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Monday, November 11, 2013

Outlining And Free-Writing: A Give-And-Take Relationship

Picture Credit: https://blogs.montclair.edu/cwe/2013/
I used to swear that outlining wasn't for me.

I knew it wasn't because back in high school my English teachers (who really were wonderful teachers in many ways) taught me how to outline. You start with a bullet-point outline of every major plot movement. Then you go to chapter 1 and decide what happens, then you move on to chapter 2, and so-on until your outline is perfect. Only then can you write. I couldn't do it effectively so I determined I am not an outliner.

And from that point on I didn't outline because I thought I knew what I needed to about the subject and I was certain I didn't have anything to gain from it.

Until a few years ago.

I ended up in a class taught by Dan Wells, author of I am Not a Serial Killer. I actually went with a closed mind, but he still managed to get through to me. His class is amazing and you can view it in a You-Tube series here. He created an outlining technique that was completely different than I'd heard of before and it made sense to me. (I won't go into each of the steps in this posting, but you can see them all in an earlier blog posting of mine here with only a few minor changes as I found ways to better adapt them to myself.) For the first time I heard the recommendation to outline after your book is written if you didn't do one at the beginning. This way, the outline can be an editing tool to help find holes in the plot. I did it to a book I was working on, which I thought only needed finishing touches, and found to my dismay that my entire story lacked a point! With the help of the outline that I created, I was able to re-work my story and it made an amazing difference.

After I looked at all the time I spent re-writing, and the tens of thousands of words that needed to be deleted to change the story, I decided that maybe outlines are not a bad idea during the beginning stages.

Since then I have declared myself an outliner. I end up making changes to the story as I go and I have found myself adjusting the outlines from time to time when my changes are big enough to alter key points of what I'd planned. So I still have free-writing in me. But I outline to save time. I want to know where my story is going and I want to make sure it's progressing in a logical way before I type the last words. I also find it helps me brainstorm and it helps me to tie events together better when I know why everything that happens is critical to getting the story where it needs to go.

I do think there is a place for free-writing. And I still won't say that everyone must outline before they start writing. But I am now a firm believer that if you write without an outline, you should probably make one while you are in the editing process--you just might be surprised at what you will gain from it.

Also, I believe that there is not a single right way to outline. I still obsess over Dan Wells' outlining method to the point that I can't believe anyone can write without it, but it is not the only one out there. Elana Johnson, author of Possession, is a fervent outliner but she commented once that she didn't like Dan Wells' method because it didn't work for her. My point is that before you decide that outlining is a waste of time, try different methods or play around to figure out your own. Because whether you like to use them at the beginning or the end, they can help improve your writing.


  1. I'm beginning to think that I SHOULD outline better. My version of outlining is creating a list of what happens and checking off everything that happens. I'm more of a "fly by the seat of my pants" kind of a person. I write what's interesting to me which is part of the reason why I look at outlining with a curled nose. Maybe if I did try to do it, I'd stop getting stuck at chapter 5.

  2. It has made a huge difference for me, as I already mentioned. If you can handle a list of things to check off then I really think Dan Wells' version of outlining would work for you--I'd at least recommend checking it out and seeing if it makes sense. Or you can continue being a pantser--nothing's wrong with that. Maybe you can keep going as is until next time you get stuck at chapter 5 and then you can take a look at the outlining option. Not everyone writes the same. But I can say that I used to think I would never outline. :)

  3. Rachel, Thanks for your post! At one point, it never occurred to me to use an outline - now I can't write without one. I'm going to check out the youtube video you mentioned. Thanks for sharing the info. Have a great week!

    1. I'm glad you liked the post. It's interesting how many people out there didn't think they were outliners until that one time they tried it. :) I hope the youtube video is helpful to you.