outlining and fiddling with characters endlessly
  • Dread writing when working from an outline
  • Bored when the ending is worked out

One thing to note is that sometimes this changes from project to project. When I’m writing a mystery I map out the entire crime first. I also write up some motivations for the antagonist. Then I put the protagonist in the blast radius of the crime and let him discover things on his own. When I’m writing fantasy or creative nonfiction, all bets are off and I’m discovering the story as I go.

You Gotta Know Stories

Some people insist that you study formulas like the Hero’s Journey or the more modern Story Circle. Others lean on screenwriting, beats, or even the Story Graph. If you haven’t read much in recent years, that might be sound advice. Don’t obsess over it, pick one and get to know it. If you read a lot, there’s a good chance you know novel structures well enough that you don’t need to spend much time going over formulas. You’ve absorbed them through years of reading tens or hundreds of thousands of pages.

Map Your Way Through Your Discoveries

You absolutely should not just wing it (unless you REALLY like rewriting). That’s lazy. A lot of writers I know who are successful doing this kind of writing outline as they go. When they finish a scene they jot down what they have. Same thing with characters. When important character traits or notes come up, they file them away for reference. When stuck they go through this outline and look for problems. I know exactly one person who doesn’t outline because he has a freakish ability to keep the whole thing straight in his head. That’s rare and I don’t recommend believing your’re the exception to that rule.

But How Is It Done?

There are a lot of thoughts and approaches. I’ll leave you with a few options that I have personally used and can recommend.

Writing Into the Dark

Dean Wesley Smith is a proflific writer that cut his teeth on media tie-in novels for Star Trek, Spiderman, Final Fantasy, and more. He’s outlined his detailed method for writing a novel without an upfront plan in a ‘single’ draft. What that really means is that he edits like Dean Koontz, page by page as he goes. He calls this method Writing Into the Dark

Lee Child’s Maestro Course

This one is a little more expensive, but Lee Child is an incredibly insightful author who has clearly spent a lot of time considering the craft of writing over his career. He discusses the importance of learning story, drawing from myth, and reading a hell of a lot of books in his BBC Maestro Course.

Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s insightful and neurotic take on writing and life is on a lot of ‘must-read’ lists for authors. Her advice is probably the most typical kind of discovery writing you read about. Write a bad first draft, then keep revising and rewriting until the kinks are mostly worked out. Even if you don’t like her writing advice the book is well worth the read as a memoir.


The moral of the story here is that it’s ok to write this way, despite what a lot of people selling writing methods want you to think. There isn’t a universally right way to do this stuff. There is only a right way for you right now. If you haven’t tried just cutting loose, and you’re wrestling a story to life, give it a shot. Want proof it can be done? Here are some authors who write this way spanning crime, fantasy, sci-fi horror, and literary fiction.

  1. Lee Child
  2. Neil Gaiman
  3. Ray Bradbury
  4. Stephen King
  5. Anne Lamott

Do what works. Keep writing.