Don't Knock Outlines 'til You've Tried Them

— March 11, 2011 (23 comments)
I freaking LOVE outlining. I know a lot of writers like to wing it, and there's nothing wrong with that, but don't knock outlining until you've tried it. That's all I'm saying.

Everything you love about winging it is what I love about outlining. It has the mystery, the discovery, the excitement of uncovering a new story, getting to know new characters. I love the random scenes that pop into my head like a movie trailer. I love sketching those scenes out, then figuring out the plot points that connect it to the other ones.

Outlines are fast. It takes me months to finish a first draft--usually over a year. But I can sketch out a world and an outline in less than a month.

Outlines give me faith the idea is sound. The plot may change during the draft, but at least I know it won't crap out halfway through. You can't paint yourself in a corner if you start with a plan (well, you can, but it's a lot harder).

My inner editor is not involved. See, he thinks all those dialog and scene snippets I'm writing will never make it into the final work. Also he's confused by roman numerals.

And despite popular opinion, outlining does not suck the fun out of the draft. Not for me, anyway. The scenes I'm excited about outlining are the ones I'm most excited to write in the draft. What slows me down are the parts I didn't plan for.

If writing by the seat of your pants works for you, then by all means keep doing it! But if you've never planned ahead before, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised. If it helps, you can think of it like a first draft, but with bulleted lists instead of paragraphs.

Whether you outline or not, what do YOU love about your process?

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  1. I would never finish a novel if I didn't outline.

  2. I'm about to embark on the first novel I'm committed to outlining. Hyper-outlining, actually, like a "treatment" in script-writing lingo.

    This is NOT the process I've used in the past, so we'll see if I can pull it off. I love the heady rush of drafting, so we'll see if the outlining process will bring the same high (early indications: yes).

    Does this mean you'll add another line to your Works In Progress sidebar??

  3. @Charmaine: Same here! I also discovered recently that I have a hard time killing characters unless the outline says so.

    @Susan: Good luck! I'll be interested to know how it goes, esp. once you start drafting.

    And yes, when I start officially outlining Mechanized Dystopian Ninjas (that title changes every time I say it), I will be putting it on the WIP sidebar. Though it's still just brainstorming at this point.

    Also glad to know somebody actually reads that sidebar :-)

  4. I've never thought about it quite this way before, but you're right. I love to outline partly because of the excitement, but also partly because I would never have an ending if I didn't. I currently have an outline for the first third of a new WIP, but I won't start drafting until the other two thirds show up in my brain.

    I always think of it this way: characters are people. They're going to be unpredictable on some level no matter how detailed my outline. An outline is not a predetermined fate, but something that keeps me pointed toward the north star.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. I'm not great at outlining--I do try, but mostly I can't contain myself and have to get started writing.

    After the rough draft, I make an excel spreadsheet that resembles an outline. I love doing this because the project turns from a mass of pages into a kind of visual representation.

    I can see how having this visual representation before the writing would be helpful--and I probably wouldn't have to do as much rewriting after the first draft, but I just can't manage my excitement enough to put off starting the rough.

  6. I didn't outline my first novel, and I honestly don't know how I finished it!

    My second novel fizzled at 20,000 words because I didn't outline. I had no idea what should happen next.

    For my third I decided to try to outline it first, and so far I really enjoy it. (But it's still early!)

    I think by outlining I won't feel like I'm wasting my time writing in circles.

  7. I'm also giving the process a trial run with a short story first. :)

  8. I'm not going to say I LOVE it, but I do enjoy it somewhat, and I have to do it. I have no idea how to write a story without one.

  9. I, too am an outliner. I think it is so exciting that way because you can get your thoughts down so much faster & they're not bogged down by tiny details, gestures & descriprion. They just flow naturally. And I find it easier to write when I know I do not have to worry about what comes next. Then I CAN focus on the tiniest details & gestures that give life to the story. I outline with a pen & notebook, scribbling as fast as I can. After finishing the manuscript including all the edits & revisions, it's fun to read back over those notes and see how the story evolved over all those long months.

  10. I've started an outline and it really is a tremendous help. It's not super duper detailed, but I have the book broken into thirds and bulleted what I want to happen in each section. It definitely helps me see where there are holes, or just helps me figure out how to get to the next major bullet point. My outline is always changing and expanding but I think/hope it will help me get through to the end!

  11. outlines are excellent, they help me get from A to Z. For sure!

  12. I'm an outliner all the way. Outlining definitely helps me visualise a scene and also to make sure the structure is balanced.

  13. Outliners unite! Thank you for encouraging my analytical planning :-)

    Like Heidi, sometimes I get so excited about the outline that I start drafting. Funny thing is I always hit some (unplanned) point where I regret it.

    I like what you said about balanced structure, Ian. I'm totally like that, to the point where, lately, I match my outline points to the plot points in Field's Paradigm. It's really helped me to manage pacing.

  14. I don't necessarily outline but I certainly know what my ending is before I start. And I have scenes in mind that will get me there. So I outline in my head and write ideas down, it's just not as organized as an actual outline.

    "Also he's confused by roman numerals." - lol

  15. I've tried to outline, and I find that I feel too restricted with it. I keep trying and find that series of notes about plot points and characters work so much better for me. I gave outlining an honest shot after it failed on last summer's manuscript, and it took the heart away from the new novel. I got about 10k into writing it, and then outlined maybe the next 30k, but it never felt that the novel was growing. I wasn't telling a story as much as I was making people move from Point A to B to Z. I just could not find the motivation to keep writing, and moved on to another work. I will probably go back to it, but that outline may or may not be a part of it. I can guarantee, though, lots of paragraphs and buleted notes will tell me where to end up and how to get there. Just not chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene.

    I've tried, and outlining just is not my process.

  16. At least you tried it, BJ. Honestly a lot of my outlines are just bulleted notes too. But after it reaches a certain point, I have to organize the bullets or I'll lose them :-)

  17. I'm an outliner at heart too. I just started what I thought was a "pantsing" novel, but there I was, figuring out the rest of the book before I could stop myself! Like you said, I like to know that the story is viable.

  18. @Elena: My first two novels I just started writing, but once I got past the inciting incident, I realized I had no idea where to go. I wouldn't know what to do if I didn't plan.

  19. Okay, so I know I've been a crappy blog friend lately, but I just read through your last few posts antense to tell you they were so cool.

    I totally needed the twitter help, the water world research was fascinating, and the outlining post was very enlightening (I keep thinking I need to try it!)

    Awesome posts, my friend.

  20. I don't know what antense is supposed to mean... I still don't type very well on the iPad. :(

  21. Thanks, Natalie! And no worries about not keeping up! The internet's too big. I'm always happy when friends read my stuff, but I'll never blame you for skipping it for real life :-)

    Your second comment made me laugh :-)

  22. Oh I agree - I love outlining too! I never thought about how it confuses your inner editor though - but you are right! He really doesn't think those dialogue snippets will make it past outlining stage. I dont' use roman numerals but I do use Word's Document Map feature, which is just so cool that it adds an extra element of fun to outlining (and hopping around your MS, too)

  23. @Margo: I use roman numerals cuz they're easier for me to keep track of than numberless bullets (though I use those too). The Document Map feature gets used a TON once I write my draft.