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The Benefits of Outlining

Writers have intense feelings about outlining. Some love it and actively advocate for it, while others despise it with a startling passion. To me, outlining is like exercising. I don't love or hate exercising; it's simply something I must do to stay healthy. I don't love or hate outlining, either; it's simply something I must do to write good stories.

Outlining is hard work. It's not "fun." It's fun to get excited by an awesome idea for a novel and start writing it immediately. It's not fun to critically examine your awesome idea, find out it's not so awesome after all, and rack your brains to figure out how you can make it awesome. Outlining forces writers to confront brutal truths about their stories, so it's only natural that many invent excuses for skipping straight to the fun part. I've seen the following arguments against outlining on the Internet and even in writing advice books.

  • "Plotters" who stick to rigid road maps of how a story should go end up forcing characters to behave unbelievably.
  • Outlining is all about external plot. It doesn't take character development or themes or story questions into account.
  • Outlining robs you of the joy of discovering the story and characters along the way. Then writing is boring and there's no point in doing it.
  • Outlining stifles the creative juices and leads to writing that's forced and flat.

These would be damning flaws of outlining if they were true. But each of these downsides isn't a result of outlining itself, but a result of either (a) outlining poorly or (b) writing poorly and blaming outlining for it.

Outlines are flexible project plans, not rigid road maps.

Some of my middle and high school teachers tried to teach good writing habits by first assigning outlines, then rough drafts that followed those outlines, then polished final papers. They had admirable intentions, but they may have accidentally taught a fatal misconception about outlining. An outline is not something you make once at the beginning of a project, then follow to the letter. It should instead be a living document that you tweak continuously throughout the writing process.

When my team at PCC was redesigning the library website—a project that required cooperation between many individuals and departments—we kept a comprehensive project plan in Google Sheets. Every week we reexamined this plan and made adjustments. Are these due dates realistic? Do we need to add anything? Is there anything we can drop? By the time the new site went live, the plan looked nothing like it had when we'd first written it up the year before.

Nobody comes up with flawless ideas during brainstorming sessions at the start of a project. After you outline a story, you're going to start writing and find your original ideas don't pan out, and you'll want to take the characters in different directions. So what do you do? Do you trash the outline and wing it from there?

Imagine an architect is building a house based on original blueprints. After construction starts, the builders find that the measurements in a couple of the rooms aren't quite right. So the architect crumples up the blueprints and says, "Guess blueprinting doesn't work. Let's just make it up as we go!"

Plans are never perfect, but that doesn't mean there's no point in making them. When you find a character's behavior unbelievable, or a scene nonsensical, you should go back to your outline and plot a new course. It's foolish to force your story to stay on a bad path, but it's equally foolish to dash off on an alluring new path without stopping to think about where you might end up.

Outlining forces you to evaluate everything, not just plot.

The criticism that outlining sacrifices character development for plot makes little sense to me, because characters drive plot. A plot consists of characters making decisions and dealing with the consequences. If it doesn't, you don't have a story—you have a bunch of stuff that happens.

So in order to outline a story in the first place, you have to know your characters. You have to examine them after each plot point and figure out the next point by asking, What are they feeling? What do they want? What will they do next to achieve their goals?

Once you have the outline, you'll also be forced to look at its themes and overall arc...or lack thereof. I first started writing Kagemusha with no outline; it was just a series of screwball episodes. Then when I was ready to commit to completing the novel, I wrote brief synopses of the episodes in a logical sequence on my whiteboard. I remember staring at the result for a bit and then saying, "Fudge, this book has no story." So I had to come up with an antagonist whose interactions with the main character pushed the book towards some sort of conclusion.

Outlining doesn't make writing boring. Boring stories make writing boring.

My father watches 1776 every year on July 4. My mother pounces on every print edition, audio recording, and movie adaptation of Middlemarch she can find. Sweetie has seen the Star Wars movies so many times he's nearly memorized the dialogue.

Truly great stories can be enjoyed over and over, because the fun of reading or watching them isn't in learning what happens. The fun is in witnessing how it happens, and in freaking out or swooning or laughing along with the characters.

The same is true of writing. If you feel bored while writing, it's not because you know what happens next. It's because you're writing a boring story.

I've had many novel ideas die in infancy. My writing folder is a mass grave of ideas for upmarket historicals, contemporary rom-coms, cozy mysteries, and YA fantasies. After I outlined them, I lost interest in writing them.

But there are other ideas that interest me months or years after coming up with them. I can replay the imaginary scenes in my head daily and never tire of them. I can write a hundred pages of notes and still feel excited to work on the real thing.

If outlining kills your story, it probably wasn't a viable story to begin with. If you'd forgone outlining and jumped right in, after writing the bulk of the first draft you would've come to the same conclusion: this story is boring. This story isn't worth writing. Then you'd feel defeated and spend the next week soothing your battered ego with soy ice cream and Filipino soap operas. (This has never happened to me, of course. Nope. Not a once.)

Outlining feeds creativity.

Some people say they hate outlining because it "boxes them in." They don't like feeling restricted and say they can write well only if they're free to explore the story world on the page.

But in my experience, outlining opens up possibilities, while writing linearly closes them.

I have yet to meet a "pantser" who can get to the end of a project, admit that it's not working, reevaluate the story to find the root causes of the problems, and try again. Instead they'll write themselves into corners and stay there. They'll insist the corners can work. They'll fight to keep their corners and try to minimize gaping holes in the walls by revising only one chapter or one minor character. (This has also never happened to me. Not a once. *cough* Bubbles Pop *cough*)

When you write blindly, it's easy to get trapped on a path that leads to disaster...or at least to mediocrity. But if you outline first, you can look ahead to many paths. You can make infinite changes without committing to anything. You can change the characters, fix plot holes, spice up scenes and raise stakes, until you hit on that story that keeps you excited after a hundred pages of notes.


Putting together a good story is hard. Telling it well is even harder. Doing both at the same time is nearly impossible.

To express yourself coherently, you need to first figure out what you want to say, then figure out the best way to say it. Writing without knowing exactly what you're writing is simply rambling.

Maybe the word "outline" puts writers' guards up because of traumatic experiences with those well-meaning K-12 teachers. You can call it something else. A project plan. A story diagram. A skeleton draft. At outline doesn't have to be the strict hierarchy of Roman numerals you were forced to make in eighth-grade Language Arts; it can take whatever shape is most useful to you.

If you don't want to write anything down, you should at least outline in your head. Figure out where you're going and what you want to say. Identify the conflicts, the story questions, the character and narrative arcs. Then the most unpleasant work of writing a novel will be largely taken care of, and you can throw yourself into the fun part.


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