When you hear the word “outline,” what pops into your head? Gigantic bullet point lists? A bulletin board covered in Post-It notes with scribbled notes? Stress over realizing the entire middle section of your novel has no plot? Flashbacks to high school English class? A general feeling of uneasiness because you think that you need to fit your character-driven, existential-crisis masterpiece into a typical story structure?
If you answered yes to that last question, fear not. I’m not here to make you into the queen (or king) of outlining. Instead, I hope that, whatever category you fall into when it comes to outlining, this mini-series will help you become a better writer. But before I get into the details of outlining, I want to take a macro view of the practice. It all begins with knowing why you’d want to outline in the first place.
As a disclaimer, I was practically born an outliner. I remember needing to make a plan for all my art projects and sketches before starting them when I was still in elementary school. I once spent at least 30 minutes more than my peers on a Christmas ornament craft because I wanted to get all the sequins just right (everyone else had already moved on to watching a movie). So it’s no wonder that I grew up to be the person who happily spends hours making Excel spreadsheets and bullet point lists. Outlining is not those things, however. Outlining is not even a particular method. Instead, outlining is a specific plan for what you want your story to be when you write it.
Specific is the key word. All writers have a vision for what they want their story to be, but that vision is often vague, just beginning to bloom and expand. I’ve described my juvenile ideas as being hazy or like a bunch of puzzle pieces that I haven’t put together yet. The material is there, no doubt, but it is unpolished, unfinished, unspecified. That material must be polished, finished, and specified over the course of the writing process to create a good (if not excellent) end result. But that process is incredibly daunting. If it doesn’t take you decades to accomplish, it may require a decade’s worth of rough drafts. There’s no way to quickly write a story—time is part of the nature of storytelling (and editing)—but outlining can streamline the process.
Think of outlining as learning to pause before you speak. There are times when it’s necessary to speak quickly and without much thought, and overthinking and never speaking should be avoided. But a pause to choose the right tone, the right word, or calm your agitation can be the difference between having a successful and rewarding conversation and delving into an argument that takes up an entire afternoon. A healthy amount of thought before acting makes the actions have greater impact.
To use another analogy, outlining is what cleans the dirt off the gemstone before the actual writing cuts and polishes it. This is why I said that outlining is not a particular process. You may have a stone that doesn’t have much dirt on it and doesn’t need much cleaning; someone else may not have the right tool to chip away some extra stone surrounding the gem and need to use their rock tumbler to get the job done; someone else may want all the dirt off their stone before they take it to their workshop and make the final cuts. But no matter what, the mud can and should be washed away before the best work can be done.
That is why I love outlining so much—it makes writing so much easier. I may not know everything about the story I’m creating, but I’m not blinding stumbling through paragraphs looking for what I want. Even the rough drafts that I have to scrap are more useful when I have more than a vague idea of what I want my story to be. I don’t have to clean up a complete mess before I know what I have to work with. When I know what I want out of a scene, a chapter, a story, I can get more work done.
I want to reiterate again that outlining in practice can be tailored to fit your needs and your style. For instance, I never outline poems, I rarely outline short stories, I use simple outline techniques for simple novel ideas, and I use complex outline methods for complex novel ideas. Every writer I know uses different outlining methods and we all get the job done. The point is to use a technique to help make it easier to actually write. So if you’ve never been someone who likes to outline chapters in detail, you can still outline. If you’ve never outlined at all and hate the idea, you can still outline. And if you love outlining, well, I don’t need to sell you on it.
In Part 2 of my outlining mini-series, I’ll delve into specific techniques I’ve used to outline as well as suggestions for types of outlining to suit different writing styles. So, whether you’re skeptical, curious, or already on board, check out the next post for a more microscopic look at outlining!