Outlining: Why I Do It and 25 Things You Should Know

Recently, at a barbecue for a friend’s grad school graduation, someone asked me a writing-related question: do you outline, or do you just go with the flow? I grinned, took a breath, and asked, “do you want the long answer or the short?” Because there’s a long answer. A really, really long answer.

I used to be what’s called a “pantser”–writing by the seat of my pants, full steam ahead, screw planning things out, let’s go! I’d get an idea, do a few preliminary character sketches, and I was off to the races. That worked… until it didn’t. I don’t know why it stopped working, but I do know when. Unfortunately for me, inspiration sputtered to a grinding halt at around the forty-thousand word mark of a first draft. At first I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I’d stalled out before, and I’m a pro at popping the hood on a story and getting it rolling with a few good whacks of the ol’ creative hammer. But this time it didn’t work. I slowly backed away and realized, holy shit, this story is dead, and not just take-it-to-the-mechanic dead; it was off-to-the-crusher dead. I panicked. I tore my hair out. I read and re-read what I had written while banging my head against the keyboard (a talent in and of itself). I would have gotten raging drunk if I actually drank, but since I don’t, I drowned my sorrows in gallons of iced coffee. Finally, after the screaming stopped, I stepped back and looked at what I had. It was bad. My story may as well have been a twitching schizophrenic off its meds–was it horror or was it a thriller? It wanted to be both, but I knew deep in my guts that it couldn’t be. Some stories can pull it off. This was not one of those stories.

I revised, and I revised some more, and then I submitted that steaming pile of whatever to my editor. I know what you’re thinking–dumb. But I was so irreparably stuck inside my process that I needed some serious advice, even if the advice was terrifying. My editor was gentle. “Well, this definitely doesn’t sound like you…” I spilled my guts while my agent listened in. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was drowning and I needed help. And then something magical happened. Rather than my editor giving me the answer I was looking for, it came to me while I ranted. Boosh. I suddenly saw it clearly, but I also suddenly had a major problem: I had an eighty thousand word manuscript that was virtually unusable, and unless I wanted to chuck the whole thing and start over, I had some major rewriting to do. I decided that I was going to salvage as much material as I possibly could. I didn’t know how, I only knew I had to. Enter the almighty outline, my salvation, the thing that I will never write without again.

Yes, I had had an outline before I started, but it was fast and loose and only registered as faint blips on the radar of plot. That wouldn’t work, not if I wanted to resurrect the cadaver that was my initial manuscript. So I made an outline. A monster outline. It was nearly twenty pages long.

I spent the next month reworking the entire novel, from cutting and pasting scenes to modifying existing content to adding huge chunks of new stuff and cutting out entire story arcs completely. It was exhausting. The entire ordeal behind that book was, quite honestly, the worst writing experience of my career. Maybe I’ll have an even worse one in the future, though, my god, I really hope not.

That was my fourth book. I’m currently writing my fifth, and I didn’t write a word until I spent nearly a month on character and plot development and, yes, another epic outline–one that ran ten thousand words long. Having that backbone has mellowed me out during the writing process. Like a lot of authors, I fall into big ugly pits of self-doubt. With this outline and the time I spent on it, I can simply tell myself “shut up and keep writing, you already thought all this through.” Will the novel be perfect on the first take? Of course not. But it’ll be an honest to god working story with rich characters and a complex plot I would have never been able to pull off otherwise.

When I found the below article, I knew I had to post it. I feel like Chuck and I must have had a similar experience, because I was nodding and muttering “oh. my. god” the whole way through. I relate 100%. So, do I outline or just go with the flow? I used to roll with the punches, but now that roadmap gives me security. It assures me that not only will I make it to the finish line, but I’ll make it without crying myself to sleep every night. Sometimes giving up a little flexibility for that sort of guarantee is worth it. At least it is to me.




The story goes that most writers are either pantsers (which regrettably has nothing to do with writing sans pants) or plotters (which has nothing to do with plotting the fictional in-narrative demises of those who have offended you). We either jump into the story by the so-called seat of our pants, or we rigorously plot and scheme every detail of the story before we ever pen the first sentence. It’s a bit of a false dichotomy, as many writers fall somewhere in the middle. Even a “pantser” can make use of an outline without still feeling pantsless and fancy-free.


Remember that classic outline you did in junior high? Roman numerals? Lowercase alphabet? Lists of raw, unrefined tedium? Scrap that shit, robot. Nobody’s telling you to do that outline—unless that outline is what you do. For every writer, an outline style exists. It’s up to you to find which method suits you. (And if you’re looking for options, you can find a host of them right here in 25 Ways To Plot, Plan And Prep Your Story.)


Writing a novel, a script, a comic series, a TV show, a video game, a magnum transmedia pornographic opus told over Instagram — well, it’s all rather difficult. Writing a story can feel like a box of overturned ferrets running this way and that, and there you are, trying to wrangle them up while also simultaneously juggling bitey piranha. It’s easy to find the writing of a story quite simply overwhelming. An outline is meant to help you prepare against that inevitability by having the story broken out into its constituent pieces before you begin. It’s no different than, before cooking, laying out all your tools and ingredients (called the mise en place, or simply, “the meez”). Think of an outline as your “meez.”


Sometimes what kills us is a lack of confidence in our storytelling. We get hip-deep and everything seems to unravel like a ruptured testicle (yes, testicles really do unravel, you’re totally welcome). You suddenly feel like you don’t know where this is going. Plot doesn’t make sense. Characters are running around like sticky-fingered toddlers. The whole narrative is like a 10-car-pileup on the highway. Your story hasn’t proven itself, but an outline serves as the proving grounds. You take the story and break it apart before you even begin — so, by the time you do put the first sentence down, you have confidence in the tale you’re about to tell. Confidence is the writer’s keystone; an outline can lend you that confidence.


A lack of an outline means you’re burdening yourself with more work than is perhaps necessary. You’re jumping out of the plane and trying to stitch the parachute in mid-air, working furiously so you don’t explode like a blood sausage when you smack into the hard and unforgiving earth. Further, what happens is, you finish the first draft (tens of thousands of words) and what you suddenly find is that this is basically one big outline anyway, because you’re going to have to edit and rewrite the damn thing. An outline tends to save you from the head-exploding bowel-evacuating frustration of having to do that because you’ve already gone through the effort to arrange the story. A little work up front may save you a metric fuckity-ton later on.

Read the rest of Chuck’s List…


One thought on “Outlining: Why I Do It and 25 Things You Should Know

  1. Pingback: Writing with a Timeline Outline | A Girl Who Writes

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