Tuesday, May 18, 2010

In Defense of the Outline

By Claudia Gray

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: As an outliner myself, it's fun to see how someone else does it (and why). Today, we have Claudia Gray, author of the popular Evernight series, including Stargazer, Hourglass, and Afterlife.

Claudia is a full-time novelist based in Chicago. So far, in life, she's been a disc jockey, a lawyer, a journalist and an extremely bad waitress, just to name a few. She especially likes to spend time traveling, hiking, reading and listening to music. More than anything else, she enjoys writing.

Although She'll blog about major announcements at her site, you can also check her LiveJournal, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to hear more frequent updates about her work, her day and whatever else might be on her mind.

Take it away, Claudia...

In any writing forum or class or conference, the question comes up over and over: To outline or not to outline? One reason the question keeps getting asked is that, of course, there's no one right answer as; as with most things in writing, there's no right or wrong, only what works or doesn't for any individual writer. So this isn't a post telling you that you should outline or else. If figuring out the story as you write is what works, what helps you get those words down on the page, then more power to you.

However, whenever I see these discussions, I see a lot of new writers searching for advice on what to do--and they're often told that outlining is artificial, amateurish, the same plodding framework they labored through on high-school research papers, etc. The thinly veiled suggestion is that outlining isn't for artists, just for hacks. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I want to do is look at a few common objections to outlining and explain why I think they don't hold up.

1) If you outline your story in advance, you'll know the ending, and you'll lose all your motivation to keep going. Why bother to struggle through when you know how it all comes out? 
Whether you outline or not, most of writing is rewriting. Outliners and pantsers both are going to spend a great deal of time editing and revising their work after they know the ending. Your motivation is going to have to come from someplace else eventually.

2) How can you set your story in stone like that? What if you think of something better later?
First of all, a lot depends on how you outline. I, for one, don't sit down one day and slap down a series of events I think might potentially make a good book. Most of my outlines take shape over a period of weeks, usually a period of months. I feel my way through the story during the outlining process, looking at different twists, turns and possibilities. The characters reveal themselves. The story options come to light in different ways. So my outline isn't an artificially imposed structure I set up at the beginning, before I write; in fact, I feel very strongly that outlining IS writing. It's simply a matter of working on the macro level before diving into execution.

And if, despite all this planning, I think of something better later? I revise my outline. They're NOT set in stone; they're just there to light the way. As Captain Barbossa said to Elizabeth Swann: "They're more like guidelines."

3) Outlining is just procrastination. It keeps you from actually getting to work.
For any individual writer, I suppose outlining could be a procrastination tool--but then again, so can researching, query polishing, deciding on character names, or watching HGTV marathons. Also, if you're doing it right (defined as "in a way that works for you"), outlining is part of the writing process, not a prelude to it.

Also, I've found outlining invaluable in avoiding the single most dreaded malady for writers--yes, I speak of writer's block. I realize this strikes in different ways for different people, but for me, it tended to hit when I found myself in one of two situations--either I'd written myself into a corner, or I simply couldn't figure out what came next. But when I have a sufficiently developed outline, I've already spotted the potential plot traps and worked them out, and I always know what comes next. Although I still hit periods when I'm less productive, I wouldn't say I've actually suffered from writer's block since I began outlining around 10 years ago. This might not be the remedy for every blocked writer, but I'd say it's worth trying.

In fact, the more I write, the longer and more detailed my outlines become. My upcoming novel SPELLCASTER will probably be about 90K words long when it's done. The outline is 20K words.

4) I've tried outlining, and it doesn't work for me.
THIS is a reason I'd never argue with. If it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work. No method will work for everyone, or we'd all know that method by now and be hyper-creative, prolific authors. Every single writer has to figure out who she is as a writer--what tools belong in her toolbox. My only aim in writing this post is to suggest that, if you are starting out as a writer, and you haven't yet hit upon the process that makes you productive and happy, you should give outlining a try. It can't hurt, and it might end up being very powerful for you.


