Everyone has their own way of writing, and this is so apparent when you ask a bunch of writers about outlining. When I first started writing, I didn't outline at all. I'd write up a page or two of how the story went, then would dive in and write it. It didn't take long before the story was going every which way and I'd lost sight of what story I was even trying to tell. (note to self--not a panster)
Then I started outlining like a madwoman. Every detail, every scene, every sequel, I had a form to fill out and line up. My scenes were so tightly controlled the life was squeezed right out of them. -strangled gasp- (note to self--not a tight outliner)
I ended up somewhere in the middle, and that's what works for me. I've found having a solid outline of the major events keeps me focused, but I don't plan out how those events unfold. That way, I allow for spontaneity and let the characters drive the story. I outline the framework, but kinda pants my way through it.
So how do you choose what's best for you?
If you find planning events stifles your creativity, you might try tossing out your plans and seeing where the story takes you. Let your mind fill in the blanks and don't worry how it all ties together. (That's what second drafts are for) This is also effective if you're not sure what your story is yet and want to explore it before you start nailing down the plot. If you have no troubles when you sit down to write, but stare at the screen with a terrified look on your face when you try to plot, this could be the way for you.
If writing without a plan leaves you with a mess of scenes and no coherent storyline, consider drawing a map so you don't get lost. List how each scene starts, how it ends, and what happens in between. Jot down those emotional sequels that link those scenes together so you know exactly how your protag feels after their ordeal. This is great for those who know exactly where their story is going and want to make sure everything stays on track. It's also a great way to see if your story has legs to make it to the end.
(Here's more on understanding your writing process)
If you like structure, but don't want to know every detail before you write, you might find happiness in the middle. Like a house, build the foundation and the walls of your story, providing a framework in which to work. But don't worry about the color of the walls or the carpet until you get there. This is a great compromise that lets you control the story without the story controlling you. You know enough to guide your writing, but the mystery is still there to unfold.
(Here's more on reevaluating your writing process)
If you know your characters inside and out, but don't always know what they're going to do, you might enjoy letting them chase after their dreams and see where they take you. This is great for those who know what their characters want and need, but aren't sure of the plot events to get them there. Wind them up, let them go, and see what they do to get their heart's desire.
Do your stories come to you in bits and pieces in random order? You might prefer jumping around when the mood strikes and sewing up your story later. This is great for those who don't think in chronological order, and let inspiration strike (and write) whatever part of the book hits them first. See it in your mind, get it on the paper, and worry about how the puzzle pieces fit later.
(Here's more on writing out of order)
Know which type you are, but not sure how to outline?
Well, a good way to start is to look at character goals. Goals drive a story, and what a character does to achieve that goal is what makes up your book. List (however you want to) what your protag wants. (Stop here if you're a pantser. Heck, you might not even get this far if you're a panster) Then list what she's going to do to get it. Now write down what happens to keep her from getting it. Next, write down what she does in response to that, which is the next goal.
That's your basic story structure, and knowing those things should be enough to keep your story moving, regardless of how much or how little you like to outline. It's okay if the goal is pretty vague. "Stop bad guy" works to let you know where you're going and still allows for a lot of leeway in how's that's fulfilled.
Getting it Down
Just as there are a variety of ways to think, there a variety of way to put it on paper. Some like to use software like Scrivener, others spreadsheets, some like post-it notes or index cards. I like to do a chapter summary and get the general overview for each chapter.
Chapter One: Bob finds a zombie in his kitchen. He screams, throws a pot at it, and runs searching for the shotgun. His wife Sally barges in with her nine mil and blows the zombie's head off. They think they're safe until they hear groaning outside. They decide to head for the roof to jump to the neighbors and run out their front door.
Or you can try a more traditional outline form like we learn in school.
A-Bob finds zombie in the kitchen.
1. He screams.
2. He throws a pot at it.
3. Sally comes in with gun and shoots it.
4. They hear groaning outside
B-Bob and Sally head for the roof.
Or you can mix the two and summarize your scenes.
Scene one: Bob finds a zombie in his kitchen and fights it off until his wife gets there.
Scene two: Bob and Sally race for the roof to get to the neighbor's house.
Scene three: Bob and Sally lob grenades off the roof.
There are also several ways you can work with your chosen outline technique. List it in Word (or the program of your choice), lay it out in an spreadsheet (helpful for those who have tight time lines and need to see everything that happens at certain times), or write out scenes on index cards for easy shuffling into the order you want.
Whatever you choose, never worry if it's different from what the writer next to you is doing. There is no right way to write, and the best way is the one that works for you.
What's your process? Is there anything you'd like to do differently? Anything you do that really helps?