You’re about to start writing your Light Novel (LN). But while poking around various writing advice blogs or books, you came across two strange terms.
Outliner and Discovery Writer.
While the definitions may be obvious to some, the differences between them may be difficult to understand. And determining which is better for your LN is even harder.
So, we’ll cover all three aspects, starting with some definitions.
What is an Outliner in Terms of Writing Light Novels?
An outliner…plotter…prepper(?), whatever you wish to call him, is:
Someone who outlines his LN in advance. Long before he’s started writing, he’s detailed the story from beginning to end, built extensive character sheets/profiles for every character appearing in the story, and done a fair amount of worldbuilding for his setting.
This method is most Authors’ initial impulse when deciding to write a LN. Assuming you at least got through Elementary School, you’ll likely have been taught how to write an essay in this manner:
- Come up with a topic (Concept)
- Learn about it in depth (Research)
- Decide what will be in the Introduction, Thesis, Body, and Conclusion (Outline)
- Write it (First Draft)
And then editing and a final draft. You get the idea.
Novels work in the exact same way. You have to come up with an idea, ‘research’ it by playing around with various ideas, ‘outline’ it by coming up with a story, characters, and setting, and finally write it.
If you had this essay writing method beat into as a child, you will likely feel much safer outlining your LN before writing it. If so, you are an Outliner.
But before we discuss whether or not that’s a good thing, let’s have a look at the other type of Author.
What is a Discovery Writer in Terms of Writing Light Novels?
A discovery writer (DW) is:
Someone who does the bare minimum of preparatory work before writing her novel. Rather than consult an outline before writing a scene, she let’s her creative brain take full control as she ‘discovers’ her story, characters, and world.
To use a negative connotation, it’s ‘making it up as you go’.
But many famous Authors employ this method for the sake of penning more ‘authentic’ stories.
Rather than bind the story to a preordained outline, a DW allows her characters to ‘do whatever they want’. The story unveils itself to the Author as she writes.
She doesn’t know what will happen before sitting down to write. She merely ‘discovers’ it by putting her characters in whatever situation and seeing how they react to it.
If you despise planning and want to jump straight into writing, you are a discovery writer.
However. While these two types of Authors seem to be world’s apart (and they are to some degree), there is a large misunderstanding that needs to be addressed.
Genuine Discovery Writing Does Not Exist
Warning: this is just a rant about semantics.
During my research for this article, I discovered a general consensus that Outliners and DWs were completely different. One is A, the other is Z. Some advocated for a balance of the two, but many Authors declare themselves one or the other and call it a day.
However, there is no difference between the two. At least not in terms of that which is measurable.
I’ll be blunt—people who claim to be pure DWs who don’t do any outlining are liars.
Human beings are incapable of divining knowledge from nothing. You can’t just ‘discover’ your story while writing it. The knowledge has to come from somewhere. It’s buried in your brain whether you’re consciously aware of it or not.
For example, I invite you to sit down and write a story without any prep-work done in advance. You have no story, no characters, and no setting. By the claims of many DWs, you should be able to ‘discover’ your story.
Well? How’d it go? Not so great, huh? I’m sure you had a few ideas, maybe even got a couple sentences down, but wasn’t it an agonizing experience?
It’s no difference than someone entering you in a dance competition when you’ve never seen anyone dance, much less danced yourself.
DWs, whether they admit it or not are also Outliners. You cannot sit down to write your LN without doing some prewriting in advance. Whether you outlined it on paper or in your head, you still outlined.
Your brain is always outlining whether you want it to or not. You can’t just hop in your car and ‘go somewhere’. Your brain subconsciously knows where it’s going, what it wants, and how to get there. Barring things outside of your control, there is no such thing as ‘discovery’ or random chance.
Anyway, that fallacy has always drove me insane, so I just wanted to get it off my chest. In truth, Outliners and DWs are very different, not in terms of what I just said, but in what each writing process produces.
The true difference between the two lies not in whether one outlines or doesn’t (they both do), but in which side of the brain they tap into while writing.
When outlining, you rely on your logical left brain. The story has to make logical sense, the characters have to act a certain way because that’s what’s on their characters sheets, the world functions in this way, and so on.
Conversely, while discovery writing, you rely solely on your creative right brain. You have far fewer notes to fall back on, so you force your brain to dig deep for content.
It’s content you have buried within you (you can’t ‘discover’ something you don’t know), but the logical brain has trouble accessing it. Discovery writing teases that hidden knowledge out and is typically more unique because it wasn’t relying on logic.
