To Outline or Not to Outline

When a writer approaches their writing station, about to begin work on a new project, the first thing they must do before hammering out a single word, is decide whether they will, or won’t spend time preparing an outline.

The world of writers is divided into two groups; the outliners and the no outliners. I’m a card-carrying member of the second group, the no outliners. Sort of.

Outlines make absolute sense to me. What’s not to love about a roadmap that focuses a writer and keeps them chugging along a clearly defined path. I imagine an outline as the foundation and framework a contractor must build before constructing a deck. (I know of what I speak when it comes to deck building having watched my contractor husband spend hours, and hours, and hours preparing the foundation and getting the measurements of his deck frames perfect.) Outlines are such a smart idea.


I’ve tried to outline, Lord knows I’ve tried. It’s just that I don’t seem to be able to do it. I don’t know my characters until I meet them and I don’t know what they’ll do until I watch them. In most things I do, I tend to be a jump in with both feet, don’t look before I cross kind of person. So outlines don’t work for me. Not yet.

I start a new piece of writing with the first sentence and I freefall my way along until I run out of things to say. Outline free.

Once I have something to work with, then I start moving and shaking things up. When the story is almost there, but not quite, I do a bullet point synopsis of what I have so far. With my project broken down this way, I can usually see what’s missing or where I’ve gone off track. Starting to sound like an outline.

So, basically, what I’m confessing to you (please don’t tell my no outliner compatriots) is I scramble off the no outliners bandwagon and I cross over to team outliners. It is at this stage of the game, that I, in fact, outline what I need to do to fix/finish my project. Not a true first stage outline, more like a mid-stage, almost finished the project outline. Defector.

With four different coloured markers, I arrive at my new best friend, my whiteboard, where I list scenes and plot points I feel are missing or need work. You’ll see I’ve even drawn a floor plan to help me stage a dinner party scene.

When I look at my whiteboard, polishing and finishing my writing doesn’t seem such a daunting task. Having worked with a piece for some time, I have characters I know, and places to bring them. I’m almost where I need to be before I have to reach for the map. Now when I sit at my laptop and consider what scene or plot point I want to work on, it is there in front of me. At the end of each writing session, I stand before my whiteboard and if it has been a good day, I add a tick beside one (on really good days, two) bullet points. When the board is covered with check marks, I’m able to move on from the current chapter.


So the question of whether I outline or not, I guess I’ll stick with sort of.


Filed under Writer's blog, Writer's journey, Writing

8 responses to “To Outline or Not to Outline

  1. As you know, I am an avid outliner. And that is an understatement. However, most of the writers I know do what you are doing – start without an outline and then write one later in order to organize what has already been written and assess what still needs to be done. My hat’s off to anyone who can write a whole novel without ever doing an outline. I have no idea how they do it.

  2. My whiteboard has cork on one side, to which I attach index cards with scenes. That way I can move them around. I put the whiteboard on an easel so I can flip from written ideas to index card scenes whenever I want. Although I sometimes just end up with cards all over the rug.

  3. Exactly the way I work. I always start with such a rush of enthusiasm, then gradually lose steam. Then I outline as I go along, one or two chapters at a time. Often find I don’t follow the mini outlines, or go beyond them, but they keep me on track.

  4. I’m with you on this, Sharon. The novel I’m working on popped up in bubbles.
    Not the cute ethereal bubbles that come with a bubble wand, but the slow, blurpy ones that rise in stew–or swamps.

    At a certain point, I needed way to connect the dots–er, bubbles. That’s when I mapped out a way to get “home.” Doesn’t mean bubbles don’t still blop right beside me, sending me a little off-course (in interesting directions, of course.) Just means the novel’s GPS recalibrates the course when the scene’s done.

    One tool I discovered (thanks, Erin Thomas) that is tremendously useful at the connect-the-dots stage is Scrivener. It’s a software program designed for writers. Used to be Mac-only, but they introduced a Windows version last fall. It comes with a built-in corkboard and plenty of other valuable features: customizable tags to flag characters, subplot, status–whatever; chapter or novel views; snapshots to capture previous versions of a chapter or passage; storage space for research, photos, character sketches, etc.; two ways to look at your outline; automatic backup. Well worth the $35 price tag.

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