The Writing That Comes Before All the Writing: On Outlining

chair in snow

I used to be a dedicated outliner. My outlines for novels would take up dozens and dozens of pages, come with color-coded notes to myself (this has been written and you don’t need to worry about it anymore = blue ; not sure of this, but you’ll come up with something better when you write it = purple ; what the hell do I do here HELP! = red). I’d basically write a paragraph describing every single scene in the book, chapter by chapter, in order, scene by scene by scene, and sometimes getting so inspired that occasionally actual writing would slip in between the bullet points, stray bits of dialogue, lines I wanted to be sure to use. Writing between the lines; writing that felt freed up and loose and full of possibility because it wasn’t “real” writing and I didn’t have to make the sentences sound good. (And, times like that, the sentences often come out sounding good.)

Outlining felt essential to writing a novel because I used to do work-for-hire projects, and in order to get paid I’ve have to turn in an outline before the draft and get it approved so I could start writing. Though I seem to remember outlining my first-ever written novel, Bardo. The 500-page behemoth of a novel didn’t get any plot help from my doing so. But outlining was a method, even then, before I knew how to write a novel: putting down my thoughts in a place where they weren’t threatened and squandered by having to be “real.”

Then I met a moment of what I guess I’d call false confidence. I thought I was at a place with a novel where I didn’t need to outline. Usually I write opening chapters to find the voice, and then stop myself and do a plot outline.

This time I didn’t.

I wrote 17 & Gone without an outline. I kept telling myself the following: You know what will happen. Most of the book will be THIS (it actually wouldn’t be, surprise), so you won’t have to spend time doing THAT (surprise, was I wrong).

At some point, I was so deep into the first draft—the deadline looming menacingly, my future paycheck in hand—that even when I realized I did in fact need to outline because my brain was a chasm of static, lost girls, ominous black vans, bicycle tires, and voices, I’d peek at the calendar and tell myself I just didn’t have time to stop. I had to keep writing, or I’d never reach the deadline. There was NO TIME to outline!

But this is the thing, and I learned this lesson the hard way: Outlining, while taking time away from the official writing that can be put down toward your word count or page count, is not a waste of time at all… It will save time on the “real” writing. It will catch you before you fall into a deep plot hole and can’t claw your way out. It will lead you by the hand through your story. It will save you, in those blank moments of panic, when you doubt everything about yourself as a writer, it will save your life.

Also: Outlining actually is writing, in a way. It’s storytelling. It’s creating. It’s not at all a waste of time—it’s illumination.

And: Outlining is like sketching. It’s not permanent. It can change. It welcomes change. It’s there to give direction, but it never minds being led another way.

Just because you outline doesn’t mean you have to stick to it. I don’t, always. All I know is it helps me get where I’m going because it helps me know where I’m going. And I’m the kind of writer who needs to know there’s an end to that tunnel, or I’ll spend 100 pages inside the tunnel, describing the feel of the rocks in the darkness and you’ll have to shake me awake because I’ve fallen asleep with a pillow made of my shoes.

If I’d outlined 17 & Gone, I am sure it would have taken less time for me to write the first draft. And I have a sneaky suspicion that I wouldn’t have had to do such enormous revisions on the manuscript up until the very last minute… in which I pulled all-nighters to rearrange and rewrite huge chunks of pages the day of deadline and then watched something I hadn’t had a chance to even reread sail off because I’d put myself up against a wall and had no time left.

Outlining would have made that whole process much easier. That’s an understatement, because I don’t want to play the what-if game. I just want to do things differently this time.

I’m not coming on to shout about how everyone must outline their novels before writing. This writing process is so personal, and we all have our own ways of doing it. I think the lesson in this is simply: When you find something that works for you (be it outlining, be it flinging yourself into the dark tunnel and writing ahead without knowing what will come next, i.e., what writers call “pantsing,” which doesn’t make it sound very romantic, but whatever), maybe you should embrace it and keep at it instead of throwing it out the window and thinking you’ve grown beyond it.

I’m writing a new novel now, and I’m spending time outlining. I was talking to a writer friend the other week about outlining, and since he has a background as a screenwriter, he does very involved, very detailed stepped-out outlines, and expects the outline for the novel he’s writing to be about 100 pages.

He said something that inspired me, and I tweeted a paraphrase of it:

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…But I keep thinking about that, and I think that’s why outlining works so well for me. I get attached. I get very attached. When I’m writing the actual draft, I care so much about shaping the words and paragraphs—every line is significant, every word chosen for a reason. I don’t want boring or just functional writing—I write with intention. Even my first drafts. And then it’s very hard to let go of that way of phrasing, that word, that paragraph I spent so much time on, you know?

My drafting method is kind of maddening to me. But when I outline! When I outline, I have free permission to write just plain sentences. The words don’t matter so much as the action, the events, the plot. I’m seeing the bones behind it all. I’m making sure they fit together before I slather them with distracting words.

