To Outline or Not to Outline, Is that a Question?


Writers talk about it incessantly. Outlining. “Do you outline?” One of the most frequent questions asked of writers, I imagine. Probably among nonfiction folks, the percentage of positive responses to this is high. However, in fiction this becomes murky. Newbie writers probably find that for every fiction writer who outlines there is one who doesn’t. In MFA programs, writers are also divided down lines of those who do and those who don’t. So, what’s with this outlining question?

Much of it has to do with the brain. Some people think in a linear fashion so an outline is imperative for them. They see the story in a chronological pattern from beginning to end. Other people are more random/chaotic and for this thinker, outlines are a curse.

Anyone who knows me, will tell you I’ve always been a random/chaotic. I’ve tried every six step program out there, but I’ve just learned to accept my brain and deal with it. And frankly, it works for me. I tried in my early days of writing to write from an outline. All my years in school had trained me well. I outlined my first novel from beginning to end. I thought with everything laid out for me that nothing could go wrong. I started diligently to work. I made it to the end of the first chapter. I pulled out the outline, changed it to reflect what my recalcitrant characters were doing, without my permission I might add. This went on for half the book before I realized that I can’t do it. Once my characters were fully evolved they took over. The main character was suddenly a minor character. A police detective had totally taken over her story. A character who wasn’t supposed to die, did. The list goes on and on. In the end, I spent so much time going back and revising the outline, I was not getting the novel finished.

Yes, I know I should have left the outline alone, but that’s another of my six step failures; if I have an outline, it has to match. I know. I need help. That first novel is in a file drawer along with the pain filled outline. I refuse to look at either even though I still like the characters.

In grad school, I met a lot of talented writers. Some of them used outlines. Some of them didn’t. And in the end, it didn’t make any difference in whose writing was better. It is all a matter of preference for the writer. It’s not really a question. It’s a bit like asking a left-handed person why they write with their left hand. A linear thinker will write in a linear mode and for most of them that will mean outlining. A random/chaotic will throw words on the page with the carefree abandon of a water balloon fight. All that matters is getting to that end point. How you get there won’t matter to your reader. When they’re soaking in that mystery or paranormal or whatever it is that you’ve written – and that’s keeping them up nights reading – I guarantee you they won’t be thinking, “I wonder if she wrote from an outline?”

What’s your preference? Do you prefer to write from an outline or do you let your characters go and hope you can keep up?

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