Writing advice

To Outline or Not

Do you outline before you write?

Many people do and even more teachers recommend them. I know the composition teachers I had in high school and college all advocated writing a detailed outline of your work before you ever sat down to create a first draft. For many, it was a required step you had to submit just as, but before, you submitted a first draft and a final draft. It was considered an integral part of the writing process. And there are good reasons for that. Outlines can be extremely useful.

Outlines can keep you organized

With an outline, your work can move efficiently from point a to point b to point c, without useless and time-consuming tangents.

Outlines can help you create and maintain good story structure

In the same way that outlines heighten organization in a nonfiction work, it can keep a fictional piece focused and on track. The outline keeps you from spending too much time in the first half and not enough presenting your climax.

Outlines keep you on course

Working from a good outline removes the awful question “what’s next?” from your writing day. With the outline in place, you already know what’s going to happen next. You may even have a few lines sketched in. All you have to do is write it.

Outlines can increase efficiency

Many problems that arise in the writing process rises from the writer taking a wrong turn plot-wise. This has happened to me fairly often. Usually, I first realize I took a wrong turn when the ideas begin to run dry and the writing grows more difficult, the results more stilted. That usually means I need to backtrack, figure out where the wrong turn lies, and correct the mistake.

A good outline will avoid that problem.

Yet I, personally, do not work from an outline. This despite all the real good reasons I listed above to use one. Why?

Simply put, it doesn’t feel right.

Someone once said that there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. The architect, just like her namesake knows where every little electrical wire and pipe is going to go before they begin building. To do otherwise, to their way of thinking, is just inviting disaster. The gardener, on the other hand, plants a seed, waters and fertilizes it, then sees what grows.

I am a gardener.

I begin with a couple of characters and a situation and a general idea of an ending (sometimes so general that it is just that the “good guys” win). Then I begin writing and see where it goes. Sometimes it doesn’t go anywhere, but that usually shows pretty quickly.

I find it makes the writing as interesting for me as I hope it is for the reader, because I usually don’t know where it’s going ahead of time either. I am often as surprised by plot twists as the readers because I hadn’t thought of them until they present themselves.

Granted, writing by the seat of your pants can be much less efficient. I go off on many wrong turns, but I realize it fairly quickly. I also end up overwriting quite a bit, but that is dealt with in re-write.

If anything, I find outlines most valuable in the re-writing and revision phase. I make the outline from the completed first draft and adjust the narrative accordingly.

So should you use an outline in your writing? Absolutely, if you find it helps. But don’t worry that you are doing anything wrong if you don’t. Despite what all your composition instructors seemed to tell you, there is no one correct way to write. Every writer is different. Every person who creates, creates through a different process.

Try everything. Find the method that makes you feel the most comfortable, most creative, and use it. And don’t let anyone ever convince you you’re doing it wrong.


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