To Outline or Not?

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caroline-hileyby Caroline Hiley
Book Editing Associates

Writing a novel takes a long time, so anything that can speed things up without sacrificing creativity seems like a good idea. Building an outline before you start is the obvious solution. But many writers balk at that idea, because their imagination flows best when unhindered by structure. They like to drop themselves into a world or a character’s mind then see what happens, discovering the story as they go.

That’s a fun way to write and indeed often results in greatest creativity. The downside is, unless you get everything perfect in the first, passionate draft, you can waste a lot of time recasting.

There are two ways to improve one’s productivity without resorting to a full outline. One is to take advantage of Scrivener, an inexpensive software package designed for writers. It works more like a database than a word processor like Word, and allows creative minds to hop around and write different elements of a book, compile research, and make lots of notes, then put it all together into a final product.

The other way to self-structure without outlining is to write your primary marketing materials first: three-paragraph query letter, one-page synopsis, and one-sentence tagline or hook. These force you to decide exactly what type of book you’re visualizing and to define the central conflict, around which all else depends.

These short marketing documents contain the primary story-dots to connect once you’re immersed and under way. They serve as signposts that keep you on course, preventing detours into scenic territory you will have to delete or revise later. These signposts can be easily adjusted as the story evolves; and when you’re done, you’ll already have the building blocks for what many writers consider the hardest part of publishing( i.e., writing the query/synopsis/pitch elements).

I favor this technique because it takes less time and energy than learning new software. But your mileage may vary. There are many different packages and techniques out there—just search on the Internet for “writing software” or “writing books” to get an idea—so there is something for everyone. For some folks, mapping it all out in a classic outline is the best approach. What matters is being open to options, then choosing what works for you.


CAROLINE HILEY is a full-service editor who specializes in copyediting novels. She works with both traditional publishers and independent authors to help make their stories shine.

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