Why I Don’t (Necessarily) Outline

First of all, Happy Cinco de Mayo!

I’ve been asked many times why I don’t outline my stories, including my beta and friends who are simply confused by my process. So let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time, in the dreary days of high school, I was one of those freaky Honors class children. I was in a class called Advanced Placement World History. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but I was dutifully taking notes. Later, one of my friends, who had been absent, asked to copy my notes. So I gave them to him during a free period and watched his face grow confused.

Not because of the subject matter, but because of the way I’d taken the notes. It made sense to me. It probably wasn’t very neat and I didn’t care enough to recopy them into a more comprehensible fair copy… so I didn’t. That may have been the last time I was asked for the notes to a class.

Plus, I tended to doodle on my notes. I did well in school, but I can’t say I paid much attention.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll probably realize that any sense of organization when it comes to my writing life is kinda recent and has been gradual. I’ve tried outlining my stories down to the beats and moments. I’ve heard of writers who outline every chapter, the POV, absolutely everything. For some, their outlines are the length of short stories. This is when they do their research, when their creative muse is turned on.

If I could be that way, I think the whole writing process would be easier. God bless them. That process sounds dead boring to me, though.

To clarify, I “outline” my stories before I dive in to first draft mania, but the outline tends to be extremely vague. There’s an initial paragraph of ideas I’ve come up with. Then there’s a short bullet-pointed thing that, in the end, will not resemble the finished first draft at all (see above picture; that page 1 of a 4 page outline). It’s only a few pages, a few broad ideas on characters and setting, some plot, the big scenes mapped out. I don’t do character charts anymore. I find those unhelpful as well.

If the piece requires, there will be a timeline. I heart timelines and family trees. I’ve made up family trees for stories I’ve never written. No wonder I’m doing my own family tree.

I’m not a total pantser, though. I used to be–used to just dive in to a story with a handful of characters and maybe a setting. Never really worked out well, because I didn’t know where I was going.

I used to think that real writers outlined, which is why I tried to do it myself. But published authors have their own processes as well and some outline and some sort-of outline and some are pantsers.

I can plan characters and some plot beforehand, but meticulously planning each component out doesn’t work for me, creatively. In many ways, my Shitty First Drafts are my form of outline. That’s where I discover if my plot works or whether the characters I have planned are interesting. It’s where the characters come alive for the first time. So, as crappy as the drafts come out, I have a lot of fun writing those first drafts. And I don’t show draft 1 to anybody.

Why ruin the illusion of being the writer among my friends, right? Besides, I doubt anybody else could understand it anyway. My beta had a hard enough time with the crappy first ten pages I had in draft 2.

I wish I could feel as creative while writing an extensive outline. Who knows, maybe one day I will.

Do you outline at all? How extensive is it?

4 thoughts on “Why I Don’t (Necessarily) Outline

  1. My notes/outlines (whenever I make them) sound like yours! My notes file for my WIP currently has: – Fictional place names at the top – Snippets of ideas/dialogues I want to include *somewhere* – Very basic chapter notes (which is short now, as I haven't quite decided the order some scenes are going to occur in) – \”Unfiled\” scenes – I know they're going to happen, I just don't know when yet.It probably looks like a mess, but it works for me!


  2. As long as it works for you, Thea. In my WIP's file, I have a timeline, short character bio, a document completely devoted to notes for research, and a list of sources.


  3. My notes are a mess. I keep everything lumped in a composition book: basic plot summary, character lists, bios, descriptions, interviews (if I need them), maps if I need/want one, random story notes (character arcs, world building, backstory, scene ideas). And all this surrounds my outline. I outline a few chapters at a time. If it gets too long, it gets messy since things are always subject to change. I try to keep it all together, but sometimes it gets separated by story notes. I like the idea of it all being neat and organized, but since it doesn't bother me, why take the time. Lol!


  4. I always think I should really try to outline when I hit a part of the story that I didn't plan for and I'm sitting there thinking, \”What should I do next?\” I'm glad to hear that it must be a general writer thing, to organize and maybe even write the 1st draft in a way that only that writer can understand.


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