Generally speaking, Outlining produces a more logical LN, while Discovery Writing produces a more creative one.
But what are the benefits to one or the other? Which one is better for my LN?
Let’s find out.
12 Key Differences Between Outlining and Discovery Writing
Normally, I would list the pros and cons of each separately. But because the pro of one is usually a con of the other, we’ll just cover each topic one by one in the form of a question. Questions you should ask yourself to determine which process is better for your LN.
1. Is Your Story Free of Plot Holes?
In outlining your story, you know what’s going on, where the characters will be, why they’re there, what the conflict is, and how they’ll resolve it. Unless you decide to alter it later, there is little chance of you writing yourself into a corner.
You already considered all the potential hiccups of your story and circumvented them in advance. The chance of there being major plot holes in your story will be slim.
You might miss a few minor ones like: was this character wearing a jacket in this scene or did I have him take it off earlier?
But major story beats like how the murderer committed the perfect crime, you likely won’t have to patch up later.
However, because everything is already plotted out, there’s little chance for your characters to happen upon any unique solutions to their problems.
While Discovery Writing (DWing), you might know where your characters are and why, but what problems they’ll encounter and how they’ll solve them, you’ve yet to discover. This leads to a lot of cleaning up to do in the editing phase.
It’s difficult to see the ‘big picture’ of your LN without a clear outline. This results in plenty of potential plot holes, both major and minor.
Your characters can discover unique solutions to conflicts, but they might not make any sense. You’ll likely have to rewrite or outright scrap scenes that don’t make sense in your story. And if you want to keep them, you’ll have to do a lot of extra writing to make them all logically fit.
2. How Developed Are Your Characters?
Creating your characters in advance is a must. You can learn how by checking out this article on character creation. But the amount of detail you put in their character sheets can drastically alter how they act in your story.
Outliners could have several pages worth of character details for each character. Notes on the personality, history, relationships to other characters, appearance, fashion sense, and so on. At no point can you ever write ‘enough’ about your characters.
When you start writing, you’ll have no doubts as to how your characters will react to the situations you put them in. Yuuichi insists on a logical approach, Shiori a headfirst, and Chieri a sneaky one.
Sorting out who your characters are in advance will near-guarantee that they’ll be true to their characters throughout your entire LN. They can’t act out of character if you adhere to their character sheets. And they’ll seem all the more rich to readers if you detail their backstories and preferences.
However, if you ever encounter a point in the story where it would be beneficial for them to break character, you’ll have trouble making them. You put so much time into the character sheet, how could you just disregard it?
This can lead to your characters coming off as rigid and possibly boring.
Conversely, having limited character details allows for you to discover who they are while writing your LN.
They can act out of character or take actions you didn’t expect them. Basically, they’ll act like real people who rarely play by their own rules and will act irrationally at random.
This can make your characters feel more ‘real’, but only if you:
A: Are a great writer who is confident he can keep his characters under control.
B: Don’t mind cleaning up a giant mess of characters details and actions that don’t make any sense.
Instead of relying on a character sheet to keep your characters in check, you’ll have to do so while writing. And if you don’t, you might have to rewrite every scene one character or another is in because they broke character way too many times for readers to take seriously.
People act out of character on occasion, but when they do so all the time, they usually get put on mind-altering medications or locked up.
DWing your characters will prevent them from seeming rigid, but they can be left under-developed or not make any sense if you don’t write with caution.
3. How Rich is Your World?
Worldbuilding is where most outliners shine brightest. In terms of logic vs. creativity, your LN’s setting should be deeply rooted in logic. Compared to the story or characters, which are rely more on creativity, a LN’s setting is a logical entity.
In reality, the way the world works is purely logical. How each element came to be sparked from creativity, yes, but the way each operates and functions is based in logic.
Let’s take getting a receptionist job, for example:
- You have to have basic literacy (gained from a school system)
- You’re expected to have completed high school (a rule established to lower the odds of a bad hire)
- You need transportation to get to the job (either through public transportation or a vehicle that you need a title, license, and registration for)
And I could go on, but it’s making me depressed.
The world we live in is rooted in logic. X is X because Y which was permitted by Z.
Your LN’s world should function in the same manner. Let’s take a fantasy world for example:
- Your characters are hungry, so they go to a tavern (how’d they get there? What town is it in?)
