To Outline or Not to Outline

March 2, 2017 by Evan Braun


One of the most common questions people ask me has to do with outlining, and whether or not I do it—or rather, whether or not they should do it. Perhaps frustratingly, there is no singular, uncomplicated answer to this question. Indeed, outlining isn’t for everyone. Sometimes I’m not sure it’s for me.

Other times I am sure.

See what I mean about this being a frustrating topic?

Let me start by relating my own experiences. My first novels (if you could call them novels, which would be charitable) were not outlined at all. I proudly told people the truth—that I made up those stories as I went along. Saying “you made it up as you went along” is frowned upon by readers and editors alike these days, so I probably wouldn’t admit such a thing so proudly anymore.

The reason it’s frowned upon is simple: you tend to end up with a lot of internal discontinuity when you write this way. The resolution to a plot is often something you never imagined when you started writing, so certain details and scenes at the beginning of the book no longer make sense in light of the ending. Maybe you’re writing a murder mystery. At the end of the book you reveal that it was Maria in the library with the candlestick, but unfortunately you forgot that you had said on page 26 that Maria was visiting her sister in Portland at the time of the murder, and on page 18 you had strongly suggested that when the murderer called the main character to gloat, he’d had a male voice. Oops.

That’s what happens when you make up a story, and there’s almost no avoiding it short of careful planning (read: outlining). So if you’re going to fly by the seat of your pants, that’s fine, but you then have to go back over your story with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to make sure that everything holds together in hindsight. And you’ll be crossing your fingers that there aren’t too many Maria-was-in-Portland-sized plot holes to reconcile.

The first novel I wrote in college was heavily outlined, and this allowed me to write it really quickly. Indeed, being able to write faster is a major feature of having a detailed outline. Instead of stopping every page or two, wondering where to take the story next, you just go where your outline tells you to go. I doubt there’s any scientific study to prove this one, but I would eagerly lay wagers that most really prolific authors, those who write three or more books a year, are careful outliners.

That said, the process of outlining the book so carefully didn’t necessary make the story better. Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t feel as excited while writing this way, because I wasn’t “discovering” it as I went along; I was simply relaying it in the agreed-upon manner.

Nowadays, I have a mixed approach. I tend to have an endgame in mind, although I don’t quite know how I’ll eventually get there, but I have a very detailed breakdown of what’s going to happen in the three to four chapters immediately ahead of wherever I’m at on a given day. I feel this has given me the best of both worlds, keeping things interesting and helping me stay productive so that I don’t spend too much time between scenes wallowing in uncertainty.

So what strategy should you use? Well, whatever helps you to keep going, and every person is bound to have a unique approach to the outlining question.

I have much more to say on this subject, because there’s a lot more to outlining than merely whether or not you should do it, or how much. There are many different types of outlines. If you don’t think outlining works for you, there’s a good chance you just haven’t found the right method yet.

But I’ll save that for a future post.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.