I guess what I’m doing is writing a rough draft, in a way, describing my novel from a distance as if I were watching it on a film screen. Or… describing what my novel could be… because at this point it can change. It will change. It often does change. I like to revise my outlines throughout the drafting process, making color-coded alterations as I go.

Just like my friend said, I’m allowing myself a place to make mistakes before I get too attached to my words. 

This all makes me think of one of the AWP panels I attended at the conference in Boston this past winter—I’d meant to blog about all the inspiring stuff I came away with, but I ended up just filing it away for myself… sorry for being so selfish and/or lazy. But one of the panels I went to was called “Keeping Track of Your Book,” and was about all the ways that fiction writers chart and keep a hold of their novels while writing them. I was really inspired by what Lan Samantha Chang told us: how she kept a diary for herself during the writing of her novel, a diary that was just as much about the process—if not more—of writing the novel as about the novel itself. She read choice excerpts from her journal, and I saw, too, that this is something I’ve been missing: a connection with myself and only myself as my brain works through the creation of this story. Outlining speaks to that, and blogging used to, but maybe I should go even deeper.

Now me, back to my outline, and maybe a new novel-focused diary… And you, fellow writers, what works for you?

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20 responses to “The Writing That Comes Before All the Writing: On Outlining”

  1. I was surprised to read that 17& Gone wasn’t outlined but it kind of fits for my first impression of the book. As I was reading it, the writing felt more intense and faster paced than both DANI and IMAGINARY GIRLS and I thought that maybe that was because your writing has evolved and you’re really finding your true voice as a writer and maybe this is the style and direction that your writing is taking you, but maybe when you free write and push through the first draft vs structurally outlining, that comes through as intensity? IDK, but I like both products tremendously, regardless of how you approach each new story, so I’m a happy reader with whatever works for you! smiles, suz


    • Thank you so much, Suz! I’m glad that’s what you see in the finished novel—and I’ll take that as a huge compliment! A little peek behind the scenes here and I can tell you: The intensity came through in the revisions, after I knew more of the story. That first un-outlined draft was a slow, senseless, meandering embarrassment.

      I can look back now and say I found my way, but it just took longer, and was really difficult emotionally, tiring, without having outlined. That’s how it seems to me in retrospect!


  2. Thank you, Nova! This is so helpful, I’m going to save it for future reference. I’m not an outliner, but I do plan scenes that get me flustered. I think I could use some outlining for my next project.


  3. So, so interesting, Nova. Thank you for sharing. 🙂 Especially intrigued by the novel-focused diary. This post makes me look forward to figuring out what my best process will be. 🙂


  4. I am absolutely, absolutely in love with this post. I think it’s fairly brilliant, and you made some great points about outlining! I’m not sure I’d personally do well with a detailed outline BUT having a rough idea of the events, plotlines and characters really does help me when I write.


  5. Thanks for sharing your process. And you’re right–your outline sounds more like a rough draft. You’re also right that there is no one way to do this–you figure out what works for you and you do it. But I would also add that this probably changes with each book. Instead of thinking you wasted some time by not outlining–maybe your process for 17 & Gone is exactly how it needed happen. It’s a brilliant, beautifully written book!

    BTW, I keep a journal as I write each book. It’s my angsty thoughts and questions as I figure out the story. It’s also a place to store deleted fragments and lines and scenes. I like that those will never be completely thrown away–even though I am the only one who will ever read them.


  6. I wish I could outline. People who outline always talk about how it saves them time, it helps them out, etc. I’ve tried it, but once I write a detailed outline, I lose interest in the story. When I know everything that’s going to happen in a bare-bones way, I lack the energy to flesh out the actual scenes. I suppose it is the feeling of discovery that keeps my first draft moving.

    On the other hand, I don’t get attached to my first-draft words. They’re often incomplete, and I don’t think I write well until the second draft. My sentences look like this: “I [stared at him]. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked [timidly].” The brackets surround words I want to replace, but I don’t want to stop the draft cold and figure out the exact right ones. The placeholder words in the brackets will remind me what’s happening in the scene, and I’ll find better words in revision.

    I usually outline during revision just to figure out where any added, deleted, or moved scenes will go. And for all of my books so far, I’ve prepared calendars that show exactly when each scene in the book occurs, so I can make sure that the chronology makes sense. I do that after the first draft, and then adjust the scenes if their timing doesn’t work.


  7. This post made me just a little anxious since I’m a pantser (though I’m totally going to steal your more romantic description of “flinging myself into the dark tunnel and writing ahead without knowing what will come next”) and have written myself into far too many holes. And yet I can’t outline, at least not for the first draft. Just can’t. I don’t work that way. But like Sam Chang, I do keep a journal about the novel writing process. And the rest of the time, I just hold my breath, keep my head down, and hope for the best.

