In Praise Of Outlines


In a recent blog post, novelist Donna Gillespie makes an eloquent case for writing without an outline, a clarion call for writers to shed their bonds and dive into their stories. Outlining is a “soul-killing, oxygen-sucking waste of time.” Just start writing, she advises, and the story will emerge.  As Gillespie has had several novels published, she’s clearly found a method that works for her, and I never argue with what works. I do, however, take issue with any one-size-fits-all prescription. Different strokes for different folks, after all; and “what works” can change over a writer’s lifetime or on a book-by-book basis— mysteries, I’ve found, require more mapping out than literary novels.

I recommend you read her post for yourselves; there’s a lot of good advice in there, including my favorite line: “Don’t think it through; write it through.” I remind myself of that truth every time I hit a snag in the planning stages; I’ve done this long enough to have faith that by the time I get to actually writing the scene, the solution will be clear. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t plan at all, just that one shouldn’t obsess over a few holes in the outline.

For the sake of writers who haven’t found their way yet, I felt someone should make the case for outlining, because for most fiction writers, it is an extremely effective tool.

I freely concede from the outset that outlining isn’t fun. I had a student once who loved it, but he was an engineer by trade.  For most writers, and certainly for me, it’s the hardest part of the job, the headache-inducing prelude to the fun of writing and revising.

I once sold a movie option to a novel I hadn’t finished writing. That’s a long story and I won’t tell it all now, because it has to do with race and writing and that’s not my subject here. The short version is that I’d fallen out with my publisher over a racial disparity in my latest novel—I was white, the protagonist black—and withdrew the manuscript in a bit of a huff. It made for a good bit of publishing gossip, and my agent told it over lunch to a producer friend, who was curious enough to read pages that night. He liked them; the upshot was a movie deal and a flurry of activity that culminated in the dispatch of a screenwriter, sent to extract the ending of my novel so he could finish his screenplay.

We sat in my living  room, and he asked questions that I struggled to answer, because the answers didn’t exist; they hadn’t been written yet. The more probing the questions, the more uncomfortable I felt. It was like taking an exam on a subject I’d never studied but was expected to know, only more visceral than that: an  intimate discomfort, as if he were trying to extract something that wasn’t ready to be born.

That, in a heightened form, pretty much describes the sensation of outlining. Summarizing a story that has not yet been born is a painful exercise. Characters come out flat and utilitarian. Plotlines emerge naked and shivering, barely viable. An embryonic story is not a thing of beauty.Foetus_in_the_Womb_detail

And yet I do outline my books before I write them, more so now than when I was a young writer. What’s worse, I make my writing students do it too: not because it’s the only way to write, but because it’s well worth trying, for several reasons.

1. Professionals do it. Not all; I know several first-rate writers who never outline. But the vast majority of published writers I know put in a great deal of preparatory work before they begin writing their novels; and as a former literary agent and editor, I’ve known quite a few.

2, Outlining is more efficient. If you know where you’re heading, chances are you’ll spend a lot less time revising after the first draft is done.

3. There’s less chance that the writer will lose his way. A lot of novels die on the vine. Writers lose focus and impetus, and their stories end up dead on the side of the road. As a writing teacher, I see for more books lost due to lack of planning than to too much.

4. Outlining reveals major problems in one’s concept for a novel, which gives the writer a chance to address them before investing hundreds of hours in a structure that’s fundamentally unsound.

5. Writing an outline builds up a head of steam. When you spent weeks or months planning, researching and outlining a novel, it is the most tremendous relief to actually start writing it. A lot of energy has been pent up; when it’s released, it provides great impetus to the novel.


Outlines aren’t straightjackets. Stories grow and evolve in the telling. The book I take to the dance is very different from the book I go home with, a fact of writing that agents and editors know well. Things happen during the writing, magical things sometimes, and those get incorporated. Sometimes the story takes an unexpected detour; you never know what you’ll find. Road trips don’t always go as planned either, but as every traveler knows, it helps to have a map.


What works for you? Have you tried both outlining and winging it? Does it depend on the book, do you think, or the writer?