To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Question

By Guest Author

This is a guest post by Idrees Patel. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.

Creative writers are divided into two camps: those who outline and those who don’t: the ones who write straight on and on. Is it wrong to outline? Which method brings the best results?

From the beginning of writing, some people like to write an outline before starting writing. However, there are also many which hate to do so. And then there are some who mix the two methods to create their own method.

But which is the best?

There is no right answer for everyone. You must find your own right answer. Of course, this is the right answer… but an elaboration for it isn’t quite a bad idea.

So here’s the proper answer: outlining works for some people. And it doesn’t for others. The what and why of outlining is a must to know, so therefore, here is…

The What of Outlining

To outline is to draw something of a big picture of your work (it may be anything, a novel, a story, a blog post, a sales letter etc) before starting to write the content. Outlining means to write all the ideas spinning in your mind down to paper and arrange them in a logical fashion to make the actual writing easier.

Still confused? Here is the Wikipedia definition:

An outline is a list of the main features of a given topic, often used as a rough draft or summary of the content of a document. A hierarchical outline is a list arranged to show hierarchical relationships. Writers of fiction and creative nonfiction, such as Jon Franklin, may use outlines to establish plot sequence, character development and dramatic flow of a story, sometimes in conjunction with freewriting.

Here is what a typical outline may look like:

The abuses of television:

  • How children stay late at night and don’t do their school homework
  • How they hamper their eyesight by watching too much TV
  • How bad programmes have a dangerous effect on teenagers
  • How they dedicate too much time to it instead of taking part in useful pursuits

And so on. The general opinion is that by doing outlining the writing process will become easier. Why? Because we now have a roadmap which we can follow. Or not…

The Advantages of Outlining

1. Not getting lost. This is clearly the biggest advantage. Some SOTP (seat of the pants writers) hate outlining. They write without having a roadmap and this is fun for some time. And then… the inevitable happens. They don’t know what to write anymore. In contrast, having an outline means that writers always know what to write.

2. Deciding whether your work is good or not. If you don’t know how your story is going to end or go on, then you don’t really know whether it is good or not. It would be painful, wouldn’t it, to discover big plot holes and flaws after having written 50,000 words. Whereas if you outline you know instantly what flaws there are, and you can correct them easily.

3. Straying off the outline if you get a better way. If you are writing and then suddenly get an inspiration and think that the outline was poorer, you are entirely free to stray off the outline. It’s just that, an outline. This way you can compare the two ways, and decide which is better. You couldn’t do this if you didn’t have an outline.

4. Writing with a sense of flow. You know how this will go on. After finishing this, you know you’ve got to do that. Then there are no messy unorganized chapters and scenes (or whatever you’re else you’re writing). You get a sense of flow, and your work will be finished faster.

The Disadvantages of Outlining

1. Spoils the mystery and the fun. Okay, sometimes you may not want mystery and you may not want any fun. In that case, you should ignore this point. But for fiction writers, some don’t want to outline because they feel they cannot use their creativity and it takes away all the fun if you just fill it up. To solve this problem, Randy Ingermanson revealed a new method – the Snowflake method. It does let you outline, but doesn’t let it spoil your story.

2. May not be as good as you first thought. If you get a complete different idea for your story later, your outline is pretty much useless work. Therefore, you should try to get all the best ideas from your brain and commit them down to paper to avoid this problem.

3. Just doesn’t seem to agree with your writing style. Some people find it hard to write from an outline. They want their writing to be creative: as creative as possible. I’m one of those writers, although I sometimes write few of my ideas so that I don’t forget it. Lengthy outlining doesn’t work for some, although it does for others. It’s useless to find a one-size-fit-all outlining method, simply because there’s no such thing.

Conclusion: Undecided, no right answer for everyone

It all comes back to square zero. There are ton of different writing methods and processes, even different outlining methods. But don’t just try to use one because it happens to be popular or famous. It may not work for you, and cost you a whole load of precious time.

Only use the method which your brain seems to like. My writing method is a bit of a mix: not an outline and not a SOTP. Maybe yours is too; or maybe you like outlining in its most literal sense. Or maybe you hate it and just like to write freely. Take your pick and have fun. No reason to write if you don’t even like your writing method.

Outlining works for some people. Some famous authors can’t write without a lengthy synopsis. If you’re an outliner, you’re in good company. And of course outlining doesn’t work for some people. If you’re a SOTP, you too are in good company of famous authors. Finally, if you choose to be creative and mix it up a little, you’ll find plenty more authors with your method. Just write with which you’re most comfortable.

So that’s it. After having learned the advantages and disadvantages of outlining, it’s your choice whether you choose to use it or not. It doesn’t really matter as long as you enjoy writing. Write and love it.

About the Author: Idrees Patel is a 13 year old blogging about creative writing tips at Writers’ Treasure. Check out his free series, Creative Writing 101: a beginner’s guide to creative writing.

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14 Responses to “To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Question”

  • Idrees Patel

    Thanks, Daniel, for letting me guest post on Daily Writing Tips. I had a lot of fun writing this. Readers, I forgot to add a ‘Have Your Say’ section in the post, but anyway, don’t forget to leave a comment.

  • CJ

    For me, I find writing without an outline allows my characters to develop organically in response to the events of the story. I’ve been forced to use outlines by creative writing instructors before and I always reach a point where my outline no longer works because my characters have grown to the point where it would be out of character for them to act the way I planned. Generally, I to some extent plan out the beginning and ending of my story in my head and allow my characters to find a way to get there. I usually don’t have a problem with unnecessary scenes; my rule is that if I’m bored writing it, it’s probably boring to read. So when I get in that situation, I think “How can I make this situation more challenging for my main character?” or “Do I really need to reveal this information or can a reader infer it from what’s already happening?”

