Two or Three Kinds of Discovery Writing?!

I’m doing a PhD on Discovery Writing.  I’m noticing that ‘discovery writing’ tends to mean two or three different things.  On US fiction writing blogs, it tends to mean ‘pantsing’, which is to fly by the seat of your pants, or make it up as you go along.  Closely related to this is a more academic and cognitive sense of ‘writing as knowledge constitution’. The question, here, is that if writers are making stuff up as they go, as opposed to planning first, what ‘ideas’ and knowledge are being generated by writing, and is pantsing ‘better’ than planning?  Thirdly, discovery writing can also be taken to refer to writing something and only later making a realisation, or ‘discovery’ – having a retrospective ‘ah’ moment. The emphasis here seems to be about a moment slightly after writing; an almost instant recognition, or a reflection due to a later rereading.

I’m sketching out these different conceptions here so that I can get a handle on to what extent they’re different, and it what ways they overlap.

1. Pantsing

When US fiction writers use the phrase discovery writing, they tend to mean pantsing.  To be a pantser is to fly by the seat of your pants. The idea is that pantsers tend not to plan very heavily. They tend to have a rough idea and then run with it.  They have very little plan or sense of what they want to do, and they kind of make it up as they go along.  Pantsing is a very popular sense of what discovery writing is, beloved of writing blogs and ‘what kind of writer are you?’ articles.  Google “discovery writing”, and most of the sites will be about pantsing in one form or another, and will pit pantsing against planning, as opposite poles of a spectrum.  Here’s a typical example.  Here’s a more subtle one, with lots of links!

2. Writing as Knowledge Constituting

Closely allied to pantsing is a notion of ‘writing as knowledge constituting’ – the title of a cognitive psychology book chapter by David Galbraith.  Galbraith et al tried to compare planning and discovery approaches/strategies to writing in terms of the ‘ideas’ writers created during planning and writing.  He split some psychology students in two groups, one group representing ‘high self monitors’ (people who like to check constraints and overall aims)and the other group being ‘low self monitors’ (those free spirits who ‘express it as they feel it’).  The idea being that these were two personality types, and that the high monitors would be suited to planning, and the low self monitors suited to discovering.  Each student then wrote one essay in a planning manner (i.e. jotting down some ‘ideas’ and then writing) and a discovery manner (i.e. pantsing from an essay question).

I’m reading Galbraith’s work as I write this, and it looks like he made quite varied checks on their writing, but it’s not very clear from the book chapter what they are.  They seem to be:

  • Counting students ideas before writing (i.e. at planning)
  • Counting the ideas in the resultant essays (i.e. in both conditions)
  • Having the essays graded
  • Asking students whether they thought their ideas were ‘new’ ideas to them (i.e. were they learning?)

His overall findings were that writers were generating new ideas while writing, and that planners showed a tendency to stick with what they already knew:

One – rhetorical planning – did involve evaluating and modifying ideas to satisfy rhetorical goals, as claimed by problem-solving models, but was not associated with developments of the writer’s understanding. Instead, it involved the reorganisation of existing ideas. The other – which I called dispositional spelling out – involved spontaneously articulating thought, as it emerged during text production, and was associated with the development of the writer’s personal understanding of the topic.

3. Discovery as a Post Writing Reflection – an ‘ah’ moment.

A quote that has come to characterise discovery writing is the so called Forster quote:

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Here, there is a sense that a realisation of meaning (‘I know’) comes after speaking or writing (‘until I see what I say’).  It is a process of recognition. Literally a re-cognition, of writing something, and then seeing that there is something about it which is a discovery.  It might be a discovery ‘ah’ moment of ‘ah, that’s good’, or it might confirm your thinking for you in terms of ‘ah, that’s what I was thinking’.

Of course, this reflection might indicate that the writing process, in Galbraith’s terms, has helped to generate the idea. The reflection, in that sense, might simply be confirming that the writing has helped to get an idea out.  But it might also be that the reflection itself is the means by which the writing is seen in a new light.  That is, it might be that the writing process had been working through something that was not understood at the time, or was understood in a different way. And then reading it back over, or having said it, you then think ‘ah’.  You didn’t realise it was good until you’d said it, or having said it, it suddenly seems significant in a different way.


I’ll get back to this………..


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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