writing craft | craft | writing for adults
March 6, 2018
To Outline or Not to Outline: That is The Question
by Chaunie Brusie
There are two types of writers in this world: the kind who outline and the kind who don’t. OK, so that may be a slight exaggeration, but I’ve always been fascinated by the process of other writers. How do they “do” what they do as writers? There isn’t one way to write, so how do writers settle on the methods that work for them and their craft? Is it instinctual? Do they hone their methods over time? Or do they just start writing and hope for the best?
One of the most commonly debated methods for writers is outlining. Even among bestselling writers, there isn’t a definitive method. Some authors, like Meg Cabot and Emily Giffin, have written publicly about their anti-outlining stance and the topic continues to be a hotly contested one among writers.
Personally, I’ve been a non-fiction writer in my professional life my entire career, but like many writers, I dream of seeing my novel-in-progress published. The only problem? Fiction writing is so different for me than non-fiction writing. I’ve been struggling to get started and have gone back and forth between outlining to see if it will help me get started. I was curious to see how other writers felt about outlining. And as it turns out, there are many sides to this story.
The Argument for Outlining
First up, we have the writers who are in full support of outlining. These writers may prefer structure, they like to have a “starting place” to work from, and they might find that having a quick reference point helps them easily see where they last left off with their work.
For example, for journalist/essayist/fiction writer Rebecca Anne Renner, outlining helps her clearly visualize her work, both in the non-fiction and fiction realms. “I always outline, especially when I'm writing nonfiction,” she explains. “It makes things so much easier. If I outline, it just feels like I'm "translating" the facts into a story rather than conjuring them as I go.”
The Argument Against Outlining
On the flip side, you have a writer like Rebecca Beck, who feels like outlining before writing cramps her style.
I feel the same way–– for non-fiction writing, I never, ever outline. I tend to write all over, actually, and if I ever feel “stuck,” I will write the ending of a story, or the middle, or brainstorm some beginnings. For my fiction work, I have tried creating a very basic outline, but I have found that I definitely prefer to just start writing and see where it takes me.
In doing an informal survey of writers online, I was surprised to discover that many other writers feel the same way I do—that sometimes, you just have to write. “I wish I outlined, but find my flow and voice comes easier when free writing,” Lauren Ramirez notes.
Beck explains that she prefers to write freely without an outline because it helps her simply get started. “I find it hard to organize my thoughts and I will never start writing if I have to outline first,” she says.
And interestingly enough, Lea Page finds that free writing allows her to unveil things she would have never otherwise uncovered. “Even if I think I know what my essay is about, the writing is so much smarter than I am,” she explains. “Connections, associations, emphases that I could never have foreseen emerge on the page. Sometimes I run amok, but that usually means I have more than one essay waiting to be born.”
Author Meg Cabot made an interesting case for why she doesn’t outline any of her books. She explained that, for her, part of writing is telling the story that needs to be told—and if she outlines, she’s not able to “tell” the story again after that. “My story can only be told once,” she wrote.” After it’s told, it can never be told again.”
The Argument for Doing Whatever Works for You
Last but certainly not least, we have the argument that “good” writers both outline and skip outlining all together. Sometimes they may outline and sometimes they may be feeling a little freer.
As Leah Outten, of the blog, The Grace Bond, describes, the type of writing she does really determines whether or not she will be outlining. “Mostly I free write, but ‘listcicles’ or longer pieces like a book I definitely prefer an outline to get started and keep focused.”
Freelance writer Jenna Jonaitis agrees and finds that for her, free writing works better for essay-type pieces, while reported pieces naturally call for a more structured feel. “Free writing works well for me when I'm writing a personal essay or a reported essay,” she continues. “For reported pieces with a 'how to' or service component, I like to outline it first because it leads me through each point and helps me see a vision for each section.”
So, should you outline your story, essay, or book? The answer is, it completely depends on your own personal preference as a writer. Obviously, writers have been able to pen best-selling novels without an outline, so if you feel like going free-form, go for it. But on the other hand, if outlining makes you feel more structured, creative, and organized in your writing, you need to listen to your natural instincts. There are quite a few free templates and guides to get you started outlining, like this novel outline from Evernote or this guide to outlining basic blog posts. The good news is, there is no writing police force that will make sure you to write one way or another, so do what works best for you and don’t be afraid to change it up now and then too.
Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer. She lives in Michigan with her husband, four young kids, and a flock of chickens. Find her at chauniebrusie.com
Do you think you have what it takes to be a writer in today's market? Show us a sample of your work here