To Outline or Not To Outline

One question that often comes up in my writers’ workshop is should an author outline their novel before writing or just wing it.  The answer is, of course, there is no answer.  Writing is personal—you put so much of yourself into the words.  That’s why it hurts to have a project rejected.  The act of writing is equally personal.  There is no right or wrong way.  My advice is to try both methods, outlining and not outlining, and see which works for you.


I outlined my first novel in the standard outline form with clipped, structured sentences—first this happens, then that happens, etc.  But when it came time to write the book, I found it difficult to follow such a strict format.  My characters balked at what I was forcing them to do because I hadn’t considered their evolving personalities.  I felt stifled, unable to let my imagination run free.


So with my second book, I just started writing and let the pieces fall where they may.  It was exciting to face each new day of writing not knowing what was going to happen.  But a novel is a lot of words, and I found myself paging back through previous chapters, trying to remember how I described this or that, or whether it had been day or night.  I had plotting problems and pacing problems.  I was doing more rewriting than writing.  To make matters worse, I became ill and couldn’t write for weeks.  I had trouble getting back into the story after that, as if I’d lost my way.


I went back to outlining.  Not a standard outline—more a stream of consciousness.  I write in long paragraphs, putting down events and images as they come to me.  I put in snatches of conversation as I think of them, as much description as I can imagine.  I think in terms of scenes rather than chapters, and I don’t hesitate to juggle the scenes around if I think of something better later on.


The outline for the book I’m working on now is twenty-five pages, single-spaced, and growing.  It’s ever changing.  I’m constantly tweaking and adding details.  As a result, I’m rewriting less and enjoying it more.


Fine for me, but suppose you want to try outlining yet don’t want to go into so much detail.  One method is to write all your scenes on 3X5 cards.  Put down the important features such as time, place, which characters are in the scene, etc.  Arrange them in order on your kitchen table.  It’s a good way to spot plotting problems—you can shift the scenes around or add new ones to fill in any holes.


Does that still seem too much of a chore?  Then make outlining a game—and what is more fun than a computer game?  Storybook has a terrific program to help novelists organize their story.  It’s fun, easy, and they never use the word outline.  Best of all, it’s free.  Download it here:


A friend tells me he outlines his books in his head.  While I don’t think that’s quite the same thing, I firmly believe the only right way is the way that works for you.  Don’t discount anything until you’ve tried it yourself.


Roxanne Smolen




One thought on “To Outline or Not To Outline

  1. I really think there is wisdom in your advice. My writing process is similar to the way William Gibson describes his (which involves re-reading everything quickly every time he sits down to write, editing along the way and then beginning to write some new stuff with no outline). I’m excited now to be learning from Shawn Coyne’s “The Story Grid,” because I’m horribly inefficient and have a difficult time forcing my characters into conflict-driven plot. (I don’t like to see them suffer. Strange, I know.) But reading your perspective on this, and knowing you are prolific, leads me to think I should try what you’re doing. Do you have a book or a more in-depth description of your writing process. The “flow of consciousness” approach that you’re describing sounds like something that would work for me.
    Thank you,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s