When it comes to writing, organization can mean the difference between success and failure. And when it comes to organization, an outline is an important tool.
Before we go any further let me stop to say this: it is a rookie mistake to think that the use of an outline has anything to do with a writer's skill level. Let me say that again.
Outlines are not indicative of writing skill or lack thereof. They are not a crutch. They are not something only a beginner needs. You may have heard differently. You may be under the impression that if you are a “proper” writer you won't need to use an outline. This is not true.
An outline is a tool to help you organize the information you want to share with your readers. End of story. This is true whether you outline a story before you write it or use an outline to analyze a rough draft prior to revision. An outline is an organizational tool.
Whether this particular tool is right for you is something only you can judge.
Here's how an outline can help you writing a rough draft.
- The Big Picture – it's easy to get lost when dealing with 80k words or more. An outline keeps the whole of the story in view even when the subplots are especially twisty or a slow spot is threatening to drag the whole project under.
- The Road Map – getting from point A to point Z is not always as simple as it sounds. Sometimes just getting to point B is a challenge. An outline gives you a chance to connect the dots before you're facing the additional challenge of writing.
- The Progress Chart – while this can be a double-edged sword, an outline shows you how much progress you're making toward the end of the story. (Or, how much progress you aren't making, but either way you know how far you've gotten.)
- I'm Bored – if you're like me you might find that writing from beginning to end is sometimes... boring. With an outline you can skip around, writing the parts that seem interesting to you on any given day and still keep the whole thing on track. (More or less.)
Here's how an outline can help you edit your novel.
- All of the Above – editing is a frequently dreaded step of the writing process. And, given that the novel is just as many words to edit as it was to write in the first place, all of the reasons an outline can help during the rough draft apply to the editing process as well.
- What The Hell Is This? - if you've never gone back to look at the first draft of a novel and thought “What the heck did I write?”, never fear – that moment will come. (Sooner or later.) Creating a new outline (based on what you actually wrote and not just what you intended to write) is the first step to evaluating what should be kept, what needs serious revisions and what should be cut out entirely.
“But what if I don't want to use an outline?” you say.
Well, an outline is a tool and, like any other tool, not everyone will get the same productivity out of it. I, personally, find outlines to be enormously helpful, but not everyone has my brain so not everyone will get the same results.
Here's why an outline might not be right for you.
- My Hands are Tied – although it isn't true that an outline is binding, some people find the idea of plotting a story before they are writing the actual story to be restrictive. Or they find that the creativity seems to shut down once the story is laid out in black and white bullet points.
- The Outline That Ate Chicago – believe it or not, sometimes you can get so caught up in writing the outline you never actually get around to writing the story. If you find you've spent three years on the outline (or even three months) you might consider that it's time to move on to the next step – writing. If the problem persists, outlines may be more of a hindrance than a help.
The most important thing to remember is that not every novel is the same. It doesn't matter if you use an outline or not. What matters is that you are using every available tool to help you write more productively. Sometimes that means winging it. Other times you may need more organization. Whether you need to pick up an outline or put it away, remember: an outline is a tool, not an indication of skill (or lack thereof).
So, what have you written today?