Wednesday, July 14, 2010


The old “to outline or not to outline” question came up at a recent writerly social event I was at. I’ve heard many writers on this subject. Sometimes writers get very adamant about their position. They point their pens menacingly and say, OF COURSE YOU SHOULD OUTLINE. OR--OF COUSE YOU SHOULDN’T OUTLINE.

There are various degrees of outliners. Some say they just put down some vague notions about plot and character knowing they will change as they write. Just having them down somehow makes them more confident though. Some writers write long outlines, ten or twenty pages, and make them very detailed.

Other writers, the majority I believe, take a more iintuitivel approach to writing. They try to get in the flow of their story and push it forward in what they feel is a more organic way. While the outliners may get confidence from a sense of where they’re going, the writer who doesn’t outline feels he or she will be more likely to breathe life into his or her characters by allowing them to lead—in the sense that the story flows out of what they do and don’t do, want and are forced to face to get what they want etc…

Like most writers, my methods vary somewhat from manuscript to manuscript. I’ve never been successful at outlining a novel though and always begin first drafts in the stumbling way of the intuitive writer, living in uncertainty from day to day as I create a story, characters, world. But lately, though I can’t outline when I’m doing initial drafts, I have come to outlining after those initial drafts and one revision.

I think the intuitive approach and outlining aren’t mutually exclusive. I do feel that the intuitive approach in early drafts gives the writer a better chance at breathing life into his characters and stories. But I also think that sticking to this intuitive approach through revision may not serve the story, particularly structurally. So I think a more analytical approach, one that might include outlining and definitely includes chapter summaries, can make writers see weaknesses that they might be blind to. It is also possible that the intuitive writer might use outlining earlier in the evolution of a manuscript to analyze certain sections that are giving him or her trouble.

Or so I think today.


Michalea said...

I am definitely a retro-outliner. I have a whole little chart, including which characters are in the scene. It's SO helpful when you eliminate a character. Yeah, I've had eliminated characters pop up in the oddest places. (the goat barn?)

Unknown said...

I am too Michalea, what I love about outlining is that if I hit a block or need some time to think where the story is taking me I can pick out another part from the outline that I can write at that moment.

I never stick to the outline but it's good to see where you think you are headed and also that all ends are tied and not too much is left hanging.

Brian Yansky said...

I like the retro-oulining. I wish I could outline from the start. I'd like to feel I know where I'm going. Alas, not in this lifetime.