To Outline or Not to Outline

I recently finished reading a book called Book Blueprint by Jacqui Pretty (the review will, hopefully, be appearing on in the next few weeks, barring any unforeseen circumstances). It’s about planning and writing a book as an entrepreneur to promote your business. It got me thinking about something which is useful in fiction, nonfiction, and academic writing, and I think it’s something which NaNoWriMo participates can benefit from: creating an outline.

At one point or another, you were probably made to create an outline for an essay in primary school (I was in high school). It might have helped you write a better essay, or it might have been a big waste of time for you. Not everyone thinks in a way which makes outlining useful. Still, you might want to consider returning to the method as a professional writer, no matter how novice or advanced your career may be.

An outline can organize your thoughts when they are otherwise jumbled. Many problems of inspiration can be alleviated by creating a sketch of what you want to write ahead of time. It won’t completely solve the issue of writer’s block and lack of inspiration, but having your original ideas to refer to can help.

In fiction, pre-planning could ease the burden of the “sagging middle.” If you outline your story or novel ahead of time, you can get a rough idea of how to transition from one scene to another. When you get stuck (aren’t sure of how to proceed, forgot a character’s name, etc.), you can return to your outline for an extra boost of inspiration, if nothing else.

The Freytag Pyramid is a well-known, perhaps infamous, way to plan fiction.

With nonfiction and academic writing, an outline is almost a necessity. You have to know what you’re going to write about, how to transition from one argument/event/whatever to another, and the point you’re making with this piece. Planning all this out beforehand will save you a lot of head-banging and pen-clicking later.

Of course, outlines aren’t for everyone. Fiction writers in particular have a hard time with planning their work. Some writers find that outlines stimulate their imaginations and keep their thoughts straight. Others, however, find planning rigid and constrictive, thus stunting their inspiration and blocking the creative flow. Outlines are incredibly useful in nonfiction and academic writing, but in fiction writing there’s a 50/50 chance that outlining will also slow down the process.

As with all writing advice, you have to personalize your approach to planning and outlines. One time it may work for you and the next it’ll derail your project. If you’re writing an essay or memoir, you’ll most likely want to use an outline. Writing a novel? Probably but no guarantee, although pre-planning will make NaNoWriMo go much more smoothly. A short story? Maybe not. You have to take it all in stride. Eventually you’ll learn what works best for you when.

Until then, an outline might be worth a try. Worst-case scenario: you have the bare-bones for a story that you can follow very loosely, like guidelines.

What’s been your experience with planning your pieces? Do you use an outline or do you prefer to jump right in? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

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