Assessing Pros and Cons of Outlining

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigfile8631274967187

It must have been 2011 when I was first asked to write an outline of a book for an editor.  At that point I’d written four or five books with no outline at all and the request completely freaked me out, although I tried not to let on.  I handed in an outline that was something like 20 pages long and probably took me as long to write as a book would have.

At that point, I decided I’d outline just that series, just for that editor (Southern Quilting Mysteries) and use my regular, organic process for my Memphis Barbeque series (Penguin, but different editor) and my Myrtle Clover series (self-pubbed).

That was when some sort of curse kicked in.  I managed to mangle an organic draft of Rubbed Out (Memphis book 4) and Body in the Backyard (Myrtle Clover book 4) immediately after that.  They were riddled with plot holes, inconsistent characters, lack of motivation…a real mess.  Rubbed Out was a particular emergency since I had very little time to fix it.  I scrapped what I’d written, sketched out a very rough outline for the rest of the story, and pull a successful book out of it.  Body in the Backyard took so long to fix that I decided I was giving up on being a pantster.  It was a good run.  I’d had fun.  But with my crazy production schedule, I’d left myself no room for error.  That was basically it…I didn’t have time to screw up now.

So now I’m counting the books I’ve outlined.  I think I’m at eight books now.  And yet…I still have a love-hate relationship with it.  Am I more efficient, though?  Without question.  I was plenty efficient when I could organically write an organized, logical first draft by making it up as I went along. The problem was that I couldn’t count on my ability to do that.

I think the last time I assessed this outlining process was last May.  Some of the things I discovered then are the same…but I’ve made some additional discoveries, too.  Some good, some bad.

Unexpected Benefits to Outlining:

The ability to pick immediately back up after taking a break from a book. I went to Africa this summer and then came back to a hospitalized family member.  And I picked right back up with my project without missing a beat.

Speed when jumping between series (gained only if outlining immediately after finishing a book in that series).

Clarity of story arc, character arc, and (purely for mystery writing) more methodical placement of clues and red herrings.

I start the book with a better understanding of who the characters are.

I actually get a better sense of what subplots would work with the story before I start (I don’t usually include subplots on my outlines…don’t pass them by the editor, either).

I haven’t run into plot holes since starting to outline.

Cover designer and copywriters can come up with back cover copy and covers (trad pub and self pub) before I’ve even finished the book.  (This does mess with my head a little, but it’s still a benefit).

Unexpected Problems When Outlining:

Writing short. I mentioned this last May and it hasn’t fixed itself. I write so short when I outline. Ridiculously short. I frequently have to add 5,000 words or more.

Stilted scenes occasionally…characters, dialogue, entire scenes will read flat and have to be fluffed up later.

Sometimes…a bit of the spark is gone for me as I write.  It’s not quite as fun.  I can be less enthusiastic about sitting down at the computer.

The important thing to remember when we’re thinking about our processes is—do what works for us.  Who cares what other people are doing?  But…have you found your ideal process yet? So, are you a pantster? Outliner?  Have you ever switched?  What are your thoughts?

33 thoughts on “Assessing Pros and Cons of Outlining

  1. Glad you’ve discovered the world of outlining!
    I can’t imagine not creating an outline and usually spend months planning one. But then I have a cleaner first draft as a result. I also have to add a lot of details later to raise the word count, but I think I’d have to do that either way.

    1. Alex–You’re a master outliner. :)

      You’re right–I do add details in later, whether I’m pantsing or outlining. But still..the outlined manuscript is too brief. I’m thinking that I just come up with a very clear, concise, to-the-point story with no fluff. That’s good…but I’m missing my word count. Got to get that figured out.

  2. Elizabeth – I think it’s interesting that you’ve written both with and without an outline. You’ve had a look at both sides, as you might say. I have to admit you have a point about the way that an outline can keep a story a bit limited. But in general, I like outlines. I like to know what’s coming next as I write. And what I’ve found is that if I do have an outline/plan, then if something else occurs to me – something I like better – I can always adapt. But you can’t adapt a plan you don’t have. Or maybe that’s just my view…

  3. Regarding losing the spark: I’m using Larry Brooks’ “novel in 9 sentences” model now, and it gives me the best of both worlds. No more painting myself into a corner, because I’ve identified the major waypoints in advance. But since I’ve only written one sentence to describe every 7500 words, there’s plenty of room to pants my way from waypoint to waypoint.

  4. Thanks for the post…again. In his excellent book, On Writing, Stephen King indicated that the process of writing was like finding a large buried boulder in the backyard – hence no outlines allowed. I ‘ve read somewhere that Jeffrey Deaver, who seems to come out with a book every week, unfailingly does a 150 page, single spaced outline prior to writing each novel.
    Elizabeth, you have much more experience than I on this, but for me, a hybrid method works best. I know the beginning and end pieces of the story, but I try to be flexible (with a one sentence outline on all the chapters in-between). I usually set the outline aside and only look at it occasionally; then comprehensively at the end, trying to back-fill as little as possible. Mysteries are full of plot details and characters with future motivations that need to be connected. Because of that, totally improv writing doesn’t work for me.
    I understand your “con” on the creativity side of things. Tim Cahill, the travel writer, wrote that writing is like primping an old fashioned pump. First nothing, then air, then spurts of water, then the water flows steady – the word stream presents itself. An outline may or may not put that at risk.
    Last thing, we’ve all read plots that meander and plots that are way, way to tight. The trick is not revealing the method to the reader – just a good story.

    1. Good point, James! We don’t want the audience to see the puppet’s strings. Our process needs to be clean and remain behind the scenes.

      I don’t know *how* King comes up with the number of stories he does without outlining. He’s just practiced at getting that clean read out, I guess. I admire him for it. I wonder if that does contribute to his (usual) sizable word-count…the fact that he doesn’t outline. I know my books were longer when I didn’t.

      I do really like my mini-outlines, too…just enough for the next day. That’s a pretty good hybrid approach to it. But now I’m scared to return to non-outlining, after my couple of huge failures.

  5. Hi Elizabeth – the mysteries of not visiting for ages – I will catch up! Your posts are always full of interest, advice and plain common sense.

    So pleased Africa made such an impression on you …but fascinating to find that you could pick up your draft immediately after your trip to Kenya … despite being anxious about your hospitalised family member …

    I’m sure outlining helps … yet I tend to do things off the cuff … for a book – I’m not sure.

    Cheers and thanks for popping by – Hilary

    1. Hilary–Oh, that’s also the wonder of a deadline! And writing is a good sitting-by-the-bedside-in-the-hospital activity. As long as we don’t type too loudly for the poor patient!

      Thanks for coming by. :)

  6. I’ve written both ways. I had to write quite a few detailed industry articles and outlining did help with placement and a smooth flow. When I know my subject well, it’s all there anyway but the outline kept me on track.

    To be honest, in creative writing I prefer to be a pantster. But I’ve also found that a basic outline keeps things on track better and still allows for the freedom of the pantster in the telling. There is less editing of the extraneous crap. I do have to go back and add layers but that’s something I think most writers have to do to make their story better and have more impact.

    I couldn’t imagine writing a mystery or thriller without an outline. Too many details that must be in place.

    Sia McKye Over Coffee

    1. Sia–Ha! I’m thinking that “extraneous crap” was probably what was making my books so long in my pre-outlining days! My books now are so clean, so forthright…but short.

      I usually did put clues and red herrings into my books in layers, pre-outlines. It did create some extra work for me, though.

  7. I’m somewhere right in between. I usually have a vague sketch of the big plot points, but don’t know the connective tissue between them. I think that every writer has a different method that works, but that it can change depending on the book. I’ve had to work on outlining too, and honestly, writing a full outline is like pulling teeth. Yuck. Ha! ;)

    1. Juliana–Oh, I hate outlining! With a passion! I’m starting one right now and I’m procrastinating like crazy. I’ve been doing laundry all morning to get away from it. :)

      I like your analogy of the connective tissue. I think that’s where I get hung up on my outlines.

  8. I’ve always had the same relationship with outlining. I’m not a disciplined person and hate rules, even my own. Outlining was like putting on a straitjacket. BUT, I had all those problems you mentioned.

    Recently I’ve begun using a hybrid model that fits my screwball personality. I have a feeling it might work for you as well. I use Alexandra Sokoloff’s storyboard method to create a big picture, easily adjusted, story-plan. It helps avoid the plot holes and getting sidetracked without that constrained feeling because — everything is written on sticky notes!

    As I start to write, I then apply Russell Blake’s quote, “I’ll write the first fifteen chapter descriptions, which are single sentence blurbs to remind me what’s happening to whom in each chapter. Then I start writing. ”

    I just finished a storyboard for my third book, and started the chapter descriptions yesterday. After about ten chapters, I realized nothing scary was happening. I went back to my storyboard, swapped some sticky notes around and BANG, I was off and running.

    Peace, Seeley

    1. I think I’ve read Alex’s model before…and I love her screenwriting approach to writing. I’ll refresh my memory on it…thanks!

      I also like that it was so easy for you to diagnose your story’s problem and fix the problem you found.

  9. I tried but failed to outline the second in a series. It’s going to be hellish to revise (as was the first). I thought outlining just didn’t suit me, until recently when I worked to an outline for a three part romance (so not my genre) and wallop! It was a dream to write and so easy/quick/efficient. I am trying to write yet another outline for my second in the series, but it’s as though my mind refuses to cooperate. It hates organisation. :( I’ll keep trying, I concur with all of the pos/neg points. I want to be an outliner! X

    shahwharton.com

  10. I’ve found myself more and more drawn to outlining as time goes on. Granted, part of that may be due to the fact my next urban fantasy series is a mystery series, so I can’t really pants my way through as easily. :-)

  11. It’s the blend.

    The early efforts need the outline for some handle on consistency, story arcs, and overall plot.

