It’s Not Your English Teacher’s Outline

Recently, I guest moderated #sffwrtchat (science fiction/fantasy writer chat) on Twitter. The subject was outlining, and the newly-created “League of Extraordinary Pantsers” was there to welcome me.

Just in case you didn’t know, writers can be loosely divided into two camps – those who outline, and those who write by the seat of their pants. You might guess that I fall into the outlining group, and you’d be right. I was a technical editor and software project manager for a long time and there’s no way I could avoid outlining.

The chat was an eye-opener for me. For one thing, never having had a conversation about how I outline a story or novel, I’d never actually looked at my process in detail. Secondly, during the course of the conversation, I discovered that a number of the Pantsers didn’t actually hate outlining, they hated what they thought it was.

This Type of Outline Can Be Useful

The type of outline shown at the top, with its Roman Numerals and sub-paragraphs, is the one that most of us learned in English class. And detested. I can just imagine what people who didn’t like writing thought of it if those of us who did like writing disliked it.

It fairly screams dry, boring, and creativity-squashing and the samples (like in the picture) were generally poor. But the tool itself isn’t bad. It’s just our perception. Once you know how to use the traditional outline, it’s fairly useful. It’s a tool, like any other, to be folded into a process; shaped to fit. What I found with the Pantsers I was talking with was they were still stuck in English class, thinking the way they learned it is the way it had to be.

What Do You Use Outlining For?

A good question I was asked at the chat. I’m an INTP, which means that I can be good working with details, I just don’t remember them well because my brain tends to take a forest view, rather than individual trees. So I use outlining to keep track of details and find I refer back to it frequently when I’m writing.

I also use the outline to gauge how the flow of my manuscript is going and see whether a character or action is pulling me off course and whether or not I want to allow it to continue. Also to see if maybe I’m giving too much time to a scene, which is blocking the flow. For me, it’s all about flow. I write from beginning to end, without skipping around. I think this might be due to the technical writing, which was always linear. Once you understand the process for setting up and using an acid bath for etching silicon wafers, you then write about the process: you don’t jump into the  middle of an acid bath. But it could be that my mind just works that way. Whichever, I’m fine with it.

For me, writing a piece is like constructing a jigsaw puzzle. The outline is the edges and corners you lay down first to frame the picture.

I start at the start, end at the end. I may know in my head what the ending will be, more or less, but I don’t write it until I get there, because things could change and I hate wasted energy. As I put the puzzle together, I make sure that each piece fits before moving on to the next, which means I do a lot of rewriting and editing as I go. Because I can end up spending a lot of time reworking a chapter, the outline gets me back in the groove when it’s time to move forward. And when I have to change something, where I will need to edit the preceding work is easier to see because of the outline.

I create several documents for a novel. The character bible, where I list each character and everything I know about him or her. The main outline, which is a high level description of the book, its flow and arcs. I create an outline for each chapter, and – when the chapter is finished – a summary. Yeah, I know that can be a lot of docs, and a lot of work. But keeping these docs does two things for me: helps me maintain my course and helps me feel I’m in control of the novel, rather than the novel controlling me.

I also do outlines for short stories, though I don’t bother with a character bible or the detailed outlines I keep for novels. My short story outlines could even be plotted as line graphs, the elements are terse enough for it.

Do I Recommend This Style of Outlining?

No. It’s just what works for me. Outlining for someone else might be using the graph version, even for a novel. It could be Post-It Notes® or index cards on a corkboard, as some of the outliners in the chat use. A travel writer might print out the pictures taken and arrange them in writing order – a very visual sort of outline.

At the end of the chat, one of the pantsers paid me the compliment of saying I had almost convinced her to give outlining a try. Almost.

I hope she does give it a try. Once she comes over to the dark side, she may never want to leave. Bwahahaha.

In any case, what’s important is that no writer gets hung up on the idea of outlining. It is no more immutable than any of the other tools used by each of us in the process of writing. What’s useful is only what works to help you get the words out and the work finished.

What’s your take on outlining and how does it fit into your process?

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Your English Teacher’s Outline

  1. Outlining is an important step to a more effective writing. Unless you write fiction in a stream of consciousness technique, you need to have a plan for your project. I always use outlining strategies go improve the logic of my writing and to get ready for effective writing.


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