The Beauty of Outlines: Intro

Posted on March 31, 2011


I have a confession to make. It’s something that’s caused me a lot of concern and trouble over the years, something that has forced me to confront how I think about writing and what I think about writing. It’s also something that–I think–will make my life easier.

I like outlines.

Yep. I said it.

Back in high school, I was a stolid “seat of the pants” writer: I often sat down to type (or write longhand) the beginnings of stories with nothing but a persistent image, a few character names, and a few funny scraps of dialogue. My thinking at the time was sort of “Go with what sticks.” I just wrote down whatever came into my head. The stories that compelled me to come back to them despite my complete lack of plan got finished; the ones that didn’t… well, there’s a reason I have a folder of files with timestamps dating back to high school. (Even middle school in some cases. Gasp!)

I stuck to my no-strategy strategy rather religiously for two reasons. A) On Writing, which argues strenuously against outlines, was my Bible as a young writer. (Still is. I cannot yet recite bits of it from memory, but just give me a few more rereads.) B) Whenever I tried writing an outline, one of two things happened.

First, I would lose the outline. I am a compulsive loser: not a day goes by when I don’t misplace my keys, my phone, my glasses, etc. It’s no surprise that I kept losing every bit of paper I wrote my outlines out on–I was also much messier in high school. And, of course, once I lost it I had no desire to return and rewrite it. Part of me was always sure it would turn up–in a closet, in my old binder, blah blah blah. (As far as excuses not to write go, that one is probably still my favorite. It doesn’t make me look lazy, as it does when I don’t write to look at Facebook or read other blogs. Nah, in this case I’m just a ditz.)

The other option was more prevalent. Once I wrote the outline… I almost always lost interest in the story. For example, in high school I wrote my first high fantasy story. I got some really cool ideas for the plot and decided that, at one point, my three main characters would be separated, and the POV would alternate between them. After thinking about it for a bit, I realized this would be very complicated and decided to outline it. My outline wasn’t a typical, bullet-pointed outline–more like a story skeleton, complete with bits of dialogue–and I thought it was pretty cool. Nevertheless… I never wrote that story. I still think it’s pretty cool, and I have every intention to return to it someday… but that’s someday. I have no interest in doing the story now, which is the difference between a really cool idea and a finished draft.

When I got to college, and things actually began to impinge upon my free time (…mostly, Facebook), I realized that I had to start using my writing time more efficiently. At this point, I was churning out a lot of drafts that, upon closer inspection, did not hold water–in a terrible, catastrophic way that always makes the Scotty in my head run screaming without even shouting about my brain’s dilithium crystals.

I needed to shape things up. I needed a plan.

In short, I needed to figure out a way of outlining that actually *worked* for me, instead of forcing myself to work for the outline. I think a lot of the hang-ups I had about them when I was younger came from the idea that once I wrote something down, it was stagnant, immutable–I had to follow my outline, or my computer would immediately shit itself and die. Now I’m a lot more laissez-faire about them, in ways I will elucidate in a later post.

Basically, outlining is not the devil, and in my next few posts I will tell you why. And for God’s sake, don’t take any of this advice if you’ve already realized that outlines simply don’t work for you. If you are a Stephen-King-caliber seat of the pants writer and can’t imagine it any other way, godspeed. If, on the other hand, you are a strict outliner, I envy your conviction. This is for you people who were, like me, on the fence about it–or believe that outlines are the antithesis of good writing.  Like all dogmas for writing, that rule is BS extrapolated from personal experience.

Don’t buy it. Give your outline a chance.