    I do sometimes keep some basic notes, though, about details I don’t want to forget.

  • Idrees Patel

    @CJ – Good for you. As I said in the post, there’s no point to outline if your writing style doesn’t seem to agree with it. Years ago, I came across a grammar book and it recommended that before writing essays you should have an outline. I followed the instructions, but my creativity was destroyed, and I had trouble writing every word. Next time? I went back to my own method. Much more fun.

    The two questions you ask yourself are great. I’ve copy-pasted them into a text document and will ask myself when I reach that same situation. Hope you don’t mind. They are great and important questions to ask yourself.

    Thanks for the comment,
    Idrees Patel

  • CJ

    Outlines don’t help me much with essay writing, either. I do sometimes find those ‘thought-webs’ useful for organizing information before I start, though.

    Sure, go ahead.

  • Janice

    An outline is like a map, as pointed out. Sometimes it is much more fun to just travel without out a map – in New Zealand we nickname that a ‘tiki tour’ = especially for spontaneous people. You may also be so familiar with a certain route that you no longer need a map.
    There are times when a map is really needed though – and that’s when you want to get somewhere unfamiliar, and you have a deadline to meet. You simply don’t have time to wander across the countryside until you happen upon your desired destination.
    Maps are therefore useful for some occasions, but may just be an unwanted restriction for others.
    I think therefore your advice to use outlines if and when it suits you is good, but not just based on your personality type. It is also helpful to recognise that circumstances may also direct you whether an outline is needed or not.

  • Idrees Patel

    @Janice – Great point. Sometimes we just have to use outlines regardless of like or dislike. Deadlines are a great example of this, just as you suggested, because we have to know how much time this will take. Some writers solve this problem by keeping a log book (I read about this in Randy Ingermanson’s ezine) so that they know how fast they write.

    “Not just based on your personality type”… yeah I agree. There are lots of reasons writers choose to use outlines and not use outlines. I mean, do you outline for a short story? Most writers don’t. Whereas there are many writers outlining novels…

    So I think the bottomline is that if it helps you, then you should outline. If it doesn’t – don’t.

  • April Dawn

    I always hated being forced to do rough drafts and outlines in school. From the moment we started doing serious writing in school, it was something I despised. In fact, the entire editing process was irritating. The worst I had a problem with was occasionally writing a word twice because of some sort of distraction. In High School it was especially irritating because the Teacher would insist on outlines of everything and actually doing the work in class, with a pencil and paper, while I would wait until the last minute to write whatever it was that was assigned and write an “outline” afterward.

  • e.lee

    another way to approach outlining is like a plan of attack.

  • Janice

    Do you think that an outline is most suitable for non-fiction? I think so; and that is perhaps why the most ‘organic’ writers, who probably tend more toward writing fiction, are most averse to using an outline.
    I am also writing about outlining on my blog, on http://www.wordsandscenes.co.nz
    You are welcome to add comments.

  • Kelly

    Great points everyone, really! I use outlines sometimes, like when I write something that’s non-fiction, or editorial in nature. It helps me get my thoughts straight, so I don’t go off topic. When I write fiction or for fun, like a short story, I write a general synopsis, but not an outline.

  • Idrees Patel

    @E. Lee – Good point, although I must admit that when I first read your comment my head spun and I was confused. Could be because my school started again after holidays… Anyway, the analogy is helpful.

    @Janice – Personally, I think that outlines should be used carefully, so it isn’t that non fiction books should use more outlines because it’s good to do so. Some writers may write a better book with a different method. But others will find outlines helpful.

    I looked at your site, and although the content is great, the design isn’t very attractive. I suggest changing your page background to white to help readability. If you like the current colour, you can set it as the site background colour so that the content will be on a white background and the rest of the background will be the current colour. All the best!

    @April Dawn – I always hate teachers who “insist” on something. I’ve been fortunate that my English teachers understand that writing is different for everyone and don’t try to “force” some so called writing process upon me. If I had been in your situation, I think then even I would have come to hate outlining.

    But as I said, outlining is great for some people and some situations, and bad for others. If you search for “To outline or not to outline” you can read the other articles that come up. Their message is pretty similar.

    @Kelly – Your method is great. Sometimes outlines should be used sometimes (doesn’t make sense but you know what I mean).

    Thanks, everyone, who’s left a comment.

  • Janice

    Thank you for your comments Idrees. Outlines certainly don’t have to be rigid.
    Concerning my web site, I have just taken over being ‘administrator’ for my site, from the person who made it for me. Its a learning curve, that’s for sure. I have often wondered if the blue colour is too strong, so I appreciate having feedback.

  • Shelby

    I find the outline very distasteful. I always hated outlines in school and still do. If I were to sit down and attempt an outline for a novel, I’d still be sitting there and never get the book done. For me, they just get in the way. When I write, I never know which direction my story is going to take. I’ve been told by other writing friends that I should start outlining first. They say it will flesh out my stories more. I appreciate their advice (really, I do!), but I like the mystery of writing more. To those that do outline, that’s great. Whatever works for the writer is always best.

  • Ken Ward

    As a writer of biographical history I find outlining essential. The outline usually starts with notes obtained during my research, it is then cut and pasted into a more chronological form. The real writing can then begin. I can deviate from the chronological order of the outline but could not work without it.

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