To Outline, or Not To Outline, That is the Question

People in the world can be categorized in a variety of ways: Everystockphoto_247318_l

Night owls vs. larks.

Creative vs. non-creative (Though I believe everyone is creative, it is all in your attitude about it.)

Dentists vs. non-dentists.

And for writers:

Outliners vs. Non-outliners.

Outliners, at least in popular thought, tend to be control freaks, tight, anxious, did I mention the issue with control?

Non-outliners tend to be casual, loose, free and easy.

Now, in most of my personal habits and traits I am laid back, laissez-faire, some might even call me lazy.  (I never met an excuse to take the day off that I didn't like.) Just like a non-outliner.

So you would probably assume that I'm a non-outliner.

You would assume wrong.

I am an outliner of the highest order and I believe fervently that you should be, too.  (Though I am willing to accept that you might believe just as fervently that I should be a non-outliner.)  Your outline doesn't have to be fancy or perfect.  Mine usually start out as a loose list.  And when I say loose, I mean loose.

But here's what I've noticed: as I progress with my novel prep and then the actual writing of the novel, I learn more about my characters and the situations I want to put them in.  And those things get added to my outline.  The loose list gets more and more populated, and pretty soon I have a fairly detailed road map for where I'm headed.

Crucial words: where I'm headed.

Because, as I wrote last week, if you know where you're going to go, you can write a helluva lot more.  Like, 10K words a day more. 

And if I don't have my road map I meander.  I take two or three scenes to get to my destination when, really, it only warranted one.  Characters walk down dark alleys when, really, they'd be far more apt to stroll down a broad country lane.

In other words, I get lost. 

When I wrote my MFA novel, I started with an idea and had no clue where that idea might end up.  So I just started writing.  All things considered, it is a miracle the book ever got finished.  Truthfully, it is still sitting on my computer because the plot doesn't quite hang together.  The characters don't quite ring true.  I believe that if I'd taken the time to figure some of these things out ahead of time–if I'd made an outline–that probably wouldn't be true.

Okay, fess up.  Are you an outliner or a non-outliner?  Which do you prefer and why?

Photo by sheldonken.

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19 Comments on "To Outline, or Not To Outline, That is the Question"

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06/04/2012 05:52

I am currently being baptized in the outlining pool. I had slipped almost completely into non-outlining hell–only my hand with three raised fingers remained–when this blog grabbed me and pulled me up for a breath. Without an outline, too often I got lost; I had to change something in the front of the book to accommodate what I was writing; all that backtracking and rearranging made for a fractured, ill-fitting whole. So I am an outliner. Now, in the spirit of our name, I think we should organize. We should print tee-shirts and bumper stickers. Let’s have a national convention… Read more »

06/04/2012 05:58

I have never been an outliner, but I am feeling compelled to be for this revision of my novel. It is creating anxiety for me (both the outline and the novel!) but I am certain it will be helpful in the end.

06/04/2012 06:01

I’m glad you said “Mine usually start out as a loose list”. I wanted a “sort of outline” choice myself. ; ) I frequently run off from it and find things I needed at the first that I just didn’t know yet. ; )

06/04/2012 07:05

I'm all for the convention!  Except I reserve the right to drink wine, not beer.  We can all raise a glass to being pulled out of, as you put it, non-outlining hell.

06/04/2012 07:07

Beverly, this is probably a really good time to get a handle on your novel.  And yes, it can be a bit anxiety producing if you're not used to doing one, but I think you'll see the benefits are worth it when you're done.

06/04/2012 07:08

And that is part of the joy of writing, Zan Marie.  And why I don't want to be too controlling when I do an outline.

06/04/2012 09:42

Whether ’tis nobler in the writer’s mind to suffer The aimless arrows of seat-of-the-pants style, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing outline them? The end: it eludes No more! Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. :) A few months ago I would have showered you with seemingly valid reasons for a non-outlined approach to writing. It’s more freeing, I would have said. It’s less formulaic. Ha! Now, I am firmly ensconced in Outliners Alley. Ok, I still have a toe in Seatofthepants-ville. But I DO believe in the merits of planning and seeing that giant… Read more »

06/04/2012 10:08

Oooh, I like the phrase Outliners Alley!  And welcome to it.  I like to think that my approach of using a loose list still allows some of free-form beauty of not outlining while still giving some structure to the old brain.  Thanks for the comment, and the quote from good ole Will.

06/04/2012 10:46

I tend to begin with outlining and once I have a few ideas down I’ll start writing. Once that cup runs dry, I’ll go and outline some more based off of what I just wrote. It’s a lot of stopping and starting, but it seems to be working for me at the moment.

06/04/2012 10:49

That sounds similar to my process, though I like to figure things out ahead a bit more.  And hey, if it's working for you, go for it!

06/04/2012 14:06

I have to outline, too. If not, I’d be terrified to write. Whereas for my daughter, outlining takes all the creativity from the process. Everyone is so different!


06/04/2012 15:39

Debbie, While I tend to do my best to foist my ideas upon others, I've also had to admit that mine is not the only way.   Although my husband has finally learned to remember that I'm always right. :-)

06/05/2012 11:59

For my first three novels, I was a panster, snubbing my nose at those the insisted you MUST outline. Several times through the third novel, I thought I should outline to keep what happen and when clear, but didn’t. By not doing so made for a lot of editing. For my next novel, I’m going to give outlining a try. I wouldn’t build a piece of furniture without plans. Why write a book without one.

06/05/2012 12:02

Dentists vs. non-dentists. *giggle* (I’m the daughter of a dentist. Definitely a NON.) In my heart, I’m a non-outliner. I started out a firm believer in creativity being unfettered and free as the wind. But along the way I realized we creative people also need structure, productivity, some goals (and a self-imposed deadline doesn’t hurt either). I can do a lot with a list. Such as a table of contents, or a list of possibilities. But I’m also a believe in extensive pre-writing (that can meander where it likes but it has to explore fearlessly). Or a synopsis when more… Read more »

06/05/2012 12:04

LOL! My husband will almost never admit I’m right. I must study your methods. ;~)


Thanks for this, Charlotte. My novel-in-progress has been sitting on the shelf (actually I put it in a cabinet so I wouldn’t see it) for several months and all of a sudden I feel ready to dive back into it. I love my characters (even the ones I love to hate), the setting, the action, and the plot. But I realize after reading your post that I’ll never complete the manuscript or have a shot at turning it into a book unless I do an outline. I can see now that a completed outline will make it almost fun to… Read more »

06/05/2012 14:22

Hey Dana, I'd love to hear how outlining works for you next time through, especially since you have written three novels without outlining.  Thanks for commenting.

06/05/2012 14:25

Milli, I'm so glad you caught the dentist comment.  It was one of those things that entered my head as I was writing and I thought, why not?  Much like the processes you describe so well.  I am, at heart, a free and unfettered type gal myself.  Which is why the first novel I wrote went so far astray.  Freedom is one of my highest values but I've learned the value of pairing it with structure.  A favorite quote from Eric Butterworth: "Freedom is not doing what you want, it is doing what it takes to be who you should… Read more »

06/05/2012 14:27

What an exciting place to be in, Beth!  Diving back into a novel with characters, setting and action waiting for you sounds wonderful.  And I hope that putting a loose outline on paper helps you, too.  I am unfamiliar with Wikispaces, going to have to check that out.  And thank you for all your kind words.