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:
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   
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.”

Outlining: Necessary or Not?

An Outline. Some writers depend on its structure; some writers consider it the death of creativity. Do you outline? In detail? Why or why not? First we’ll hear from some of our WinR’s, then we’d love to hear from you!

Jackie Houchin

And nope.

For me, outlining is crucial for writing FICTION. I need to see the story, or at least the plot points, all neatly displayed. It can be a literal A-B-C outline in a ruled notebook or Word.doc, or a tabletop covered with index cards or Post-its.

Seeing everything together at once helps me identify potholes, traffic jams or major disaster areas, and I can easily shift, shuffle or scuttle what doesn’t work.

In my “Great American Novel” (Ha!) that is currently residing half-finished in a bottom drawer, I have three major characters. Each of these girls gets a color. As I lay out my “deck” of index cards that represents their lives, I can see clearly where they cross, collide and ricochet off each other as they each push towards their individual resolutions.

If I’m writing a mystery, I map the paths of the victim and the killer in one color, then the sleuth and the killer in another. In these bare bones of the story I check for illogical leaps and inconsistencies.

Next, using a third color, I slip in the other suspects and red herrings, making sure nothing is too obvious. Then – usually in gold – I hide the tell-tale clues that will keep readers a bare half step behind my crime-solving sleuth.

Lastly, I pack in points about the weather or setting (in green, what else?) if they are important to the story. (Yeah, I know, a virtual rainbow.)

And then, of course, I must write the fully fleshed-out yarn from these tiny scraps of data.

Now for NON-FICTION, I hardly ever outline.

My interviews and reviews usually come “pre-loaded” with their own paths to follow. Maybe I’ll clump facts into two or three vague sections, i.e. intro, main, conclusion, with a possible “research” column, but that’s all. I simply write these articles “from the seat of my pants.”

Or wherever else I’ve scribbled my notes.

The Great Debate by GB Pool

When I first started setting up author panels for Sisters-in-Crime at libraries and other venues in and around the Los Angeles area, one of the questions I asked the panelists was: “Do you outline? Why? or Why not?”

After asking the same question for about a year, I came to the conclusion that half the writers did outline and the other half didn’t. The half that did was fairly prolific in their writing. The half that didn’t outline was just as prolific. Both sides were very strong in their decision to do the outline or not.

Everything I have written to date was not outlined. I started with page one, wrote a little, edited and little, wrote more, edited more, and finally came up with a book. It took about a year to finish a novel, except for the spy trilogy. They took ten years, but they are long and quite detailed with historical facts and many locations, all of which required loads of research to get right.

So, after hearing some pretty good writers like Pamela Samuels-Young who is a lawyer and who outlined her books (In Firm Pursuit and Murder on the Down Low) and Bruce Cook who is a physicist and who also teaches screenwriting as well as an author (Philippine Fever and Tommy Gun Tango), I decided to try my hand at knocking out an outline.

In a matter of two days I blocked out the main plot points of the next in my Gin Caulfield Mystery series, Damning Evidence. I then started to write the story.

I can’t say I write any faster with an outline, but I know where I am going. And I don’t feel the panic of wondering where the story will run off the tracks or where I will have to plug up the holes. That alone was worth the two days it took to do the outline.

Another thing writing the outline prompted me to do was write out brief sketches of the main characters in the story. I now know exactly who the bad guy is. I know why he is doing what he is doing. And most importantly, I know the roadblocks he is going to be throwing up along the way to thwart my heroine.

Something I learned from examining one of my own stories was that the bad guy in a mystery, if he is going to play an active part in the story and not just do the crime and leave the scene until the hero tracks him down, is the person who runs the show. Every thing the protagonist does is basically a reaction to something the bad guy does.

Remember: if the crime hadn’t been committed in the first place, nobody would be doing anything about it in the second place. The villain now has a vested interest in not getting caught. He or she will do anything to stop anyone from discovering their identity.

By writing the outline, I know places where the bad guy will be waiting to set a trap for the hero. If the hero gets too close, the bad guy will throw a monkey wrench into the works. But the villain runs the show, always trying to stay one jump ahead.

The outline made it much easier to set those traps, throwing the hero off kilter, making the hunt a mental exercise. It will make for a story with more tension if it is plotted that way rather than letting the story flow in a more random pattern.

I’ll see when I am through with the first and second draft if this theory holds true.

Books have been written in many ways, so the best advice is to write the way you find that gets the job done. Finishing is the goal.


Jacqueline Vick

I’m afraid I’m going to be wishy-washy.

When I first tackle a novel or short story, I always have the plot in mind. I doodle questions on a pad of paper. What would this character do in that situation? What else would he do?

Since I write mysteries, I want to know the crime, why it was committed, and how. I’ll assign possible motives to the other suspects, building the relationship between them and the victim.
That’s a sort of outline.

It’s after the first draft that the outline comes in handy. A brilliant writer I know (initials GBP) suggested that I outline the story once I’ve got it all on paper in order to show what’s missing. It works like a charm. I pretend I’m preparing the outline for an agent or publisher, so it has to be detailed and it has to spell it all out.

The canyons of missing information, the stuff that doesnt’ make sense, it all becomes clear in that post-first draft outline. It’s too embarassing to tell you what I’ve discovered missing. It’s like looking down in a crowded room and discovering that you forgot to button your shirt. And not in that hot-body-on-display kind of way. In that threadbare-bra-exposed-bellyroll kind of way.

I’m too arrogant to believe that my characters speak to me and that they’ll move the story in the direction they see fit. I speak to them, and it’s usually to say, “Move your fanny!”

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