Home > Writing > To Outline or Not to Outline

To Outline or Not to Outline

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing. ”
― E.L. Doctorow

Agreed. Writing is writing. Planning, outlining and researching are a means to an end—a means to write.

Famous quotes are always a good jumping board. Let’s begin with one from Shakespeare:

“To be or not to be, that is the question.”

Let’s make our own quote for writers:

“To outline or not to outline, that is the question.”

It’s a question that can divide writers. It’s a question that brings out extreme opinions. There are two camps—and both can be pretty headstrong in their opinions!

Here are the two extremes:

  • OUTLINES ARE ESSENTIALS: Some would insist that not writing an outline somehow disqualifies one from being a real writer. They would insist that an outline is not just necessary, but essential to a polished plot.
  • OUTLINES KILL CREATIVITY: Others argue that creating an outline stunts their spontaneity, stifling the creative force. They may even go as far as to say that an outline is a mere crutch.

Does one side have to be right—and the other dead wrong?

Not necessarily. … I believe it’s a matter of personal preference. We’re all different. Some of us are compulsive list makers; some approach life with a “winging it” type attitude. Some thrive and produce when surrounded by activity and noise; others need solitude and peace in order to produce. Like I said, we’re all different.

We need to accept our differences and quit trying to pressure other people to squeeze into our personal mold.

If you’re an adamant outliner…

…accept the fact that there are great writers out there that will never be able to formulate a workable outline. It really will kill their creativity—or frustrate them so deeply that they give up on writing. Do you really want to kill their creativity? I doubt that’s the case.

If you’re one of those that look on outlines as a crutch…

…you’ll need to throw away your prejudice and accept that there are some who would be forced to live on continual pause if denied the right to draft an outline before writing their next bestseller. They just can’t write without an outline. For them, it is essential. Do you really want to push their pause button until it’s stuck in place? I doubt it. I think you are much kinder than that!

And then there’s those personalities that straddle the extremes…

…of which I happen to be one. I see the values on both sides. I’ve done one. I’m trying the other. I like both. There are pros and cons to both sides. I’m guessing I’ll flip flop between the extremes depending on my inspiration at the time. Okay, you have my permission to call me weird. It won’t be the first time! But hear me out. Hear the why and how:

    Betrayed, my first novel, began as a thought that got stuck in my mind. It settled in and refused to budge.  It was the idea of a man standing accused of murder, but with no memory of who he was or whether he really were guilty or not. My novel began on what is now chapter six with Jeremi coming to consciousness after a blow to his head. Police are swarming him. He reaches for a gun—but doesn’t have one. He’s shot, arrested, and accused of murdering an FBI agent. But there’s no memory to back it up. Is he guilty or not?

    • PROS: The pure fun of having the story flow onto paper, of having an adventure each day I wrote, waiting to see where the story took me. Pure creativity that is not stifled one bit. That can be a pretty great pro!
    • CONS: After I began writing, I did have to figure out how Jeremi got into this predicament—which brought into existence chapters one through five. And yes, there are the inevitable tweaks to be made to be sure they story line agrees with itself.
    Always one to try something new and suggested—and not afraid to try it big—I’ve mapped out a chapter by chapter outline for a trilogy. I’m not that far into writing it yet—and I’m not dogmatic that I have to stick to the letter of the law with it.

    • PROS: I know where I’m headed. I can read the chapter heading and thoughts and start writing. Many of the kinks are already worked out.
    • CONS: If I take it too seriously, I may become a stickler for the outline, and lose creativity. But fear not, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m only three chapters into book one of the trilogy and one of those chapters didn’t exist on the outline—but morphed into being, seemingly necessary and appropriate! I think I’m actually going to like this outline concept—even if I’ve already written three books without one!

The real question is: What works for YOU? It doesn’t really matter what works for me. It doesn’t matter what works for J.K. Rowling or John Grisham. What matters is what works for YOU. Figure that out and keep writing!

Comments anyone? I would love to know which extreme works for you! Any practical suggestions to share? I’d love those too!

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I am a pastor’s wife, former missionary, mother of four great sons, and author of three books: Betrayed, Identity Revealed, and A Murder Unseen. (Available at: Amazon.com.) I have a passion for God, my family, and writing! Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Have a question? Email Me!

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  1. Zen
    May 15, 2012 at 6:32 am

    I’m the type who prefers to work without outlines. I’ve tried making outlines before, but every single time I end up straying from them. What I usually do these day is just start writing a story with no outline whatsoever and see where it carries me. If I hit a road block, I will stop and draw up a flowchart with possible sequences of events, and pick the one which suits me the most, though I don’t force myself to stick to the events I’d listed.

    • May 15, 2012 at 6:54 am

      I’ll have to let you know after I’ve finished at least the first book of the trilogy how close I stayed to the outline. An outline is definitely is meant to be an aid–not bonds that restrict us. Keep doing what works for you. 🙂

  2. May 15, 2012 at 8:55 am

    I have gone both ways. I find that an outline or too much research kills the creativity. I usually just sit down with an idea – scratched on an index card or scrap of paper – and just start banging away. Another great post, Rosie!

    • May 15, 2012 at 9:18 am

      So good to hear I am not alone in writing without an outline—even if I am trying one at this point! For a while I felt a bit “guilty” about not using one. It was like, “Dare I admit it?!” But it worked for me. I’m probably trying it now because I’ve had an idea for this trilogy in my mind and knew I wasn’t going to get to write it immediately. Hence, an outline. I get to write the basic plot and flesh it out later. 🙂

  3. ontheplumtree
    May 15, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    I don’t outline. I write…see what emerges and then add add structure, if I am writing fiction or poetry. If I am writing a report, I outline…

    • May 15, 2012 at 2:14 pm

      And you’ve had some great stories emerge! 🙂

      • ontheplumtree
        May 15, 2012 at 2:51 pm

        Thank You! Very kind of you to say so.

  4. May 18, 2012 at 8:39 am

    I’ve only completed one book, but I have to admit, I tend to feel like an outline is a bit restrictive. I will say that I did write a list of major issues I wanted to make sure it hit as I wrote, but not necessarily in any order. My last chapter ended up being chapter 8. So things did move around a bit. I find when I’m writing creatively I tend to let it flow and then go back and organize and add structure. The trick is to make sure that everything does actually fit. Anyways, I enjoyed your thoughts on this, Rosie, and it helps me as I continue to develop my writing skills.

    • May 18, 2012 at 9:04 am

      Hi Tabitha! Good to hear from you. I know what you mean about chapter numbers changing! Chapter one of “Betrayed” ended up being chapter six when it was complete. 🙂 Letting the story flow out has been how I’ve done it up until now. Once I’ve written this trilogy I have outlined, maybe I’ll have a different view on what works best for me. But really, that’s what it boils it: What works best for us an the unique individuals we are!

  1. May 15, 2012 at 6:30 am
  2. May 28, 2012 at 8:10 pm

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