Writer's Craft Article by Karen S. Wiesner
The Ins and Outs of Outlining, Part 1
Based on FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE (formerly titled FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS)
This is the first of three posts dealing with outlining.
Some authors swear by outlines. Others say it stifles creativity. Those who are against outlining have strong opinions about them: They're a wasted effort. They can do the same thing by just jumping right into a story without a blueprint of some kind. They'll get more done if they skip this step. The exact opposite is the case, as I'll explain in this article. My writing reference, First Draft Outline (formerly titled First Draft in 30 Days), details creating an outline step-by-step and this can (and should) be done for all works of fiction, any size, whether a full-length novel or flash fiction. I use an outline for every single fiction project I undertake. There's no way I could consistently create solid books the way I do without one.
My feeling about outlines is simple: Why make the process of writing a book as hard as you possibly can by churning out hundreds of pages to get what probably won't be a workable first draft of a story and will require endless revisions, when, with the right preparation, you can create an outline so complete, it actually qualifies as the first draft of your book and includes every single scene of your book--meaning you can sit down and start writing immediately every day? With an outline like the one I talk about in my writing reference titles, you can see your entire novel from start to finish in one condensed place--including all the workable parts and all the unworkable ones.
Creating an outline like this puts the hard work of writing where it belongs—at the beginning a project. If you work out the kinks in the story in the outline, you ensure that the writing and revising are the easy parts. Revise your outline until you've got a completely solid story. In general, a regular full-length novel is around 400 manuscript pages. A “first draft” outline usually ends up being approximately a quarter of the size of the completed book. Revising 100 pages of an outline will certainly be much easier than revising 400 manuscript pages! Which would you rather revise? Because it’s an outline, it doesn’t even need to be your best writing. Most authors don’t and won’t spend endless time revising the words and sentence structure or whatever, in an outline, since they’re the only ones who’ll see it. That makes for a lot less obsession over every word and sentence, and puts the revision where it should be in the logical order of writing a book—at the end.
With your first-draft outline, you’ve made the revision process much easier for yourself. You can revise the outline as much as you need to in order to fine-tune your story, and you’ve virtually eliminated the need to overhaul (or scrap) the manuscript itself later.
Many authors fear that using an outline will kill their enthusiasm for writing the book or that their creativity will be hampered or caged with one. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve never felt stifled by an outline. The outline frees me to explore every aspect of a book—without risk. Use your outline to explore any angle you want. If it’s logical, keep it. If it’s not, delete it. You’ll only lose a little time, and your story will be stronger for it. If you realize halfway through or even all the way through outlining a book that some of your ideas aren’t working, it’s just a matter of deleting the stuff that doesn't work and starting again in a new direction. This is a change that probably won’t take longer than a few days to make in the much shorter outline (instead of the months or even years it might take to identify and correct a full draft of a book created without an outline). Exploring new angles while outlining allows you to avoid spending countless hours laboring and only then finding out these ideas don’t work.
Your completed outline will contain everything your book will, only in a much more condensed snapshot. A “first draft” outline is equivalent to the first draft of a manuscript because it has everything your manuscript will. It may or may not be something you can show an editor yet, but it truly will be all there. The hard work is over. Writing your book based on an outline this complete might almost make you feel guilty, like you’re cheating, because the writing process should be simplicity itself. The clearer a writer’s vision of the story before the actual writing, the more fleshed out, cohesive, and solid the story will be once it makes it to an actual first draft.
For those who use the argument that outlining kills your enthusiasm for writing a story, I want to challenge you to try this method anyway—a couple of times if you’re willing—then ask yourself this question: How do you feel after you finish a first draft that you know will require a blood-shedding amount of time and effort to revise? You feel exhausted and sick of the story, don’t you?
Let’s say you have to revise that same book a second time because the first time wasn’t good enough. Now how do you feel? Like you never want to set eyes on the story again, right? Imagine if you have to do this more than twice—say, three or four times to get a publishable manuscript. Imagine yourself rewriting and polishing this story all throughout this process, in a way that truly feels like you might never be finished.
You really do have to experience this to understand it but, when I write a book based on a “first draft” outline, pure magic happens because I watch the skeleton—the framework of the book contained in my outline—putting on flesh, becoming a walking, talking, breathing story. If anything, it’s more exciting this way—and a whole lot easier! I almost never have to rewrite the story. Revision after a first draft amounts to fine-tuning something that’s already working well. Try it a few times yourself.
My book First Draft Outline goes in-depth about outlining and goal setting. The follow-up title, Cohesive Story Building, focuses on writing in stages and story building with multiple layers that mean strength and cohesion for your book. If you write one draft and revise that, you only have two layers. That's why just jumping into the story without an outline doesn't produce the same results or complexity.
In Part 2 of this three-part article, we'll talk about how your outline jumpstarts the process of cohesive story building.
Karen S. Wiesner is the author of First Draft Outline and Cohesive Story Building
Volumes 1 and 2 of the 3D Fiction Fundamentals Collection
Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series. Visit her here: