I’m a big fan of outlining, probably for the same reason I enjoy planning anything in life—having a plan helps diminish uncertainty and, hence, anxiety about the future. It also reduces the chance I’ll get stuck or run into an unwelcome surprise along the way.
That said, there’s the whole “best laid plans of mice and men” thing. No matter how carefully I have outlined a novel, short story, or even a non-fiction piece, nothing ever works out quite the way I imagined. Sometimes the outline itself can actually become a hindrance when it seeks to constrain what is actually happening in my story with what is “supposed” to be happening according to my outline.
All that to say, while I can certainly see the benefits of outlining, I have encountered some of the pitfalls as well. So you could say I’m at a bit of a crux on the issue. Not that you have to make a decision hard and fast either way. “All things in moderation,” as the Good Book says.
To help you (and, perhaps, me) decide whether or not to outline, I have written two blog posts—one that offers advice on why you should outline your novel, short story or non-fiction manuscript, and another that argues why you should not. Hopefully they will help you determine what role, if any, outlining should play in your own writing process.
Five reasons why you should outline
- It helps you beat writer’s block. Having a rough idea of where you’re headed helps to reduce anxiety and frees you to lose yourself in whatever you are writing. That’s not to say you won’t encounter writer’s block when writing your outline, but seeing as it’s just an outline and not the actual book, the stakes of a mistake are much lower.
- It reduces the likelihood of writing yourself into a corner. Outlining forces you to examine the structure of your story and to make causal connections between each scene or story beat. This allows you to identify problem areas early and makes course corrections after you’ve written hundreds rather than thousands of words. Seeing these connections also helps you identify central images or themes as well as foreshadowing opportunities that you can thread in throughout the entire story.
- It speeds up the writing process. When I write from an outline, I’m often amazed at how many words or pages I can produce in a day. Knowing where the story is headed helps me get right down to business each morning instead of sitting there wondering what I’m going to do next.
- It increases spontaneity. Some people disdain outlining, because they think it ruins the thrill of discovery. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. However, what’s to say you can’t make those same discoveries in the outlining process? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck on an outline and then had an “a-ha” moment that breaks the story wide open. Such moments lead almost always lead to some quick rewrites—quick because I am rewriting my outline rather than my entire novel. So, while outlining in too much detail or following your outline slavishly can certainly kill spontaneity, more often than not, it frees you to be spontaneous within each scene and within the outlining process itself. Think of an outline like a safety net under a trapeze artist. Knowing you have something to catch you builds the confidence you need to try that big trick you’ve been contemplating but never had the guts to attempt.
- It reduces the number of edits and rewrites. Perhaps I should say it reduces the volume of rewriting and editing you will do. You are going to rewrite and edit your outline continuously, often going back and forth between your outline and your manuscript as you make new discoveries or encounter problems you didn’t anticipate in the outlining stage. But the number of words you will have to rewrite or edit will be significantly lower. So once again, outlining will save you loads of time.