George R.R. Martin on Outlining Before You Write (or Not)

It is Friday, and so it is time for a quote from a famous writer.

There are people on both sides of the outlining approach to writing. George R.R. Martin describes it this way:

I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail… the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another.

In another interview he clarifies which way he tends toward:

I hate outlines. I have a broad sense of where the story is going; I know the end, I know the end of the principal characters, and I know the major turning points and events from the books, the climaxes for each book, but I don’t necessarily know each twist and turn along the way. That’s something I discover in the course of writing and that’s what makes writing enjoyable. I think if I outlined comprehensively and stuck to the outline the actual writing would be boring.

Ultimately, there is no right way for this. Figure out what works for you. There are great and successful writers from both camps. However, I think Martin hits it on the head, that there is no one way without the other, but merely tendencies toward one or the other.

There are many who might think themselves purists, or fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants writers, or organic writers, or whatever. These writers tend to demonize outlining, and often planning, period. I used to side a lot more with that camp.

Writing this way is fun and exploratory, I suppose. It also churned out a really rambling and crappy first draft. I started developing more plot points that I was writing toward, because I realized things needed more focus, and the writing got better. Lately I have been studying plot and structure and the things that are known to be present in good fiction. The things that make good plot points, and ways to make my writing tighter.

I don’t know if I will ever be an all out outliner. I think I would tend to agree with Martin that to do this entirely would take the fun out of the writing. However, especially as a writer in progress, I think really thinking through and *gasp* planning out those plot points and major events, and maybe even some ways of getting there can be really beneficial. No matter what, you will probably discover many things, regardless of the plan. But good plots have structure.

Don’t just jump in and hope for the best, though. Most great works happen with a lot of planning, a lot of hard work, and, yes, discoveries along the way. But most likely you won’t have one without the other.

Published by s.a.klopfenstein

I write epic fantasy novels, and I sometimes write a few blogs, mostly concerning what I am learning about writing and my own publishing journey.

4 thoughts on “George R.R. Martin on Outlining Before You Write (or Not)

  1. For my first two novels (which I never finished), I was strictly a gardner. I’d just dream up some characters and start writing. I loved the process, but found at some point (usually around 45 words), I had no idea how to make my writing into a novel.

    In my current work, I decided to quickly sketch an outline and then write the whole story as quickly and plainly as possible. This seemed to have done the trick, giving me a workable draft but with plenty of room to add/delete/revise.

    Thanks for the Martin quotes. I really like his thoughts on knowing the landmarks on the road, but being free to discover the route.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I have found the same thing. It gives a more workable draft, and you can spot trouble before you’ve written to that point. I have found it saves on writer’s block too. I would often get to a point where I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen next and get stuck and lose my groove in the writing process.


  2. You’re exactly right that every writer needs to figure out what works for them. I’ve always been a planner. Making an at least somewhat detailed outline gives me a road map so that I always know exactly where I’m headed. Plus, looking at the bare bones of the story helps me see plot inconsistencies, shifting characterization, etc. long before I ever write a single word. However, everyone’s needs are different.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am the same way. I need that big picture. Otherwise my scenes are way too all over the place, and I am not sure where they are going. A road map gives me an opportunity to make sure those points along the way are getting the story where it is supposed to go.


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