Outlines: The True First Drafts

I love all aspects of writing. That doesn’t mean I always like them (nothing worthwhile is easy), but I’ve found that I truly enjoy each stage of the writing process when I’m in it. The early stages of brainstorming and research and planning bring a rush of excitement, intrigue, and adventure into the unknown; drafting reveals a depth of unforeseen discoveries, the slow and meticulous carving of stone to reveal statue and the satisfying burn of strengthening muscles; and editing clarifies and sharpens, leaving something beautiful once the sting of its blade has dissipated.

Hidden among the “steps” in the writing journey is outlining—which, for how often it’s suggested and even demanded in academic settings, has a poor reputation. My fondness for outlining is no secret; I wrote a three-part series on the subject in 2019. I truly think that the general distaste for outlining is unfounded, and that the practice is so flexible and varied that most writers can find a method that’s beneficial to them. But I also think that such love of outlining gives off the impression that outlines are a pristine finished product, meticulously organized and color coded and, once committed to the page, unshakable and unedited. Perhaps this is also a carryover from academic assignments where teachers expected a very polished outline pre-paper that is then graded. When I’ve talked with people who don’t like outlining, that’s a common example of why they don’t like it—and, more importantly, why it wasn’t helpful. However, all of this misses the fundamental reason why outlines exist: outlines are our very first drafts.

At a basic level, writing is the organization of our thoughts onto the page (or screen). Every writer has to grapple with said organization, whether that’s before, during, or after the official drafting phase. Often, it happens in all three. And because there are so many small pieces that make up the finish product, there’s no way to avoid several drafts and several rounds of edits. There’s a reason why so many authors advise writing a bad first (or second) draft; there’s no way to avoid plot holes, redoing, removing, or adding characters, correcting typos, changing descriptions, and rearranging chapters. The instances where people create wonderful stories and poems their first try are the rare exception to the rule.

So, with that in mind, which is a better use of time and effort: writing 100,000 words and having to redo a decent part of them, or writing 1,000 words and having to redo a decent part of them? Obviously, writing fewer “rough” words means having fewer words to discard, revamp, and edit. That leaves more time and energy for the real meat of the story, and that’s the purpose of outlines. They’re the first awkward attempts to get your novel (or short story, or poem, or paper) to fly. They’re the sieve meant to catch all of our disjointed ideas and help sift through them for gold. They’re meant to be the testing ground for new scenes and dialogue snippets that pop into our heads. And they’re meant to help you catch major problems before you invest time and emotions into the often grueling process of actually writing.

I know that some will object to this idea because outlines seem too concrete and inflexible, or because they’re discovery writers who can’t get their ideas in order unless they write scenes or chapters. That’s fine, because every person’s brain works differently, and what’s helpful to one person may not do much for another. But, again, outlines are not just bullet point lists and strict, law-like rules that you must follow once you begin writing. A brief summary of the plot is an outline; a sentence describing the core events or themes of each chapter is an outline; a mess of sticky notes with ideas that you shuffle around is an outline. There are so many ways to outline, just like there are so many styles of prose or poetry. Plus, outlines can be changed just as you would change a written work.  I’m about 40% into writing my WIP and I’ve edited my outline countless times along the way once I discovered something I planned no longer works. It’s a tool that’s there to help me conceptualize what I intend to write before I do. And outlines, when allowed to be more fluid and exploratory, can facilitate the same discovery as writing but in a shorthanded way. That’s why they’re so helpful and why I love them so much. Writing is a long, delightful, arduous process, and any tool that can cut down on some of that arduousness is one I want to utilize as much as possible—and recommend as much as possible, too.

(For more outlining info and tips, check out my three-part outlining series: 1 2 3)

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