Annie’s Take on Outlining (and Why She Doesn’t Like It)

Let’s not beat around the bush: I don’t like outlining.  If you’ve been with me long enough, you’ve certainly read about my distaste for the practice.  If you’re just joining us on this little journey of mine and didn’t know my stance on outlining, now we’re all on the same page.

In real life, my tendencies lie on the organized side of the spectrum.  My daily routine is comprehensive and is, more often than not, pretty much the same.  I like routine and color-coded schedules and matching my socks.  Life is a little easier when everything has a time and a place.  At least it is to me.

All that flies out the window when I sit down to write.  When I open up my laptop and steep my tea and fasten my thinking cap, I rarely know what’s going to happen.  I had no plan for this very blog post, but I typed out a title about five minutes ago and look where we are.  There’s something freeing about writing with no expectations, no limitations on your creativity.  You just write and decide to see what happens.

I’ve outlined and I’ve foregone outlining in past projects.  I’ve tried my hand at both extremes and found that I operate on the extreme that requires as little planning as possible.  Writing should be organic and roll off the tongue, so why should stories follow a syllabus?  Why not develop the story as feels natural?  Create with no restrictions and sop up the mess later if need be.

The arguments in support of outlining are strong and almost convincing.  Almost.  Outlining drastically reduces the number of rewrites required.  It all but eliminates writer’s block (you can read about my approach writer’s block, and why I don’t believe in it, here) because you know what to write next.  You prevent the possibility of writing yourself into a corner or creating immense plot holes that you can’t quite seem to fill.  When you outline, you tell yourself a condensed version of the story and then flesh it out to perfection.

Outlining is a great tool to have in your writing toolbox.  Like all tools, its use is determined by the task at hand.  You use hammers for nails and screwdrivers for screws and saws for, I don’t know, cutting stuff.  A hammer does you no good if you’re trying to cut a two-by-four in half.

Outlining is the same.  For someone who likes to discover the story as I write it, outlining is tedious and restricting because I feel immense guilt when I stray from the path.  The ending scene of my current project is crystal clear in my head, but I have no earthly idea how I’m going to get there.  My plan is to figure it out as I go.  I’m fine with that.

As aforementioned, outlining can cut down editing time.  That’s true in most cases, but the time spent crafting a perfect outline could easily be transferred to the time spent editing without an outline.

Some of my favorite writing advice concerning the great outline debate is that stories are not plot-driven, but character-driven.  If your characters do their job, their choices dictate where you go.  Present them with options and follow where they tell you to go.  Characters should read like real people and real people don’t conform to outlines.  We may have our schedules and planners, but life is constantly throwing wrenches in our color-coded plans.  We have no idea what’s coming down the pike and this mortal cluelessness translates when you write sans outline.

However, I do find it useful if I’m in a rut and unsure of where to go next.  If I struggle with trusting my vision, coming up with something helps me regain my focus, even if that something definitely wouldn’t happen.  A crappy idea scribbled onto a napkin is easier to handle than an empty Word document.  Something is always better than nothing and if that something is an outline, so be it.

Despite my preferences, you should always do what works for you.  If you are religiously devoted to your outline, awesome.  If you’ve never made an outline in your life and don’t intend to start now, awesome.  If you’re like me and dabble in the practice when the occasion calls for it, awesome.  The important thing here is that you’re writing, whatever it takes.

What are your thoughts on outlining?

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23 thoughts on “Annie’s Take on Outlining (and Why She Doesn’t Like It)

    1. The strongest argument I could give for the point to outlining is “writer’s block.” As an outliner, I don’t get it. If it hits, I just have to look at my outline and, poof! It’s gone. But, at the same time, I know it’s not for everyone. Each writer has to do what works for him or her.

  1. I used to dislike outlining too, until I started taking on more ambitious projects with lots of moving parts. Then I really appreciated having an idea of where I needed to go next (even if I ultimately wound up straying from it). To me the key to embracing outlining was giving myself the freedom to keep it loose and flexible. My outlines are never anything more that pages of bullet notes and I never let myself feel so married to something that I box myself in.

  2. I like outlining for some papers for school, like if I have specific things I want to talk about in a specific order and I’m worried I’ll forget, I make an outline. It’s also a good way for me to start writing, as I can follow a pattern. But I never liked outlining when I wrote fiction, it just seemed to get in the way

  3. I always considered myself a pantser, because that’s how I usually wrote and I despise routines. But then I relaized I do find it easier to have a vague idea of major plot points before I write. I don’t ever do detailed outlines- that is a nightmare for me.

  4. I adore outlining. I don’t find it nearly as restrictive as some people do. Mostly, it’s more like a guideline than rules – lol at my Pirates quote. But really, it’s just about making sure I have great framework and can make for an action packed book that doesn’t lag in the middle because I didn’t have a great idea of how to get from point A to point B.

  5. I’m not into outlining either. I go into projects with a vague idea of who the characters are and what they want to do, and perhaps how the story should end, but the fine details come out as I write them. I find that I quite like to be surprised by what I come up with on the spur of the moment – sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always fun. And I can always fix things during editing.

  6. I used to consider myself a “pantser” when it came to writing, but I find lately that I’m more of a hybrid. I will sorta outline, but it’s really just a few quick lines on a napkin kind of outline which leaves me a lot of flexibility, because, like you, I think the characters should drive the events of the story.

    The last thing you want is for your character to do something out of character to serve the plot you have so stringently outlined. Usually my characters’ personalities evolve as I write, and someone I barely know at beginning of the story has become like a real person to me by the end, so I’d hate to lock them into actions I thought they should take before I fully understood their character.

    It’s always nice to hear from those who don’t outline, because I feel guilty about not doing it when I hear other writers swear by the technique. Thanks for the post.

  7. I don’t enjoy outlining either. I spent too much time rewriting my first book because of it though. Now I try to have an idea of where I want to be in each act. I’m like you though. When I start writing, I never know what will happen. Sometimes I have a goal and by the end of the scene, I completely deviate from it. Usually for the better. 😊