- They order dragon steak and mead (Are there dragons nearby? Did the tavern make the mead or did they buy it from a large company?)
You obviously don’t have to answer those questions in your story. Though it wouldn’t hurt. Boring details can actually make your Light Novel much better. And you can learn how by checking out this article.
Anyway, I hope you can see that rich worldbuilding is achieved by asking logical questions about your world. An evocative world is often one that was heavily outlined in advance.
However, you can experience writer’s block if you try to adhere to the details and logic of your world too closely. It’s great to have a rich world, but not if it gets in the way of your story or characters ability to shine.
A world you discover while writing may be interesting, but hard to make logical. Your LN’s world is a delicate machine with a million moving parts. If one doesn’t fit right, the machine stops working.
Some of the most unique worldbuilding is born as a result of DWing, but the question you have to ask is: does it fit with the rest of my world?
DWs will be forced to do a lot of extra editing to make their world make sense. But it may be worth it if it means discovering some interesting concepts your logic brain wouldn’t have easily created.
That said, even if you despise outlining, I still recommend doing more for worldbuilding than you would for the other elements. Your world will be based on logic regardless, so you might as well save yourself some trouble upfront.
4. How Will You Deal with Writer’s Block?
Outliners rarely freeze up during the writing process. She may get stuck on a specific word or a bit of dialogue, but that’s usually it.
She knows exactly what’s going on in the story, who’s involved and how they’ll act, as well as where they are, what it looks like, and how it functions in her setting.
Thus, if she ever gets stuck, she needs merely to consult her expansive outline to know what to write next.
Writer’s block is mostly a nonissue for outliners.
Despite what you might think based on my earlier gripe, I am more-or-less a discovery writer. I do the bare minimum of outlining and let my brain sort out the rest.
However, I must have some sort of outline. Every time I’ve tried to write down without at least a couple sentences telling me where my characters are and what they’re supposed to be doing, I freeze.
No matter what I do or how long I stare at the blinking cursor, nothing comes. Some say to just give in to uncertainty, but I say forget that.
When I freeze, I get angry. And the longer I sit there trying to ‘give in’, the more bloodlust corrupts my mind until I just call it quits for the day having accomplished nothing.
But when I come back the next day and outline even a sentence, I’m able to ‘discover’ another 2K words just fine. That might seem like the easy way out to other DWs, but I have better things to do than be angry all day.
DWs are far more likely to encounter writer’s block on account of not having any outline to fall back on.
5. How Much Freedom Do You Have While Writing?
Every idea you have, whether you are conscious of it or not, is your child. And you naturally want to protect and care for that child.
And when it comes time to write and you realize you can’t include all your children in your novel, you freeze up and don’t write anything at all or outright diminish your LN by forcing your ideas where they might not fit.
This results in a sense of entrapment. You may never freeze up from a lack of material, but you can just as easily freeze from having too much.
One could argue that tons of outlining creates freedom because you can mix and match whatever you need from your giant list, but rarely have I found this to be the case.
Every element of your LN that you outline becomes a rulebook that you feel you must follow even if doing so is detrimental. You spend so much time crafting clever concepts and unique characters that it will feel like a waste to exclude them.
Outliners often find that too much choice results in not making any decisions.
DWs, conversely, are not bound by any such rulebook. Without an extensive outline, they are free to write whatever comes to mind without hesitation. They have total freedom over the writing process. They may freeze up at times, but there are no rules to consider once they thaw.
This freedom can drastically alter the way you write your LN.
Outliners typically do what I call ‘straight-line writing’, in which because they have their story outlined, they just write A, B, C, D, and E in that order. It makes logical sense to fit their logic-oriented writing style.
DWs can also do this, but I’ve encountered many that do ‘patchwork writing’. Rather than write each scene in order, they write whatever comes to mind and stitch it together during the editing process.
This can be an annoying mess to clean up, but is much less stressful for the Author. Outliners can feel like ‘have to’ write a certain scene because it’s the next scene. DWs make full use of their freedom to write in whatever order they like.
6. Do You Want a Logical Story or a Creative One?
A well-outlined story will come off as such. It will feel logically-sound to readers. Which is great, but it can be a double-edged sword.
An outliner rarely relents herself to discovery. Her story can still be full of creative elements and realistic characters, but perhaps they’re not as powerful as those she might’ve discovered through DWing.
Whether a LN will turn out great or not is ultimately dependent on the Author’s ability, but by default, Outliners will have to work a bit harder to have their LN come off as creative.
