Outlining… Bane & Balm

Posted Feb 25 2010, 4:09 am

I hate outlining.

I mean, I HATE it like I hate root canal and vegetables.

I envy all those seat-of-their-pants writers who can take a premise from mere spark to finished draft without so much as a single index card, post-it note, or character chart but sadly, that is NOT me. Though I despise outlining, I nevertheless appreciate the results of having outlined. (With due thanks to Beth B.)

For me, not outlining is the equivalent of driving cross-country without benefit of map or GPS. Bear in mind, I can get lost in a phone booth, so that is REALLY saying something.

I’ve tried a variety of outlining tools and methods. I’ve snowflaked. I’ve index carded and post-it noted entire walls. I’ve even bought a huge three – foot pad on which I scribble enormous mind maps. I’m now trying out various software tools. While each method has its pros and cons, none has ever made me say, “Ah. This is fun.”

It’s not fun, it’s a chore. I suppose I find it drudgery because it’s so unsexy. Stripped of  (fascinating) characters, (sparkling) dialogue, and (luscious) scenery, an outline has about as much appeal as a flayed and possibly filleted body.

So why do it?

Oh, if I had a dollar for every story I abandoned because it lacked direction and purpose and theme and cohesion.

I outline because I want to know where “The End” is.  I outline to uncover the hidden motives in my characters and the unexplored corners of their world. Playing God with their lives is much easier when I am shuffling around outline entries rather than thousands of words of manuscript. Outlining simplifies the synopsis process, keeps me from getting lost, and makes it much less traumatic to murder my darlings.

Perhaps the best reason to outline? My outline gives me a few dozen minor points of done on the way to the single major done.  A sound outline lets me write out of sequence, allowing me to skip writing a love scene if I’m…er… not in the mood.

I’m outlining Send.


The first version was outlined on the three-foot pad. I’m outlining the second pass using freeware. The tool is hardly the point. The point is, I get a little closer to finishing this project each time I ask, ‘…and then what happens?’

Small, easily achieved pieces of the whole. The journey of a thousand miles… Rewriting a finished manuscript would otherwise feel, and therefore be, impossible.

How do you feel about outlining?



2 responses to “Outlining… Bane & Balm”

  1. Nice post! I have to outline, but my outlines get more detailed along the way. I do it many times, and I don’t necessarily stick to the original plan. I am a pants-liner. An out-pantser. A freak of nature.

  2. Patty Blount says:

    Beth, I agree completely… my outlines morph and go off on tangents and make up new characters on me… but knowing how it all ends is the key, I think.

    My first novel, Postpartum Deception, was shelved three or four times (I can’t remember!) because I didn’t outline enough. Midway through, I ran out of juice.