The 5 DOs and DON’Ts Of Outlining

outlineI once wrote a 25,000 word outline. From that outline, I wrote a 75,000 word novel. Yes, this is a situation of over-outlining. Truthfully, an outline can be a super intricate thousands of words long document or it can be a simple breakdown of the plot structure and overall story arc. How you outline isn’t all that important. However, I can’t stress enough the absolute importance of having some sort of an outline for any project you’re taking on, especially if it’s going to be longer than a few thousand words.

Now yes, there are those who don’t believe in outlines. These people are maniacs. Don’t be a maniac. While in some strange way I admire the spirit behind those who would blindfold themselves and take off running into the forest (which is what you’re doing when you don’t outline), I tend to believe that having a map handy and maybe a bit of a course charted out will help you complete your journey. So below are just a few of my dos and don’ts for outlining.

Number 1: Do have an outline

Pretty simple, I know. Have an outline.

Number 2: Don’t over-outline

Almost as dangerous as not having an outline is having an outline that’s too strict. One of the great joys of writing is being able to allow your story to morph and grow as you’re writing. If your 100 page outline full of detail and exact direction, you’ve left yourself no room for these organic shifts in your book. One step off the specific path you’ve outlined and everything falls apart. On the other hand, if your outline is a little broader, it can withstand some changes so long as the story continues moving upon the same basic arc that you planned for.

Number 3: Don’t be afraid to change the outline

This is a companion to number 2. There’s a danger to view the outline as the infallible absolute and final word on where your story must go. I’ve fallen into this one before. My characters were changing and growing before my eyes and the story was just not heading where I’d thought it was going to. But hey, the outline said they eventually fought the bad guy together on that rooftop, and if that’s what the outline says then that’s what had to happen, right? Wrong. Be willing to admit that sometimes the outline needs to evolve along with your story. Maybe the first half of the outline worked perfect, but the back half needs some tweaking. Better to mess with the outline a little mid-project than to stay so strict that you don’t let the project do what it needs to do.

Number 4: Do organize your outline

There’s no rule that says your outline must be written on graph paper and follow the Associated Press Stylebook method of outlining, but you do need some sort of organization. Fifty random plot points written haphazardly throughout the liner notes of your favorite 80’s metal cassette are gonna be a little difficult to follow once you’re writing a book. For a more modern example, let’s say that twenty different crumpled up Starbucks napkins filled with plot points are going to be difficult to follow once you’re writing a book. My outlines are nothing fancy, usually just a word document organized much like this blog post is. But it’s easy to follow and easy to pull up and read while I’m writing. It’s also easy to keep track of, whereas napkins and loose papers can get misplaced or thrown away.

Number 5: Do have an outline

Yup, I’m repeating number 1, just to show you how important it is. I know you’re unique, I know you’re special, I know your talent is different than any talent that’s ever put pen to paper in the history of mankind, I know that nobody tells you what to do, I know that you only listen to lo-fi punk rock that’s recorded in a sewer, but no matter all that, you need to have an outline. Be a trailblazer, be a maverick, be an innovator, but do it with an outline. Otherwise, you’re almost guaranteed to be one of the millions of people who have a partially finished book they started work on one day but were never able to finish. I don’t want that for anybody. If you’ve got a story to write, respect it enough to put together an outline so that you’ll know where to start and where to end. There is no lost in the woods when the outline is there to guide you.

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