How Outlines Help Write Your Story

I’ve been thinking about writing process these days. Credit it to the Stephen King NY Times article where the generations talk about being writers (the entire family writes, either for a living or as a big part of their life), but I’ve been thinking about what it takes to produce a novel and to produce more than one at a time. For me,first there is the grain of an idea. That kernel that you can’t get out of your teeth and try to tease apart in your brain. (I use my morning commutes for this, typing out my ideas on my phone while on the train to work). Then comes the need to outline. That’s what separates an idea from a novel. If you can’t make an outline work, then chances are it will take you much longer and much more effort to write it.

Gute Idee

As an agent, I’d often ask writers to send me their synopses or outlines along with their manuscript. The outline showed me that they’d worked out the kinks of their story and the manuscript showed me their writing ability. I’d gauge how much work a story needed based, not only on the manuscript, but the outline as well. A good outline doesn’t have all the details worked out, but it does contain world building information, character information, and plot points that will help a writer pull a story together in a way that make it seamless for the reader to enjoy the book. They don’t have to keep track of what’s going on because you’ve laid out the manuscript in a clear way.

I work with outlines especially when revising a manuscript. Whether for my own writing or for someone else, outlines hold the key to revisions. How? They’re the blueprint that you used when constructing your book. They measure how closely you followed your plan and if you veered off course, by changing the character or adding insight to your world. I like outlines because they build up your ability to write more than one book at a time (if you’re into that kind of thing, as many writers want to focus). That steady production makes it easier to write regularly that can translate into writing full-time since you’re nearly always producing something for your readers.

Be sure to comment on whether you outline or not. I’m curious to see what works for writers out there.

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6 responses

  1. I’m an outliner, but I’m definitely not a fanatic about it. I don’t, like some writers I’ve heard about, write a thirty page outline for a two hundred page novel. I write what I call a scene outline–just the bare bones, a paragraph or so, describing what I envision will happen on the page in each scene that takes place in the story. No description, no dialogue (unless something profound pops into my head that demands to be written down before I forget it). I generally write the scene descriptions in the order they will appear in the story, but of course once I have all of them down on my document or on paper, I’m free to switch them around, delete them, or add new ones. It’s a fluid process, and it continues to be so even after I’ve begun writing my first and subsequent rough (and not-so-rough) drafts.

    I do it because it works. It gives me a road map for where I’m going and how I’ll get there. Young readers sometimes ask me how I avoid writers block, and I tell them outlining is the key. I may not always know how I’m going to say something, but at least I know what I’m going to say, and that’s the best way to keep frustration out of your writing life. There are enough frustrations without begging for more.

    • Thanks for sharing Dave! I like that you use outlines to ward off writers block. I find outlines helpful for coming back to a story after a while. That way you know what you meant to write and can judge if it makes sense/you achieved your goal or need to revise.

  2. I sometimes take extensive notes on a story before I start writing. It sounds like your first draft might be the equivalent of an outline and then you flesh it out. All good techniques!

  3. Is it better to do an utline before your first draft? I find that as i write i have the story in my head and just put it down on paper or computer. Ive had to go back several times to rewrite something because i changed my mind earlier, but is an outline really neccesary when you write like that.

    • I like outlines before first draft, but there isn’t a hard and fast rule that says you have to have one. I know a few writers who use the outline to think on the broad strokes of a story and use it to map out what it will look like. It sounds you have a good technique that works for you so you may be able to get away with a summary when you pitch to agents (if you’re going that route).

  4. I love the idea of outlining AFTER the first draft especially because for me, the first draft is just a hot mess of ideas. It’s not until I sift through all the sh*t that I find the real nuggets that I can use.

    I’m open to the Heinlein technique and sometimes it is best to write on a whim but few writers I’ve read, even those that write brilliant prose, truly have the storytelling skills to pull it off.

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