Should You Write an Outline?

These next few weeks leading up to November will have lots of newbie scribblers looking for inspiration and writing advice.  Some authors kindly share their secrets to their success, and it’s always a good idea, and fascinating too, to read up on the different paths that led to famous writer’s successes, but not so much a good idea to stubbornly follow anyone else’s rules, without first finding out your own. They know the road to their success, but that won’t necessarily be the road to yours.  We all develop our own patterns and habits over time by writing the way we naturally do.  Certainly, try out various techniques, but at the end of the day, follow your own instinctive processes – write the way that makes you happy.  Find your own comfort zone – you’ll know when you’re there.

Outlines work for some authors, and they might go so far as to say that you can’t write a cohesive tale without one.  I sometimes do outline, but mostly I don’t.  I only have an outline for my science-fiction series, but it changes so constantly and dramatically as the characters show me what’s really going to happen, that I wonder if the time I spent creating it was a waste of time.  Looking at a couple of famous authors – Dean R Koonz never, ever outlines.  He says that he starts with two interesting characters and a brief premise, and that character development is never a separate task.  He says that for him, plotting resolves itself in the process of writing.  Me too.  He doesn’t write the whole book before editing though, and revises it pretty minutely as he goes along, so by the time he’s done, he’s pretty much done.  I don’t revise much as I go along, which works for me.  He’s also known for writing for twelve hours straight through, without eating lunch.  Owie!  Occasionally yes, but no way every day for me.  These things work for him, very well indeed, but they probably won’t work for everyone.

Stephen King also doesn’t outline.  In his book, On Writing, he says, “I often have an idea what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way.  On the contrary.  I want them to do things their way.”  I personally agree with him.  My writing comfort zone is typing the first sentence, and then seeing where my characters go.  I have written a few outlines, but for some reason they always end up being forgotten.  What works for me, or any other writer, doesn’t matter though, if you prefer knowing exactly where you want your story to go.  The best advice here is to outline if you want to, but if you don’t, then enjoy that crazy trip of allowing your story to happen to you.  Another quote from our dear Steve.  “Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub.”  This is especially true.  Writing your stories comes from you.  It’s not a group activity with absolute written in stone rules.  Follow your own rules.

One final bit of Stephen King writing trivia.  He consistently writes ten pages a day (two thousand words) and will not allow himself to stop for the day until he has those words down unless there is a dire emergency.  This isn’t as hard as it seems once you get into the habit actually, and more is easy too when you find yourself on a fabulous roll.  Dean Wesley Smith suggests that an average word count of five and a half thousand words per day is doable, writing for eight hours a day every day for five days a week, and that he in fact knows writers who do this.  In this case I would imagine that an outline really would be essential.  He’s talking about writers of pulp fiction though, who strove to churn out their stories really quickly to support themselves.  I wouldn’t want to put myself through this sort of thing at all, so I follow my own pace, and my own rules.

I wouldn’t agonise too much about creating an in-depth outline, unless you particularly want to, for this year’s NaNoWriMo if you’re doing the challenge.  Have your general idea, plonk your characters down on the page, and let them show you the way.

To Outline or Not to Outline

Author: jorobinson176

South African writer.

31 thoughts on “Should You Write an Outline?”

  1. I’m a pantliner? Hmm.. that doesn’t sound good. Start as a pantster then get about 1/3 of the way in and suddenly realise I have to work out where the story is going. Do and outline and then, like you, promptly forget 80% of it. 😀

    Nano though is pure pantstering for me. It’s also the time I allow myself to try new things, even things I don’t normally like. Just for fun.:)

    Liked by 3 people

    1. LOL – pantliner! That’s an epic addition to writerly jargon. I’m totally with you. If I could have I would have liked to have a go at writing something funny for this year, but I’ve got deadlines instead. Next year with a bit of luck. 🙂 Are you in it this year?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. lol – yes, can’t have enough of the jargon. 😀 And no, I have a fairly heavy teaching schedule coming up and those thought processes tend to kill my ‘creativity’. Was thinking about signing up and just doing as much as I could but…I’m rarely that kind to myself. I’d probably stress out too much. Maybe next year too.


  2. Hi, there! New to writing here (I had to look up what NaNoWriMo was, and I think I’d like to participate). I found your post through a reblog on another site I follow. I agree that the process of writing looks different from author to author, and one has to find whatever works for the individual. Sort of like parenting children, ha.

