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How to Write a Novel without an Outline – Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith review

Feeling of reading, Dean Wesley Smith quoteI’m a pantser, the type of writer who loves to go off unprepared and discover the story as I write it. Every single work on the technical side of writing I’ve read up to this point has, more or less explicitly, spoken of outlines. Made me feel like an idiot for not being able to use one.

Along comes “Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel without an Outline” and it’s all about pantsing, or writing into the dark as Dean Wesley Smith calls it. Reading it was like being six years old and finding the secret hiding place of the cookie jar.


Writing into the Dark is all about discovery writing. Dean Wesley Smith is a discovery writer and has 150 published novels to his name, including in high profile franchises like Star Trek, Aliens and the X-Men. Yeah, the man’s got a couple of dozen Star Trek novels under his belt and he’s one of the most prolific active writers today.

Let’s just say that he knows what he’s talking about. And what he says is that he’s writing it all into the dark. Without an outline. Discovery writing. Holly wordcounts, Batman!

Now that’s inspiration for a discovery writer like myself.

Writing into the Dark is a short book. On one hand there isn’t much to say when what you’re saying is “don’t spend up front work on outlining”. On the other there’s quite a lot to do. Smith doesn’t say that writing without an outline is easier. On the contrary, he reiterates the point that you’ll write more than you use, cutting away sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters.

Dean Wesley Smith also speaks of being a one draft writer, meaning that once his story is finished (“The story is finished when you bog down because your creative mind realizes that you’ve written past your perfect ending line.”) he doesn’t go back and revise it. On the other hand he constantly “Cycles”, that is jumps back a few hundred words, re-reads, fixes problems and surges on with new momentum.

Momentum is a key point in Writing into the Dark.

When you have no idea where you are going with a story, momentum is often the key to it all.
– Dean Wesley Smith

Meaning that when you’re stuck in the middle of the story you need to give your creative self room. Back up a bit, re-read what you’ve written and, once you come to the end, you write one more sentence. And then one more. That’s another of Smith’s points: keep writing. Ignore your critical self and get your creative self moving.

Critical voice, Dean Wesley Smith quoteThat’s great motivation, and great technique, for a self proclaimed pantser like myself. But most of all Writing into the Dark comes back to the single most important point for pantsers: it’s a lot more fun to write when you’re discovering the story as you type it. If you’re the type of writer that, like me, gets bored by seeing an outline and can’t write it (to me it feels like all the motivation gets sucked out of the story once I know it; it’s like having to immediately re-read a book that you’ve just finished) then the validation that you’ll get from Writing into the Dark will be great.

Key points

  • Never let your critical voice intrude on your creativity, it will kill your ability to write.
  • Don’t save edits for later, that gives the critical voice an opening. If you figure out something that needs to be foreshadowed, go back and foreshadow it right away.
  • When you’re stuck, go back a few hundred words and re-read or rework that. Then keep writing.
  • If all else fails, take a break.
  • Dare to write out of order. Add in ideas when they occur to you. You don’t need to write in a lineal [sic.] fashion.
  • Create an outline after you finish each chapter so that you can spot patterns in your writing or go back and find specific occurrences in your plot.

And if that doesn’t catch your fancy, Smith also writes that no writer writes exactly like another. Find what works for you, but do try to write into the dark. It’s a lot more fun that way.

Who’s it for?

  • Pansters, obviously. Any discovery writer is likely to get a ton of validation and helpful tips from Writing into the Dark.
  • Beginners that get stuck in their writing – it may be that you need to try one of Smith’s techniques to break through your blocks.
  • Experienced writers who might benefit from writing a lot faster if they didn’t use an outline. Or just want to try something different for a change to hone their craft.

All in all, Writing into the Dark is a relatively short book, and an easy one to read, so I’d recommend it for any writer even if you disagree about the need for an outline. Especially if you disagree about the need for an outline. Check out Dean Wesley Smith’s arguments and maybe you’ll be inclined to try to write into the dark. If nothing else you might discover that you really aren’t a pantser. Or maybe you’ll discover that you’ve secretly been one all along.


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  • SI’ll I’ll check it out. I just got the bundle you recommended earlier.
    I am kind of a pantser, although I do like to think about the story a lot before writing. Something that has helped me is Michael Moorcock’s thoughts on how to write a novel in 3 days. Lists, lists, lists!

  • Interesting find.
    I’ve been looking into any books that talk about the “techniques” of writing and almost all of them just are about outlining.
    Closest thing I’ve come to a book about discovery writing has been Stephen King’s On Writing.
    Will be checking this out next time I go book buying on Amazon.

    • Filip Wiltgren

      Do it, Dean’s book is by far the best one on pantsing I’ve yet read. Also, I’d recommend reading Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal posts (they’re about structure but he puts it in such a way that you can easily pants your way through it).

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