Monday, March 28, 2011


Feeling stumped? Try outlining.

Now, now. I know. Whenever I bring up outlines, people tend to scratch their heads. Others back away. There are outlines and then there are *gulp* outlines. You know, from school:

I. Big Idea
A. Smaller
1. Even Smaller
a. Smallest

*ugh* rest assured that I will not go there. School is over and done with and we are free to form our outlines however we wish, whatever works for you. When we writers say outline, we're really just talking about planning. And different writers plan in lesser or greater detail.

There are basically two categories of writers: mechanical and organic.

Mechanical writers plan things in advance. They have lists, descriptions, and character charts. They know before they begin writing the opening paragragh of their book, for example, that Chapter 8 will contain an important plot twist. Depending on how much they plan, they'll know where the whole story must go, step by step.

Organic writers, for the most part, go with the flow. When they write, they know beginning and the overall theme of the book. They know the ending. And that's usually it, except for the major plot points. Then have to figure out how to connect it all together.

Now then, doesn't it looks like organic writers have more freedom, more spontanity. This must be how to outline, right? Otherwise creativity is stiffled and there are no surprises, right?


There is nothing wrong with either method, its about what works best for you. Mechanical writers do get surprised. They just get their surprises earlier. I should know, I do mechanical outlines. For my planning, I find I function best when I don't need to worry about prose and just spew it all out of my head and onto the page, ungramatical and ugly. The surprises still come, I'm still being spontanious. And don't think I feel stiffled by the outline. If when doing the actual writing that I feel I now want to take a detour... or three, off I go. The outline is just that, a plan. Both methods, or a mixture of both, have their merits.

The true sin is writing without a plan: it's not wise to write without an outline the same way it's not wise to build a house without blueprints. You'll ramble along, lose sight of details, make mistakes, and you'll either run out of steam and abandon the project or, you'll complete it, but the structure will be shakey, and eventually tip over in the wind.

The plan is the thing.



  1. I think it depends on what you are writing. Big works generally support big ideas. Novels take more planning and structure, but a short story can be completely organic, perhaps prompted by a thought or theme, and it flows from there. Without taking a poll of how every author arrived at their finished work, there is no way to draw any concrete conclusion as to which method works best. The rest is just opinion and conjecture.


  2. I've always outlined my work. I think it's because I'm a planner. I love making lists. Sometimes I'll jot down a few ideas for short stories, but for novels I tend to write pages of chapter-by-chapter outlines. I like to do it with a black pen on paper. I need to feel my fingers forming the thoughts that are flowing.

    I've never heard the expression organic writer before and when I went to school back in the dark ages, we didn't have to outline essays. I was surprised when my Godson showed me an assignment where he had to hand in every note, revisions and outline for an essay.

    I recall writing one short story that flowed onto the page with no outline or notes. I suspect a long dead author overshadowed me for a few hours because the story required few revisions.

    The problem with outlining is knowing when you should break away from the original concept. When I get writer's block or start procrastinating, I believe it's because of a bad or incomplete outline. Time to rework that outline.

    Without an outline, a writer will get stuck at some point, they might even start to sink. I'm treading water right now, so I think my outline is still working.