As I noted in my previous post—which laid out five arguments for why you should outline your novel, short story or non-fiction project—I’m a big fan of outlining for the same reason I enjoy planning anything in life. I like to have a clear sense of where I’m going before I embark on the journey.
However, what’s true of trips isn’t necessary true of writing. While much can be said for the benefits of outlining some or all of your story beforehand (Stephen King likes to have at least 60% of his stories figured out in advance), it certainly comes with some pitfalls as well.
To help you decide whether or not to outline—and, perhaps more to the point, how much of your story you should outline—I’m writing this second post to help identify some of the downsides to mapping out your writing journey before you begin.
Five reasons why you should not outline
1. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader: If you know exactly where your story is going, chances are your readers will too, because you will have inadvertently telegraphed all of your punches. This isn’t necessarily true, but the likelihood of this happening is much higher if you have everything figured out beforehand.
2. The outline wants to make you its slave: At its finest, writing is a spontaneous, organic process with characters, images, and events springing to life on the page. Once you’ve spent enough time with your characters, rather than you telling them what to say and do, they start telling you. Hence, writing becomes a process of keeping up with your characters rather than directing them. However, if the story wants to grow in a certain direction or the characters want to say and do things that don’t match your outline, there’s a tendency to hem them in and stifle the very creative spark that makes great writing so exceptional. Just because you outlined something, you feel an obligation to stick to it.
3. You’ll be tempted to tell: Seeing as you have worked out all of your story problems ahead of time, you’ll be tempted to explain everything rather than let events unfold in real time. So, rather than show, you’ll have a tendency to tell or to include long sections of exposition, which is the death knell of good writing.
4. It puts the logical cart before the emotional horse: Good writing is all about forging a strong emotional connection with readers. However, if you begin writing with your head rather than your heart, the likelihood that this essential emotional connection happening is diminished, because you’ll be more focused on getting things right than getting your readers hooked on a feeling.
5. You’re no longer writing; you’re translating: When you sit down to write from an outline, you’re not really creating; you’re interpreting. The best writing results from a writer discovering something in the midst of the creative enterprise. This excitement and enthusiasm is the infectious element that keeps readers turning pages.
After examining the pros and cons of outlining, I’m still not sold 100% either way. Maybe you aren’t either. But at least now that you have a more balanced view of the practice, hopefully there’s a greater chance you will profit from some of the benefits of outlining without succumbing to its pitfalls.