    Besides, we all know that revision is a girl’s best friend.


  8. Great post. I’m not much of an outliner going into the draft. I might jot some notes down about what I think will happen. Other than that, I just go for it. Definitely a pantser. But in the middle of the draft, I’ll assess where the story is going and will jot down some ideas for scenes. By then, I usually know what will happen at the climax and at the end of the book and work toward that.


  9. Enjoyed this post! It’s good to see an experienced writer who outlines. I am a new writer, working on my first novel, but I think I’m an outliner. I was when writing essays in college, anyway. I had always hated writing essays before I began outlining them first, and found that my first drafts were incoherent and messy. Plus, after struggling so much and throwing in so much time and emotional energy I could hardly stand to go through them again to mold them into something better. Enter the magic of the outline! I would build a really bare-bones outline with just basic topics, and fill it in more and more until it turned into the actual paper. So. Much. Easier.

    As for my novel, I definitely started out intending to continuously build a monstrous outline until it morphed into an actual story. But then inspiration hit. Storylines changed. But my outline is still there to help me account for how this wildly different scene will fit into the rest of the story and what else needs to be revamped to make it all work together. I think outlining for creative writing will be less likely to turn into the actual finished piece, but it will be there with my novel, side-by-side, both keeping me grounded and setting me free.

    Thanks for making me feel a little less like of a rookie!


  10. Thanks for the excellent post. I went through a similar journey on outlining. I wrote the rough draft of my second novel without an outline. It sat for a couple of years, and when I set to rewrite it, I knew I had to outline in order to organize the big sweeping changes I wanted to make. Frankly, it was pretty juvenile, and it didn’t carry the weight it needed to allow for sequels.

    I spent months making notes and building a rainbow of an outline in Excel. When I finished my outline, certain characters or scenes had grown tremendously and others had been wiped out. It was significantly different from before… and significantly better.

    Still, the biggest advantage of outlining was I found a huge plot hole. I had changed something in the novel early on, and I didn’t realize how it rippled throughout the entire story. By creating an outline, I spotted this gaping hole before I drove the entire little caravan of my novel plummeting down into it. Basically, my tunnel would have caved in before I ever saw the light at the end.

    After two days of hyperventilating, I gathered the courage to fix my outline. By the time I was done, my Excel file could have passed for a Pollock masterpiece. And amazingly, filling in that Grand Canyon of a plot hole actually strengthened my novel. I had to follow all the loose threads, decide which were crucial, confusing, or completely disconnected, and reweave them into a powerful whole. Because I was so desperate to recover from my mistake, I was brutal in doing what I had to do to do. Like you mention above, my writing was freer, because I wasn’t overly attached to those first words.

    I just finished my second draft with this outline. I have never been happier with a draft. I didn’t always follow the outline as I wrote, but the overall structure carried through, and the entire novel is more cohesive. The next rewrite will be much simpler since all the sweeping changes are done.

    I’ve been thinking about my third novel, and although I’m eager to jump in with both feet, I know outlining will pay off in the end. I’ll keep your beautiful words in mind: “Outlining actually IS writing, in a way. It’s storytelling. It’s creating. It’s not at all a waste of time—it’s illumination.”

    Thanks again for the post!


  11. That is a great article. Thank you. An outline is as you said and as others say. It is not one-good-for-all. I think that outlining is building your novel bone by bone so that you can fill the flesh in later on. Mind you, the bones are not easy to find and build and much less the flesh. One can outline if only she sees the whole events of the novel, which is the core and very difficult task. So, outlining itself becomes organic. You may sit on and on organically thinking about the events. If you complete the organic, then outlining is much less difficult. Planning and even scheduling your novel writing comes next. You can only plan the flesh filling. The bones are organic. Outlining in research is different and easier as researcher knows his thesis, which is not so in novel writing. In novel writing you create events and characters from nothing while in research you discover what is already there.


  12. Well, it’s official. Having spent the fall taking the ever-evolving idea for my fourth novel from my head, where it’s been steeping for a year, and mapping out the story in a 46 page outline, I have now started writing the actual manuscript. In fact, I’ve already written a first draft of Chapter 1, just over 5,000 words. So far, so good. It looks like there’ll be 17 or perhaps 18 chapters in the 90,000 to 100,000 word manuscript.


  13. The really hard work of novel writing begins after you complete the first draft. Then, and only then, can you start figuring out how to make that which is broken way less broken. In order to do that you should give yourself at least a week off after completing said first draft. Walk away, go play, dance, juggle. Sleep for a week. But do not so much as think about your novel during your time off.


  14. Ah, this is so good to know. I always wondered if I was wasting my time writing pages and pages of outline. Sometimes it can get so complex that I need to reread my outline to remember all the elements. But it’s a good way of getting the details and filling in gaps.


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