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How To Write a Discovery Draft


The discovery draft is the "pantsing" portion of the famous "plotting vs. pantsing" literary debate. Plotting a story gives many writers a solid and defined journey from beginning to end, and while there are endless authors who employ this method when crafting their stories, others prefer the "wing it" approach. Why? Because they feel that over-plotting and over-planning stifles their creativity and confines them to just one storyline.

You might have heard that plotting your story is the best route to take to ensure consistency and a speedy writing process, but if you believe there's a certain rule you must follow in order to write your story, then it's important to remember that rules and guidelines are vastly different within the craft of writing. Plotting isn't superior to "pantsing," just as the discovery draft method won't guarantee you a worldwide bestseller.

Whether you write it backwards, forwards, for ten hours straight or for those fifteen minutes you have spare, know that there's no "one right way" to write a story. Every writer is different in how they approach their craft, but if you find yourself stuck in that infamous analysis paralysis stage, the following tips about the discovery draft method might open a realm of possibilities for your story and its characters.

Don't look back

Reflection on your work in progress is undeniably important, but the discovery draft is not the time for contemplation. Essentially, this is a time for driving forward, blocking all doubts and reservations that threaten to rear their heads as you write. If restraint is a characteristic that you've inherited or honed, it might be okay to read back over the last few pages you've written, taking the barest of notes.

But without that restraint, you'll likely get carried away with excessive tweaks here and alterations there. Failure to fight the urge to edit as you write inevitably means that your discovery draft becomes a first draft, which may halt your progress. While goals are useful (more on that below), perfection isn't the goal here, and expectations for your prose at this stage will slow you down. Your job as a newly minted discovery drafter is to get words on the page – simple as that.

Stay accountable with your goals

It might seem as though structure in the discovery draft process is shunned in favor of the creative process, but goals are a necessity for any author. Without a solid goal in place to finish a story, it will remain in your to-be-finished pile. Structure is key to meeting that goal of finishing a rough draft, polished blueprint, and perfected manuscript.

To gauge your progress, set a daily word-count goal that's in line with your various deadlines and responsibilities. For the NaNoWriMo challenge, writers push themselves to write 1,333 words per day. That might seem like a hefty daily goal, but considering this is a discovery draft objective, your prose doesn't have to be refined. This is the nitty gritty part of writing, so get words on the screen and watch your word count grow as you meet your goals.

Enjoy discovering as you write

You've hammered out the characters, setting, and general storyline, but discovery doesn't really begin until you start writing. Many renowned authors admit to relinquishing control over their works as the discovery stage takes hold and they feel their story knows best, Stephen King being one of them. Famously anti-plot, King believes that plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible.

Rigidity in storytelling can kill the undiscovered path your narrative may be meant to take, instead following an inferior trail amidst a lack of open-mindedness and impartiality. What you initially deem as the best ending might pale in comparison to the ending a discovery draft can provide, the direction your protagonist's character arc can take, etc. So be open to change and possibilities along the way.

Literary time travel

Even if you've devised the briefest of outlines, you still likely have a set story in mind. No matter how determined you are to let your story and characters take over as you begin to draft, you brain might unconsciously follow the path you've created, thereby killing off any undiscovered possibilities. To combat this, write your scenes and chapters out of order to keep your mind and writing sharp.

This is particularly helpful if you're having trouble connecting one chapter to the next, finding yourself caught in a literary no man's land. Instead, follow the outline you've created and try your hand at a later chapter instead of stumbling along blind, over-focused on a problem area. You never know, the insight you can find as you travel through your story's timeline might resolve underlying issues highlighted in a previous chapter.

Find the beauty in chaos

Just as your mind gets to enjoy the freedom of literary creativity without suffering its internal critic, so should your page. Spending time obsessing over line spacing and indentation is time not spent on growing your story and meeting your goals. Your thoughts are messy at this stage of writing, so there's nothing wrong with bringing them to life on a messy, chaotic screen (or page).

Nobody is viewing this with the proverbial pointed pen, waiting to slash red marks across every formatting error or syntactic stumble that appears. Use splashes of color wherever you want, apply some bullet points for fragment sentences that can lead to something evocative in later drafts. It's your page, so type, underline, and highlight with abandon.

Write like the wind

The intricate and emotive scene swirling around your head doesn't always appear that way when you finally get it on the page. And the only thing that can slow the writing process down further is obsessing over exactly why that is sometimes so difficult. To combat this apparently invisible barrier between your brain and the page awaiting your words, you need to write like the wind.

Don't stop to think about the best way to phrase a paragraph or style a sentence. Getting words on the page is your only goal here. Understand what it is you want to say and type before your brain can interrupt with advice on colorful adjectives and strong verbs. You might even unearth a thought-provoking approach you might have otherwise missed.

Take a step back

While there's no hard and fast rule about how long writing a discovery draft should take, it's no surprise that the best results often come after a speedy draft that allows little time for excessive reflection and more time for lowered literary inhibitions. You want to get everything down on the page as fast as you can before you can even begin to question why, so a hurried approach is best.

Once your discovery draft is complete, it's time to step away for a while. How long you do so is up to you, but fresh eyes and a renewed perspective are a must if plan to return in editor mode and out of writing mode. Without this break, you'll find yourself so close to your story that any problem areas present will remain in your blind spot until you can find some distance. When you return, it won't be to adjust grammar and syntax; it will be to scavenge through your draft, saving what you feel belongs in your story and ruthlessly cutting what doesn't.

Putting theory to the test

Blank page syndrome (otherwise known as the dreaded writer's block) is daunting, even for the most seasoned author. While the discovery draft approach encourages less planning and more action, it's often best to have a barebones plan of what you want to include in a particular scene or chapter. This might sound contradictory to everything discussed so far, but direction is an important ally to the free reign of creativity.

Have a small but succinct checklist to refer to as you draft, including the following:

  • The character(s) present in the scene
  • The major scene event that drives the plot forward
  • The overall conflict that provides crucial tension and pushes the narrative
  • The reason this scene both serves and belongs in your story

Resist the urge to expand on this list. A small note here and there can quickly become a full-fledged, detailed outline that could throw you off your discovery draft course.

Action over inaction

The idea of another person reading our pre-polished, discovery-draft prose is the stuff of nightmares for writers. But this draft is for your eyes only. This fear can lead to inaction, which can then lead to time away from your story. While time and distance can be enlightening, they can also be the death knell for your story's progression and your writing goals.

If fear is holding you back, remember that the discovery draft is for you to best gauge the route your story should take, so shake off the fear of judgment and ridicule, just get words on the page, and silence your talkative inner editor.

Header photo by Amelia Bartlett.

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