To Outline or Not to Outline…Is That the Question?

“Do you use an outline when you write?”
Every time I’ve gone to a writing seminar I hear this question, which puzzles me because I don’t believe it’s what the asker really wants to know. What is really being asked is if writers should use some system to structure their work, whether it’s an outline, software, poster board with index cards, or any other method.I asked several authors, including my co-WinRs, if and how they organize their writing.
Madeline Gornell doesn’t outline or use any formal system beyond a character list. “I ‘wing it,’ develop, build, and go back to fill in as I go.”
Andrea Hurst, author of The Guestbook, Always With You, and the soon-to-be-released Tea and Comfort(in addition to several works of non-fiction), varies her approach with each novel according to what she feels is needed.  “On my first book I knew the beginning and the end and did deep character and setting work. On my second book I knew only the very beginning and end and it just poured out. On my third and current book, I have outlined in detail the scene points and overall plot ahead of time and it seems to work well.”
Gayle Bartos Pool favors some organizing techniques, but adapts them to each project. “I have used an outline before and it worked fine, but I usually just write as I go. I do maintain a timeline to keep the action straight and it keeps the characters from bumping into each other unless I want them to do that. And I do write biographies for my main characters.”
Bonnie Schroeder works with ‘The Snowflake System’. Although she didn’t purchase the software, she follows the general approach. “You start with the germ of an idea and gradually flesh it out through several iterations, including detailed chapter and character summaries. The most valuable thing I got from this was the ‘Scene Spreadsheet’, which has really helped me see where everything happens and where there’s no conflict, etc.” For more details, go to: www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/
Rowena Williamson juggles two historical fiction series – Castle Caorann and Ryan and the Redhead – and is working on a sequel to her popular YA book, Escape To The Highlands. Despite her substantial workload, Rowena doesn’t use any system. “I can’t really plot without getting feedback from my characters.”
“I outline my stories in my head and I always know where I’m going,” said Audrey Mackaman, author of two YA fiction series, Murder Most Magic and The Dream Cycle.
Jacqueline Vick always uses an outline. “With a mystery, there is too much backtracking to clean up clues etc. without one. And it’s too easy to go off on tangents and get away from the plot.” She begins by taking notes and making up a style sheet – a quick reference tool for things she always needs to look up.  “It helps keep track of names, places, grammar problems that pop up for me personally, hard to spell words, etc.” Although this system has worked for her in the past, she is currently trying out Scrivener software. “I’m going to give that a shot with the next mystery I write. It’s gotten good reviews!”  For more information about Scrivener, go to www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php   
I think it’s very individual, this writing process,” said Heather Ames, whose publications include the romantic suspense All That Glitters, contemporary romance The Sweetest Song and Indelible, the first in her mystery/suspense series. She tried using an outline to give her writing group an idea of where Swift Justice (the sequel to Indelible) was going, but the story strayed in another direction. I’ve never used any of the writing programs. I’m a freewheeler.” 
What about me? I began writing my first novel with the idea of seeing if I could do it. I had no plan or outline, just a character, an incident, and a vague sense of the plot. I’m pleased with it now, but it took over a decade to finish. I’ve often thought outlines would speed up the writing process and now begin each book with a synopsis of the story, but I rarely stick to it. I rebel against micromanagement, even self-imposed. My second novel took only four years to complete, so I guess I’m getting faster.
From this small sampling, it appears there is no consensus. Some writers deem systems necessary to keep them on track. Others find them inhibiting; they prefer to let the story flow. Many hybridize the process; they use timelines and biographies to keep the details straight, or work with a beginning and an end, and let their creative instincts fill in the rest. And a few do whatever they find works best for a particular project. Maybe that’s what draws us to writing stories that appeal to us. We prefer having the freedom to follow our muse and only use organizational tools if we need help with our characters or plotting. Or as Rowena Williamson put it, “I couldn’t hold to a book-a-year schedule. My books would go downhill if I did that.”

24 thoughts on “To Outline or Not to Outline…Is That the Question?”

  1. Your post does show that writers do have a plan, even if it is different from the others. We all do something to keep us on track. And the more we write the better we are at keeping all the threads from coming loose.

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  2. What an interesting post, Miko! I loved hearing what other authors are doing. It's all so interesting how different we all are–and knowing that is a comfort, especially in those times you're asking yourself, am I doing this right! (I must add, my comment sounds rather flippant, but it's true, I do wing it. Though after I've “winged it” write down some consistency things like cars and guns the various characters use.)

    Anyway, really enjoyed your post!

    Madeline

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  3. Lot of good and varied info here, Miko. I like to outline mine to death, but it takes so long, that sometimes all the momentum to actually write the novel has faded by the time I'm done. (Hence, my Sister Secrets women's fiction, which has languished in the drawer – or computer file – for years.) I think when people are asking that question – usually non-authors – they want to know HOW to write a book quickly and easily, thinking that someday a successful author will tell them the magic key and they will be able to do it too, instead of just sitting down with fingers on keyboard and pounding out the story. It's hard work no matter which way you use and some are simply not committed to do it. (Guess that's why I stick to short pieces!)

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  4. Great post! I've tried a few different ideas, but my characters always take the story in the direction they prefer. I follow along and hope for the best.
    Marja McGraw

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  5. So do many of the writers I interviewed for this post, including me. While writing the second novel in my “Petal In The Wind” trilogy, two characters defied my attempts to keep them apart. Now the series will require four books to complete.

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  6. Miko, this is a very thoughtful post. It I could write by the seat of my pants, I would but I need a guide. I use a couple of adapted screenwriting techniques that have worked for me. I do a rough three act outline with plot points before I start in. As many as I know at the beginning. For the latest installment in my Lovers and Liars gay historical romance, I've also written a ten page treatment that I hope to follow as much as I can. At least until the characters tell me what they will and won't do. That's the fun part. Amazing how differently writers approach the process. Great post. Paul

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  7. I used to have this fine fantasy of me sitting at my typewriter (this was a long time ago) tapping out the Great American Novel the first time around. When I actually tried it, I got about five pages into it and hit a wall. Now what? That's why a sort-of plan helps me along, but the trick is to not become a slave to your initial storyline. So interesting to read of others' techniques, Miko. Thanks for this well-researched post.

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  8. I find the structure of the outline actually helps me to be more creative. Once everything is there in the outline, if something arises organically, I have a better handle on the impact those changes will have throughout the story. It's kind of like making a clay pot on a wheel. I have to have the lump of clay there before I can start shaping it. 🙂

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  9. That's the great thing about finding your own system – it doesn't matter what you do as long as it works for you. But I wonder if more structure is needed with certain genres, like mysteries. What do you think?

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  10. I have read a few mysteries where some of the loose ends were still loose when I finished the book. Keeping either an outline or time line might eliminate some of those oversights.

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  11. Miko Johnston – Best post I've read on this age-old debate. Oh, this is Terry K Carr. I am not anonymous, only here, where I couldn't figure out how to post the other way.

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  12. My interviews with authors of all genres have shown that the more complicated the storyline, the greater the need for a system to keep everything in place. Mysteries and political thrillers as well as books with multiple story lines or an extensive cast of characters fall into that category. Haven't we all caught a cousin on page 12 turn into an uncle on page 97?

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