Monday, June 18, 2018

Plotter or Pantser, You Really Should Outline the Second Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This past weekend I was teaching at the SCBWI-FL summer conference, and in both all-day workshop intensives, my fellow presenters and I (Michael Stearns, Lisa Yee, and Kait Feldmann) talked about outlining.

Love it or hate it, outlining is a useful, and dare I say vital, aspect of writing.

Outlining is where the big-picture stuff happens. It allows you to see how your story unfolds on a conceptual level without getting bogged down in the details. It lets you know that you’re hitting all the right beats and constructing a novel that will read well and keep readers interested.

But you don’t have to do it on a first draft if you don’t like outlines. Plenty of writers (though surprisingly, only a few in my sessions this weekend—it’s usually a fairly even split between plotters and pantsers), find outlining constraining, and feel it saps their creativity and stifles their ability to let their stories grow organically.


Once that first draft is done and those ideas are down, you really ought to outline it before you go on.

I say this with hesitation, because I truly feel no writer “ought” to do anything they don’t want to do with their own work and process, but I’ve also met far too many writers who struggle with plotting. And many of those don’t outline, or don’t take full advantage of their outlines.

Four Reasons Outlining a Second Draft is so Useful

1. It helps you structure your novel for the strongest impact.

Stories have a flow, and there are proven beats and turning points that enhance how we tell our stories. First drafts don’t always follow a strong structure and can ramble and lose narrative focus. Even great scenes might not be in the right place for the strongest emotional punch. An outline helps you put together the strongest story possible.

There are multiple options as well. The Act Three Structure, the Save the Cat, the Hero’s Journey, the Hague Six-Point Structure, the Three-Point Structure. “Structure” doesn’t mean shove your story into a prearranged set of boxes. It just means organizing it in a way that makes it shine the brightest.

(Here’s more on the different story structures)

2. It helps prepare you for your revision.

Even if you’re a ridiculously fast writer, odds are it’s been some time between writing the story and reading it from start to finish. You probably don’t remember every single thing you did, or exactly where it falls in the story. An outline (or an editorial map) lets you know what you have and where it needs work.

You have a solid reference of how the story unfolds, what happens where, and what the major turning points are. It’s lets you know what’s missing, and where there’s too much going on.

(Here’s more on choosing what to put in your outline)

3. It teaches you strong structure and narrative skills so you’ll have fewer drafts each book.

Outlining focuses your attention on the story beats and turning points, and makes you look at your scenes and where they fit best more critically. Do this enough times, and it becomes instinct. You’ll know as you write what things should happen when for the most impact, and you won’t have to rework the plot as much on the next draft.

(Here’s more on crafting outlines that work for you)

4. It frees you to just write the first draft and not worry about it.

Even if you do outline from the start, knowing you’re going to re-outline and refine the story on the next pass is liberating. You can tell the story as your instincts say it should go, knowing if you go off track you have a safety net to catch all those detours in next draft. You can be as spontaneous as you want.

(Here’s more on what a first draft should look like)

Different writers have different processes, but no matter how we get to the end of that first draft, outlines have proven their usefulness time and time again. And once the first draft is done, the “it stifles creativity” argument is invalid. Everything past the first draft is revision, and that’s where the real work comes in. Why wouldn’t you want a guide to help make that as painless as possible?

And that’s all an outline is—a guide to your story. It’s even your choice on how tight or detailed an outline you use. No one says you have to outline every scene in minute detail if you’re more of a broad strokes type writer (and vice versa).

Next time you finish a first draft, don’t just dive into the second. Take some time and outline your story, and take advantage of the useful tool a second-draft outline can be.

Do you outline? If not, would you consider outline a second draft? Why or why not?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. As a plotter, I can appreciate this advice.

  2. Hey Janice, I’m real plotter and outline all my stories before I start writing. That’s why it seems to me that ‘just winging’ the first draft and outlining the second, doesn’t seem very productive to me. Sorry.

    I know many writers give ‘stifled creativity’ as a reason not to touch an outline with a bargepole, but I also know that this is a myth. I have had some of my most creative moments while outlining and I think that people who say that outlining is not creative, have never properly outlined before.

    I usually start off with a bulleted list of things I want to happen in my story. These bullet points then naturally separate themselves into acts, chapters and scenes. Once at that stage, I can swap scenes around if they feel wrong or out of place. Easily done when you only have bullet points. No need for extensive rewrites.

    After that I take each bulleted scene and make it into a short slightly more detailed text, a bit like scene blocking, I guess. I still have no narrative in this or dialogue, I just work out the setting and what’s happening in a little bit more detail.

    Often I will find plot holes while doing this. These hadn’t shown up in the bulleted list, but because the bullets are expanded on, things just become a bit clearer, and turn out to be out of place.
    In those cases I will go back to the bulleted list, change things to solve the plot hole and after that continue with the expanded list.

    Once I’ve done all the scene, my expanded list is finished. When I’m happy with how my story flows and is paced, I start writing the first draft. As I’ve spent already quite some time perfecting the storyline, writing the first draft usually goes very quickly.

    So you can see that because I work like this, it wouldn’t make sense to me to first write the first draft and then do an outline. But perhaps there are writers who can benefit by this method.
    In any case, I do agree with you that outlining is very important for the storyline, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser.

    1. I don't wing it, either, I'm a big-time plotter, and I totally agree with you about its value. But I also know that a lot of writers aren't so structured, and this could help them find that solid middle ground where they can outline and still maintain their own process.

      I'm also NOT saying don't outline a first draft--just that if you don't like to outline, at least outline draft #2.