To Outline or Not Outline: That is the Question

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Should you outline your novel? I don’t know: should you?

I realize I sound glib, but what I’m implying is that when it comes to writing novels, there are no hard and fast rules. Writers must learn their own technique. Some people swear by outlining. Some couldn’t fathom it. Perhaps the better question is: would outlining work for you?

The Pros

Look, writing a novel is hard. It’s a big project. It’s a massive task. It takes months—years???—to write what will take a reader minutes or hours to read. It’s easy to get lost in it. It’s easy to forget what you were doing. Most of all, it’s extremely common to find yourself with no clue what comes next.

If you have an outline, you never stay stuck against the brick wall. You have a document to consult that will remind you—oh yeah! That’s what happens next! It’s a relief to have a blueprint, even if you don’t follow it exactly.

The biggest “pro” of outlining is undoubtedly the security blanket factor. When it doubt—look at the outline. No more black screens (or brains!). There’s a great sense of relief that comes from having a clue about what comes next.

The Cons

Outlines can be restrictive, curb creativity, or just be impossible for some people to write. Many “find” their novel or characters by writing their novel and characters. These elements of story “speak” to authors as they go. These writers love the thrill of discovery that writing by the seat of your pants can bring. The thought of “writing the novel before writing the novel” just doesn’t fly.

What Should You Do?

Every writer has to learn the technique that works for them. And yes, some of the best literary and commercial fiction voices don’t outline (like Stephen King or Zadie Smith). At first glance, that might be a reason to not do it: these successful folks don’t—maybe their methods are worth emulating. Maybe they are.

But just because famous, experienced authors don’t outline, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to do so. You have to find what works for you. Also, very few novices sit down to a blank screen and magically pop out a best seller 400 pages later. More often than not, the first manuscript is like pulling teeth to write, makes you insane, and often turns out horribly.

You could be different. You could be the anomaly. You could also write one, two, three—more, many more—manuscripts that never see the light of day until you find the technique that works for you. I think it comes down to what your tolerance for pain is. To me, there’s nothing worse than having no clue what to do next. Or finding you’ve written yourself into a three-hundred page wall.

Consider Outlining-Light

Sure, the outlining versus not outlining thing is a perennial debate. But it’s not as black and white as the Internet would have you believe. You could try outlining-light. I define this as creating benchmarks, plot points, character sketches, and broad strokes before writing. However, this will not include micro details. Outlining-light is never rigid. You can diverge if a better idea comes to you during the writing process.

For what it’s worth, I used to think outlining of any kind was somehow not “writerly.” Ridiculous, I know. I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t always read directions first. And, I saw these amazing writers say they didn’t outline, so I didn’t want to outline either. I’ve learned that time spent planning was better than writing a novel with no discernible plot. You’ll find your own way too, but there’s no reason to shun a technique that might prove useful before you try it.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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