  1. I'm an outliner through and through. The way I see it. People confuse outlines a lot. Outlines are just meant to point you in a direction. Not necessarily the right direction, just a good direction. The actual writing is where the true experience lies ;)

  2. Excellent post!
    When I first started writing, I only did smidgens of pre-plotting as I went along, but even then, I always had a pretty good idea of the ending ahead of time. And now, I do more of a basic outline using a screenwriter's beat sheet, and this, of course, also includes the ending. I've never viewed that as a reason to lose motivation, though. In fact, it boosts my motivation because I know what I'm writing toward, and this is probably why I tend to write my rough drafts so quickly.
    I'm currently working on my third novel and I'm into the second half of it now... just started it less than a month ago. Seriously. This time last month (April), I hadn't even had the idea in my head yet. And once the idea came, I spent about an hour sketching out the main plot and the major turning points, THEN I started writing the actual story. Yes, you still learn things as you go along, and there is still lots of room for flexibility and change. However, it took me almost two years of trial and error before I fell into this groove. And just because it works for me doesn't mean it will work for others. We're all different.

  3. Point #4 is where I am. And so nice that you've admitted that not everyone has the same process. I was at a conference where a speaker insisted because her sales went up when she changed her writing method, that we were fools if we didn't do it her way.

    I think that those who don't outline are still "outlining" but it's more subliminal and organic.

  4. Thanks for the great post!

    I'm an outliner and always will be. Loved seeing encouraging words in support of outlining without insisting it's the only way to do it :)

  5. I'm an outliner too. It's a synopsis and a blueprint. And it helps identify holes in my plot.

    But I'm also a person who thinks lists and checkboxes are magic. To each his own.

  6. I'm an outliner also. That's not to say I don't veer off of my plan, because I always do. I've tried to just wing it, but I find it's too difficult to stay on track - I'll think of something I want to include in the middle, but I don't jot it down, so 5 minutes later I've forgotten.
    I don't think it shows a lack of artistry at all, and for me my writing flows much faster when I have a bit of a roadmap.

  7. Great post! I've outlined in the past, but with my most recent WIP I decided not to. And wrote myself into a big bad corner. So now I'm going to outline. Thanks, Claudia, for a well-argued post!

  8. Thanks for your helpful post. I couldn't agree more than writing is mostly revising. I outline as I write my first draft. As I revise, it helps me see where my middle sags and often makes it easier to switch chapters around, which is often necessary.

  9. When I first stared writing I didn't outline and the stories never got finished for one reason or another.

    Now I outline, very roughly. This way I have a trail of white pebbles to follow that will get me to where I need to go - the end.

    Of course it isn't carved in stone new pebbles appear in the path it takes stage twists and turns, but that is half the fun.

    And I'm a lists person I love being able to highlight the pieces of the outline when I've finished writing them, it gives my such a sense of achievement and inspires me to keep going.

    Outlining definitely works for me. "Go the outline!"

  10. I've just recently started outlining. I'd always been a pantser, but frequently found myself wandering all over the place instead of staying focused.

    I tried outlining as an experiment, really not expecting my little ADD, right-brained self to like it. But, no. Wow. What a difference.

    I have found it very helpful to copy the outline for a specific section at the top of the page. That way, when I start getting lost, I can refer back to the top to keep me on track.

    Now the hardest part is to actually make myself do it :)

  11. I definitely find outlines valuable. I find that it saves me a lot of misery later (if I don't outline and have to go back and fix the plot, the whole story unravels). It keeps me on track, but at the same time, allows for a lot of flexibility.

  12. I do write a basic outline of the story but I rarely stick with it till the end. I just need it to get the story started then I let my mind take me wherever it wants to go.

  13. Would a pilot take off without a flight plan? I couldn't imagine beginning a story without having at least some idea where I'm going. Yes, even with an outline, a story make take on a life of its own, but plotting is a great foundation. Love this post! Thank you for validating plotters!

  14. I've found my process is different for every project I'm working on. Sometimes I feel the need to outline, sometimes I don't. For one book, my outlines took the form of short stories and then I expanded and developed the world around those. There really isn't any one method, but anyone who can't see the possible helpfulness of all those methods is a little blind.

    Great post! Thanks for taking the time to write it up!

  15. I always love to learn how other people go about the writing process. I guess I'm sort of a mixture of a pantser and an outliner: I start writing with only vague ideas in mind. When I get stuck, I take out my physical pen and paper and do some sort of outline. It's never formal, though, and usually ends up with arrows pointing in every direction. This helps to focus my scenes. When I continue actually writing, though, I don't see my outline as Bible. I use it as a guideline and allow my story to take on a life of its own and veer away from the outline.

    Thanks for the great post! Very interesting!

  16. Awesome post. Thanks!

    I have recently discovered that outlining works for me. I did veer off track from the outline, but the story naturally led me in that direction. Plus, the new material is something that the potential readers of this novel might actually face. It's a dark piece of reality. I like the way this added to the story - more depth!