To outline or not to outline? There’s a big debate between writers. Some argue that it takes away the creativity of writing. Personally, I love outlining. It creates a tighter story and characters, which means less work revising. But, aside from those benefits, I actually–gasp–enjoy outlining. I outline in a way that still makes me feel like I’m being creative, and provides clear direction for when I start writing.
One of the main reasons to outline is that it creates a tighter story and characters. You can ensure your story follows structure (e.g.: it has a breaking point), work out plot holes before you write them, plan out character arcs, plan out how your subplots will develop, etc. There will be much fewer issues with your story when it comes time to revise, especially with structure and development of characters/subplots.
Outlining is also a good way to ensure you don’t get stuck and waste the time you have to write. Writing time is valuable, and you want to make the most of it. Staring at a blank screen, not knowing what should happen next, is not a good use of your time. With an outline, you know what happens next. Even if you’re stuck describing something, you can just write a simplified version of what needs to happen, and either fill in the details or move on to the next chapter and come back later.
Outlining can also be a good way to create goals for your writing. Maybe you aim to get a certain number of plot points done per night, or create a deadline for a section of your outline to be written out by.
My Experience With Outlining
I didn’t always outline. I didn’t make an outline when I started my first book–mostly because I didn’t know it was a thing. It’s been messy, I can tell you that. In the first couple drafts, I had no breaking point. My subplots didn’t follow a steady arc. There were plenty of plot holes to be found. I ended up making myself an outline around the fourth draft, and it helped immensely. I fixed a ton of problems, developed strong arcs for my characters and subplots, and ultimately created a story that my beta readers gave largely positive feedback on. Now, Outliers is finally at the professional editing stage, at will be ready for publication in June of this year.
I’ve now outlined the next two books (It’s going to be a trilogy) thoroughly, and expect that it will take much less time to have them ready than it took my first book. I enjoyed doing the outlines for both books, and having that plan has really motivated me to start writing book two.
I do my outline a bit differently than most people. It’s extremely detailed, to the point that some might argue it’s more of a first draft.
I don’t split my outline into chapters. I’m just trying to figure out the story, and there’s no need to worry about chapters. The whole novel is the story, and the chapters are just a way of divvying it up into smaller, more easily read chunks. I’ve found that it usually becomes really clear where to end or start a chapter once I start writing. This may not work for everyone, but it’s worked out well for me so far.
I also don’t have one of those giant white boards, sticky notes all over my walls, and I don’t use my computer, either. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but they aren’t for me. With things like white boards and sticky notes you don’t get much privacy, which I like to have when I’m writing. They also aren’t very mobile, and I like to be able to move around (e.g.: at a desk one day, on the couch the next). Also, as I said, my outlines are very detailed, and I can’t see myself having enough room to include all of the detail if I was writing in marker or using sticky notes. But, what about the computer? I like to use the computer for my drafts, but never for outlining. When I’m plotting things out I need to use pen and paper. It lets me look at everything at once, side by side, if I need to. It gives my eyes a break from the light and my wrists a break from typing. Overall, I just enjoy being able to hold it in my hands and make it as messy as I want.
To start, I take a piece of lined paper and flip it horizontally. At the top I’ll write the number 1, and continue to number as I use more sheets of paper. This keeps everything in some kind of order, and ensures I’m not missing anything when I got to write. From the top of the page (usually just below the margin) I will draw a short line and attach a small rectangle to the end of it. These are the first of many lines and boxes.
A box will usually contain a plot point, but I’ll also include pieces of description, dialogue, and whatever else as I think of them. There aren’t rules for what can go in the boxes, because that isn’t the point of outlining. Outlining isn’t meant to be this grueling task that makes you desperate to actually write something. It’s just a way to organize your ideas. As long as all of your boxes are in the order they will appear in your story, there’s no point in restricting them to solely plot-points. If I think of a detail, I write it in my outline. If it’s a detail that doesn’t come until later, I’ll write it on a separate sheet of paper and make sure to add it into my outline when I get to that point in the story. If the idea is big enough (say, a whole scene), then I might do an outline page for it ahead of time, (hold back on numbering it) and just make sure that the rest of my outline leads to that point. The point is: have some fun with it.
If a plot-point is especially important, and I want it to stand out from all the less important details, I just use a different colour pen for the box. It stands out better, and it can be nice to change things up. I never use pencil for my outlines. It doesn’t stand out well enough, and it fades quickly. If you make a mistake, you can just scratch that box out. If you think of something else to add in between two boxes, just make a mini box on the line in between the two.
My latest outline took about 30 sheets of paper (not using the back). I make very small boxes for the most part, but they can vary. How long your outline is will all depend on the amount of detail, as well as the size of your boxes/writing.
Do you outline? What’s your process like?
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With all of this in mind, go out and write your masterpiece!