    The spontaneity results when we write and expand on items which we previously considered inconsequential .

    There is a discipline, sure. One cannot outline A and write B for very long.

    I think we who toils in the depths of “multiple drafts” have a little more latitude than you successful series writers with commitments of deliverables. Our less efficient mechanisms allow the gloss of outline to be buffed away by the time we’re considering our beta readers.

    I can be wrong. The “best feeling” pieces are pantser originated but the best crafted have been outlined. Time to get those two out on a date.

    1. Jack–Expanding on the inconsequential…*this* is what I need to improve on. This is where my word count needs to be pumped up…because the only reason the stuff is inconsequential is because I blew by it. I need to put more into some of those elements.

      Yes, the deadlines. Ugh. This is why my mother and father are beta reading for me now. Because I don’t feel (too) bad about saying, “Hi. Can you read this? It has no chapter breaks, no page numbers, and I’m rewriting the ending. And my deadline is in three days…” :)

      Yes, some of my favorite books I’ve written are organic. Maybe just more passionate about them? Because I have the feeling my outlined books are technically better.

  12. See, knowing how organized you are, and the fact that your dad is an English professor (I think), I was SURPRISED to find out you were a … pantster. I was thoroughly shocked at this revelation. :) So now, I can sit back and gloat a bit while thinking, I really knew you all along. You were always a structured outliner, you just didn’t know it yet.

    1. Teresa–I just didn’t know it! You’re right. And I can’t imagine my dad writing something without an outline. It would be the *organized* way to write a book. I think I kept thinking about those outlines I’d make when I was a student: with Roman numerals and regular numbers and upper and lower case letters…and what a nightmare those were! Mine, needless to say, don’t resemble those at all. :)

  13. Hi Elizabeth
    I like that you mention that you have to do what works for you.
    I am a proud pantser, but so far that’s only because that’s what I’ve done and it’s worked. It sounds like it was the same for you until you tried something else.
    I plan in my head, to an extent, at some point or other, and I almost always know what the end point is, but beyond that my attempts to be more planned never seem to work.
    However, the points you make about being more efficient, and having no plot holes are very attractive indeed. :)
    I will continue to try and outline and no doubt get slowly better at it. I’ll keep you posted :)
    cheers
    Mike

  14. Hi Elizabeth,

    I loved your post on outlines. You hit home on several points with me.

    I am a newbie to mystery writing. Just finished my first one, a cozy mystery set in India. I am in the process of mapping out my second one. The art of writing an outline was one that I stumbled on, rather than set out to do from day one. I have also written a novel which came straight out of my head: I had a group of characters in mind and a definite project they were going to undertake but the rest of the story was created page by page, chapter by chapter, as and when I sat down to write. I have always been a short story writer you see, and there’s no way, that I know of, except to write a short story flat out as a draft which you edit endlessly, adding or deleting, till you feel done.

    So for my first murder mystery I drew up a short, descriptive note about my characters (borrowing the ideas with a respectful bow to Agatha Christie) and sat down to write it. The first few chapters were fine. But as I began to explore the story more, I found myself constantly scrolling back to see where A was when C did/said this and wouldn’t B or D notice such and such?

    So, Obe day, out of sheer desperation, I decided to write an outline for each chapter. Just a para really, the bones of the events to unfold. As the days went by, I found myself feeling relieved actually. There was no wasting of time, no stalling while I waited for the creativity spout to start pouring. I showed up, checked the outline to see where I had stopped last time and more often than not, I could pick up where I left off.

    You are also absolutely right about outlines helping to re-ignite motivation and interest after an absence. I had several breaks while writing and each time my outline jogged my memory and helped me to pick up where I left off. I did not always follow my outline though. Characters and events did change but in minor ways.

    So now I am a big believer in writing outlines! Thank you so much for putting into words what has become an unsaid belief.

    1. Writing lotus–I’m so glad it worked so well for you! And you’ve hit on something that I think happens to a lot of us…we can start out knowing exactly where we’re going with a story and the characters and really inspired and really focused–and then we hit some sort of big snag or a series of small snags. And those can be *very* demotivating. The only reason I wasn’t abandoning those manuscripts is because I was on a deadline. But it was a scary enough experience that I knew I had to change something about my process.

  15. Elizabeth–
    As usual I am late to the party, but I will add this: if the principal focus for a writer is to produce as many titles as possible, outlining is a must. But what has to be true (I would think) for those who turn out book-length multiple titles annually is that the role of reflection is pretty much cancelled. I admire writers who manage–somehow–to produce readable, entertaining books at a fast clip. But generally, those are not the books I’m likely to reread.
    In fairness, though, I have to add that I don’t reread many books, period.

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