Too much reliance on an outline often leads to stories that feel ‘too perfect’ to readers. They may be logical, but its rigidness can break a reader’s immersion once they’re forced to remember the story was all orchestrated by an Author.
The opposite is true for DWs. A story created through DWing may be engaging and unique, but may not make any sense.
In giving yourself over to discovery, you put your logical brain to sleep lest it ruin your flow. Any discrepancies can be fixed during editing, yes, but it’s difficult to tie everything into a cohesive whole later than if you’d used an outline from the beginning.
Your story is sure to immerse readers more easily, but the slightest hint of illogicity will quickly pull them out of the story.
7. Do You Enjoy Outlining or Discovering?
An outliner is someone who enjoys looking at his story from a logical standpoint:
- How does each scene fit together to make a whole?
- How would this character act in this situation?
- How does my magic system shape my world?
Any questions you have about your story can be answered by consulting your outline.
This is beneficial for all the reasons mentioned in this list. The question here isn’t so much: which is better, but which matches your personality?
You have more control over your story, but might miss out on the joy of discovering it in the heat of writing. But if you don’t care and giving up control to ‘chance’ sounds anxiety-inducing, you’re probably an Outliner.
An DW is someone who enjoys unearthing their LN. Many have referred to DWing as archaeology. You might waste a lot of time moving dirt, but it’s worth it for the treasures you uncover.
DWs also tend to despise the ideas of rules or being tied to an outline. The sense of freedom brought on by DWing can be intoxicating for some, but just as many hate it because of the anxiety it brings. You have no outline to consult, so you could be stuck digging at the wrong spot.
That said, despite the uncertainty, I myself do find DWing more enjoyable. I’m always amused by what my characters ‘come up with’ or what scenes I ‘discover’ that I hadn’t planned on writing.
So, if you prefer freedom to safety, you’re probably a Discovery Writer.
8. Are You Prone to Overexplaining?
A big mistake fledgling LN Authors make is overexplaining every element of their LN, such as:
- Explaining every nuance of the who, what, where, why, when, and how of your story regardless of its relevancy to the story.
- Detailing every single one of your character’s thoughts.
- Infodumping piles of text about how your city is powered by pixie dust leftover from the great pixie empire a millennium ago.
While anyone is prone to this mistake, Outliners are the worst offenders. You have plenty of notes to consult and spent so much time getting the details right, your readers need to know, want to know, right?
I’m afraid not. Enriching your LN with details can be good, but too much at once leads to abysmal pacing. If you stop the story to elucidate readers on the finer points of Gravity Magic every three seconds, they’ll stop reading—I promise.
Simply put: DWs can’t overexplain because they can barely explain things themselves.
Without an extensive outline, you don’t have anything to consult and will be forced to explain things on the spot. And such explanations are usually quite short due to a lack of knowledge.
You can still screw up and overexplain during the editing phase, but you won’t have as big as a mess to clean up as Outliners might.
9. How Much Do You Know About Your Own Writing Ability?
The logical part of your brain is capable of creating unique, fascinating stories, characters, and worlds and arranging them into an outline. However, because the process of outlining is logical (and therefore surface-level), it’s difficult to tap into true creativity.
Only during the writing phase will you be able to tap into the creative side of your brain that’s capable of shaping your outline into a compelling LN. But because it’s bound by the ‘rules’ of your outline, it’s difficult to dive deep into your brain and draw out your true writing ability.
Your story can still be great, but you’ll be left wondering if it could’ve been better had you not spent so much time planning.
While DWing, you tap into your creative brain and let it take full control. Without an outline, you can easily tease out everything you know about storytelling and put it to paper.
You’ve engaged with so much Otaku Media from anime to LNs to manga. Popular story beats, loveable character archetypes, common settings, and whatever else are stored somewhere in your brain. You’ve got everything you need to write.
You just need an environment to tease all that creativity out and DWing without an extensive outline does exactly that.
Some of my best scenes are those I didn’t outline beyond where my characters would be and what their goal was. What they did when they arrived, I discovered while writing.
And I’ll say it again, those scenes didn’t come out of thin air. Whatever I wrote was something I could’ve outlined. It’s simply that DWing is more likely to draw out scenes you didn’t know you were capable of writing.
In doing so, you discover your true writing ability. Once you’re writing scenes you didn’t think you had in you, DWing can serve as a fantastic confidence booster that will benefit the rest of your LN.
