You're Wrong About Book Outlines

Posted by Tenesha Curtis on

Think you need an outline to write a good book? Believe using an outline limits your creativity? Either way, you're wrong. 

Defining an Outline

A book outline is just a list of plot points for your book. An outline can vary in its level of detail from low (first scene, climax scene, ending) to high (opening, middle, and end for each scene in every chapter). It's similar to a blueprint for building a house or a sketch for a sculpture. It's a way to organize your thoughts about the elements of the book so that you have a path available to follow should you get stuck on some of the details of your narrative or veer too far from your intended ending or theme. People who don't use outlines before writing their pieces are often referred to "pantsers" or "gardeners." People who use outlines are often referred to as "plotters" or "architects." 

Why You Shouldn't Use Outlines to Write Books

The issue of writing with an outline has come up in private conversations with writers about the craft, feedback and questions from students of my Self-publishing 101 and 12-month Manuscript Workshop courses, and comments made by people in the various critique groups that I am a member of. One of the most consistent things I've heard regarding why someone refuses to use an outline is (some version of) because it limits their creativity. This has never made much sense to me because an outline is just a plan—not an ultimatum, nothing is written in stone. Some brief sentences on paper or on a screen don't have the power to limit anyone's creativity as far as I can tell. 

You don't have to write out every scene idea you put in your outline. You can change any and everything about it as you go—the location, the action, character names, scene length, and so on. If you create an outline that you're trying to follow to a T, I'd say you're probably not using the outline in the most effective way for yourself. 

Here's another analogy. Your outline is like your GPS-provided route if you want to get from your house to the nearest grocery store. You have a plan for how to get from point A to point B. However, along that trail, you may decide to make changes.

For instance, if you stop at the cleaners, you've technically veered off your course. But there's nothing wrong with that, it isn't a bad thing to knock an extra errand off your list on the way. If you find out there's an accident on a major highway, you'd probably switch to street-level navigation. No problem. After any side trips you take, you may decide that your destination itself has changed and now you need to end up at the bank instead of the grocery store. Fine.

Any and all of these kinds of things can happen on the way to the end of your book—and that's okayThe point is to get the thing written. 

If you believe you shouldn't use an outline to plan out your story, I hope it's because you have actually attempted to create an outline for something and it didn't work out. Not because you think it will be a problem for you based on other people's viewpoints. You shouldn't use an outline when writing a book because you know first-hand that it doesn't help you write cleaner narrative (saving revision time) or doesn't help you write any faster (eliminating getting "stuck" on  a scene for long). 

Why You Should Use Outlines to Write Books

What some people think is great about outlining is that it saves you time in the editing process because you've made a plan up front that will help you "stay on the rails" in a sense. This can be especially helpful if you have a tendency to write in circles if there isn't some grounding theme or focus point for your creativity. 

However, I encourage you not to believe any of these next three things are automatically true just because you're working from an outline:

  1. Your book is going to be "perfect" (whatever the hell that means).
  2. You won't have to revise any part of your manuscript once it is complete.
  3. You've got a compelling story on your hands.

You can use an outline to write a story that is still riddled with plot holes and character inconsistencies (trust me, I've seen and / or done it). 

You can use an outline to write a story and still need ample revisions to get the book to look the way you want. 

You can use an outline to write a story and the story can still be crap that very few people want to read. 

Warning: This is going to sound familiar:

If you believe you must use an outline to plan out your story, I hope it's because you have actually attempted to complete a manuscript without an outline and it didn't work out. Not because you perceive there's a problem with pantsing based on what other people are saying. You should use an outline when writing a book because you know first-hand that it helps you write cleaner narrative or helps you write faster. 

The Bottom Line: Do What Works For You

Some dorks like me need an outline because we have creative ADD and when we're imagining new worlds, people, and scenarios, we will easily end up with a pile of unrelated ideas that "seemed cool" in our heads. For us, outlines serve as beacons that we can keep walking toward even as we take a tangential trip over here to describe a new character or explore an iffy subplot over there. 

Other nerds are so disciplined (bless them!) that if they create an outline, their neurosis will not allow them to stray from it more than a inch or so. Therefore, if they have an outline for their book, they will feel a need to stick to it (to the letter), and they will feel trapped during the writing process and probably won't enjoy it very much.

If you've never used an outline before, I recommend that you try it once or twice and see how it feels for you. If you've always used an outline, I recommend that you try 'pantsing' a novel or short story once or twice and assess the results.

Pay attention to how the change affects your piece and the writing process. Does your work come out stronger or weaker? Does it lessen or lengthen the amount of time it takes you to finish your manuscript? Did you have to do more or less editing than normal once the first draft was out of the way? 

If the change was beneficial, congratulations on finding a more efficient writing strategy for yourself. If the change wasn't helpful, no harm done. Now you know for certain what works for you as a writer based on personal experience. 

So, if you think everyone must always use an outline, you're wrong. If you think no one should ever use an outline, you are also incorrect. Each person should use an outline if and when it benefits them to do so. 

SPECIAL NOTE: The next time someone tries to tell you to 'never' or 'always' use an outline, consider whether or not that person has ever published anything (novel, magazine article, white paper, etc.) or even completed a manuscript. If not, take their opinion (even if they state it as a fact) with a grain of salt and continue to use whatever writing methods work best for you. 


Image Source



Leave a comment