    I appreciated the quotes from Stephen King. He’s one of the most prolific writers around, and even though his writing is all in pretty much the same genre each book, it’s a different story each book (that I’ve read of his so far). I appreciate that quite a bit, he’s a writer I respect a lot.

    Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading it.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi there back atcha! Writerly self-parenting – love it – we’ve got new things happening here today. 🙂 The NaNoWriMo is a fabulous way to dive right in. There’s no time to agonise and backtrack after every sentence. You write without fear because you’re not expecting perfection, and that’s when you do your best kind of scribbling. Good luck if you decide to join, and pop back and let us know how you’re doing. There are a couple of others here who are doing it this year – we’ll be cheering all of you on.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I recently read the Stephen King book and although not a great fan of his work, the book was full of wise nuggets interspersed with funny interesting life stories. Didn’t you feel the book changed slightly following his horrific accident – only for the better though? I definitely wing it most of the way, although a vague plot outline rests in my head!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Winging it really is exhilarating – educational too. Before I did the NaNo I was ridiculously OCD about going over each sentence I’d written for each day. Wasted hours and hours. You’re right – I reckon that accident actually changed him forever. It must have been surreal having that guy sitting there and chatting away so casually while he lay there all mangled up. Even though that guy should never have been behind the wheel of a car, I did feel sorry for him a little – just dying like that – all alone.


  4. I love the advice to follow your instincts and find your own style. I started as a pantser and the rewrites were torturous. I cut 25% of the book and felt like I was being flayed. Now I’m a dedicated outliner with lots of room for the characters to negotiate changes. I’m thinking of doing nanonano this year. Is the tracking a lot of work? The site felt a little overwhelming.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re obviously doing the right thing Diana – your books are magical. How do you mean tracking? What you do is just type your manuscript in Word or whichever system you use, then you copy and paste your daily input onto your NaNo site each day and it calculates your progress. Only word count is taken into consideration and nobody there sees what you’ve written, so no chance of plagiarism in any way too. It’s honestly easy peasy. If you fancy having a go, I’d be really happy to help by email if you like – you’d get it in a minute, and I’d TOTALLY stalk what you’re writing for it as often as you let us know. Probably you won’t blog a whole lot – or bake cakes – or get out of your jammies though. The writing makes November a whole other dimension.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. COOL! The most wonderful thing about the NaNo is that NO blog posts are expected – no visiting other blogs – NADA except for writing. We will still love you at the end. A month of unadulterated writing is so liberating and creative. In fact – no cooking, cleaning, talking too – you get to totally immerse yourself in the scribbling for thirty days. I’ll have a word with Ron and see if we can have a list maybe of LWI guys on the NaNo bus so that we can woot you guys along your way. 🙂 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks, Jo. I also usually go with a general idea (perhaps a few notes) and set off to wherever the characters want to go. For the YA trilogy I wrote an outline for each book, although with hardly any detail, only the general direction of the plot. Yes, there’s no point in trying to do things how somebody else does them. We have to find our way.


  6. I noticed someone said they’re a pantliner, that’s funny because I call myself a plotser. (plotter/pantser). I get an idea, write down pointers I want to include in chapter, and away I go. The pointers are in list form to remind me about the points I need to make in the appropriate chapters. 🙂 Actually, kind of what Tess said.


  7. Reblogged this on J Barron Owens and commented:
    I have read so much about the necessity of outlining your novel that I found it interesting that two of my favorite authors don’t do it at all. This is an interesting perspective on the idea of pantsing your work.


  8. I read Steven King’s book and felt so much better about my lack of outlines 🙂 You’re right, writing isn’t a by-the-book kind of thing. Pun intended. (that’s a pun, right? 🙂


  9. Absolutely! I am so reassured to find that even the great and famous don’t find the need to write with an outline. I don’t either, but on the rare occasion I have, my characters have deviated from it so dramatically it was worthless and useless. I just give in to them now; they are much better at this sort of thing than me. Also, I was interested in the comments on editing; I do edit as I go along, and it does slow the process down, but I can’t help it. I can’t move on to the next chapter before the current one is as perfect as I can make it. And I am not a perfectionist by nature, believe it or not!


  10. It’s reassuring to know very successful authors don’t outline either. Good post.

    I sometimes do outline, but mostly I don’t. < yep me too. Never have, never will probably unless I embark on a very complicated book with a massive landscape.


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