10. How Much Editing Do You Want to Do Later?
While writing, an Outliner will likely be referencing his outline through the entire process. This basically assures he won’t have to do too much big picture editing during the editing process.
You’ll still need to fix all the small stuff like grammar, typos, word choice, and a million other things, but you won’t have to make sweeping changes or trash entire sections of text—assuming you stuck to your outline.
On the opposite end, DWs will be slicing and dicing their first draft into a shadow of its former self.
In the throes of DWing, you can easily get lost and write walls of text that don’t necessarily fit into your LN as a whole. They may be full of brilliant ideas and character interaction, but you might not be able to use them without even more rewriting lest your LN feel like it was poorly stitched together.
You also run the risk of writing yourself into a corner—which leads to even more editing.
Because I lean more toward DWing, both my LNs lost about 5,000 words during the editing process. It felt like a giant waste, but as a DW, you’ve got to learn to let go.
DWing will result in way more editing later in exchange for not outlining upfront.
11. When Will You Actually Start Writing?
An outliner feels safe in his prewriting. He’s getting ready for the real thing. And he’ll get around to it eventually. You know, when he’s ready. His LN means a lot to him, so he doesn’t want to half-bake it. It pays to be prepared.
Perhaps, but many fledging Authors rarely leave the outlining phase. You might prepare your gym bag, head to the gym, and even stretch, but if you never pick up the barbell, what’s the point?
When you outline, that’s all you get out of it—an outline. If you want to write your LN, you’ll eventually have to take your outlines and turn them into actual content. But overcoming that first step into the unknown can be difficult for most Outliners.
However, once you start, it’s hard to stop, you’ve got everything you need to keep going until the end.
DWs thrive in the wild. Why prepare when you can just figure things out when you get there? Hesitation is the enemy and diving headfirst is the only way to defeat it.
So that what DWs do. It’s usually enough to do a little prep work and then start writing. It can be just as harrowing breaching the unknown, but you don’t have any safe-space outlines to run back to, so you have to just keep on trucking.
This results in greater confidence during the writing process, but should you experience writer’s block, you could be stuck for much longer than an Outliner would.
12. How Quickly Do You Want to Finish Your First Draft?
An outliner might spend an eternity preparing to write, but once he starts, churning out a first draft shouldn’t take too long. Every element of his LN has already been planned out, it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks.
This allows Outliners to whiz through what most Authors consider the most agonizing part of creating a LN. Then, he can get on with the nitty-gritty agonizing reality of how much extra work is required to bring his LN to the world.
But at least the hard part is over, right…?
DWs can get started on their first draft quick, but their speed is anything but consistent.
Due to the inevitable writer’s block of DWing, the writing of your first draft will be very stop and go.
Furthermore, if there’s anything you need to research or you need to create a new character while writing, you’ll have to come to a dead stop to accommodate it.
For example, while DWing, my characters ‘decided’ to have a knife fight. So, I had to stop and watch a bunch of knife fighting videos before I felt confident enough to write the scene. Obviously, this breaks flow and can be detrimental in churning out a first draft fast.
You could just save the research for the editing phase, but if I freeze—I stay frozen. And the only way to thaw is by doing some outlining via actual outlining or research.
In terms of the first draft, DWing is fast at first, but can prove to be a slog in the long run.
The Best Light Novel Writing Process is a Balanced One
While it may be difficult to tell which is better after all that, I’m happy to tell you the answer:
Neither and both. The most effective LN Author is one that finds a balance of Outlining and Discovery Writing.
Both obviously have as many pros as they do cons, so it doesn’t make sense to pick one or the other.
How much balance between them, however, is up to you. The real answer to ‘which is better?’ is whichever method works best for you.
You’ll need to experiment with both to find out what that is, but know that you know what to watch out for in both, you can make an informed decision.
I shoot for about 20% Outlining and 80% Discovery Writing. I hate the freeze that comes with DWing, but absolutely despise the rules and hesitation that come with outlining.
So, I do just enough Outlining to make sure I don’t freeze while DWing. That works great for someone like me who loves the freedom writing brings and hates spending more than a few seconds working out the logic behind something. As long as I sort-of understand something, that’s enough for me. Needless to say, I did not major in STEM…
Whether you’re an Outliner or a Discovery Writer, both are perfectly viable options for writing your LN.
The only thing matters in the end is whether you finish it or not. So, get writing!