When the topic of outlining comes up in writing circles, the responses are usually polar opposites: either it is frowned upon or it is recommended. The great thing about writing is that every writer has their own process that works for them, but when a new or struggling writer asks for advice, they don’t always receive a definitive answer. The real answer is, “Do what works best for you.” Not really the response that these inquiring writers are hoping for.
Personally, I like outlining first. When writing longer pieces, I have a tendency to forget things, so having something to reference helps me stay on track. But again, this is my personal preference. I don’t judge writers who don’t outline their stories. Here are some things to consider if you are unsure if outlining is right for you.
Do you feel that you’ll be able to keep everything straight as you’re writing? If so, that’s awesome. If not, that’s cool too because you can outline it. An outline is not a crutch, but rather a partner that helps keep your story on track. Plot-driven novels would benefit more from outlining, since making sure things happen in the right order at the right time requires strict organization. That’s not to say that character-driven novels wouldn’t benefit from outlining as well; scenes still need to happen in a specific order to keep the reader engaged.
What if I don’t know all the details yet?
Often when writers think of outlining, they think they need to know their entire plot and all the details before writing. That is untrue. Outlining can actually help you flesh out those details by making you think deeper into each main plot point. Begin your outline by listing the main events that you do know will be happening in the story. These can be general points or specific scenes. Then, ponder each event and think of a few main points that will occur. For example, if you know you want a scene between two characters that will occur in a specific location, list under that heading things they do and discuss. By doing this, you are building on your story and creating a stable path on which to write from.
Also, know that you don’t have to complete an outline before writing. Something I like to do is start with a general outline, then add to it as I write. Often times when we write, the story takes a turn we didn’t expect, or we decide something else should be added or moved around. Change and build on the outline along the way so you can reference your changes.
How should I create an outline?
The answer to this really is, “Do what works for you.” Since outlines are to help you stay organized and on track, think about how you can do this visually to best help you. There’s nothing wrong with doing the outlining format they teach you in high school, with the alternating numbers and letters as you expand each heading. Using bolding or color coding make this a very efficient outline.
Another way is to use index cards, where each card represents an event or scene. On one side of the card, write the title of the event, and on the back you can list the individual things that happen within that scene. You can hang these up on the wall in a timeline fashion or keep them in a stack on your desk to easily flip through at any time.
If you feel strongly enough in favor of outlining and enjoy using technology, there is software out there specifically for outlining. Though there are programs like Writer’s Dreamkit or Dramatica where it is meant to get every little detail out of you (I’m not putting down these programs; I’ve used the former and it’s pretty cool), there is also software that is dedicated solely to outlining—none of the extra fluff and not nearly as expensive. The one I like a lot is called Outline 4D, which uses both the traditional outline method I mentioned above, as well as a timeline view. The timeline view, however, can be confusing if your story really depends a lot on time and when things happen, so for that I use Aeon Timeline. (I’m not affiliated with any of these, I’ve just used them in my own writing.)
Still not sure?
If I haven’t convinced you to at least give outlining a try, let me suggest again that if you are considering whether outlining is a good option for you, the only way to know is to try it. You might discover that planning ahead of time doesn’t work with your writing style. Many writers like to just start writing and let the story lead them. Or you might see that it is helping you get a handle on your story before you begin, and you have a path to follow—a path that can change at anytime as you write. The only cost for trying is a bit of your time.