When to Outline

Have you ever noticed how much quicker you get your shopping done when you prepared a shopping list in advance? This article is about a shopping list for your writing process: The practice of outlining.

Few topics divide the writing community more than the habit of outlining work before or during the writing process. This article will not address the clear-cut black and white scenario of whether to outline at all or not. Of course, some writers will always use an outline while others will always claim to have the genuine experience of «The story just comes to me». But rarely are those who have to write in the position to say either with conviction. This post addresses the grey area in-between.

What is an outline?

Outlining is the process of planning your writing in advance by producing a list of items or steps to accomplish when you write your piece. The practice of producing an outline seems to have a negative reputation as writing may be perceived as the «fun» part, whilst outlining is for the poor souls who can't muster the creativity of a «real» writing process. This is utter B*S*. Excuse my French.

An outline helps to guide the writer toward a clearly defined goal, thus making the process more rewarding (for it is evident where you are headed at all times). Planning your writing helps to avoid having to rewrite substantial amounts of your work, because the creative, out-of-the-box idea you had that one sleepless night at 3.40 AM turns out to be a dead-end street for your main character. Or worse, the whole plot which was based on the assumption that it would work out.

An outline is not the straitjacket it appears to be, nor is it a mere «crutch» for the «uninspired». Much to the contrary, the outline is a playground and tryout area for the underlying «mechanics» of the story: Whilst you framed the journey of your heroine to go from A to Z, you can experiment with all the stages in-between. You will be able to explore the consequences of plot elements and other writing decisions in an outline without having to rewrite the whole piece.

The amount of detail in – and therefore the length of – an outline depends largely on the writing project you are pursuing. An outline can be anything, from a the bullet point checklist of the Five Ws in journalism to the comprehensive description of each and every scene in a screenplay or novel.

Purdue University's Online Writing Lab has suggestions on how to develop an effective outline: Developing an Outline.

Who should outline?

An outline can be particularly helpful for new writers, as it presents a methodical and pragmatic approach to achieve a planned outcome.

  • Novices, writers with little experience and writers who don't know their writing process (yet) or don't have a process they can trust to begin with. Trust in your writing process («Somehow it always works out in the end…») only builds up with the experience you gain while writing a lot.
  • Writers unfamiliar with the genre or form they attempt to write.
  • Non-writers who have to produce a certain kind of text.

More formal writing assignments also benefit from an outline when

  • there is a deadline by which the project has to be finished
  • you have to consider an audience or reader(s) who will judge your writing (e.g., love letters, articles, term papers, thesis-type documents and so forth)
  • you have to write in order to produce certain reaction (e.g., copy-writing, grant applications, book proposals, letters of motivation, cover notes, résumés and the like).

Advantages of outlining

An outline can be useful for a variety of reasons:

Envisioning the ultimate product of your efforts and preparing a step by step plan on how to achieve that goal makes the process more likely to be successful. Having defined what a successful finish of the writing project looks like, you will be able to know when its done… or, at least, «good enough».

When you have an outline, i.e. a blueprint of your route, you can focus on dressing up and arranging the landscape later.

No getting lost in the writing process: you will always know what to do next. An outline can prevent the sudden panic attack that is striking the very moment you sit down at your desk and don't know what to do next. This is especially helpful if you have time constraints or fear the «blank-page-freeze» because an outline can provide you with distinct, and therefore, approachable steps towards your goal. As mentioned already, with this approach you are much more likely to succeed than when overwhelming yourself with the task of, for instance, writing «a whole book».

A list of things to keep track of during the writing process itself helps you to tidy up lose ends and to keep promises to your readers. If, for instance, a term paper introduction refers to the elaboration of a concept fundamental to your argument later, yet by the end of your discussion the concept is not addressed – this leaves the reader with a bad impression of your work. Another example would be the attachments pertaining to a letter or email you write. Mentioning the enclosures in the letter but failing to attach them may be perceived as a sign of disorganisation of the writer. Stephen King, super-human in his prolificacy, noted on the subject: The Art of Fiction, The Paris Review No. 189

I have a filing system. It’s very complex, very orderly. With “Duma Key”—the novel I’m working on now—I’ve actually codified the notes to make sure I remember the different plot strands. I write down birth dates to figure out how old characters are at certain times. Remember to put a rose tattoo on this one’s breast, remember to give Edgar a big workbench by the end of February. Because if I do something wrong now, it becomes such a pain in the ass to fix later.


This article made the case for taking up outlining as a practice in your writing process. I suggested that certain situations and some writers can benefit a lot when outlining before delving into a writing project:

  • New writers or writer that have to write for a specific (unfamiliar) purpose or in an unknown genre;
  • Writers addressing a certain audience under given constraints;
  • Writers wishing to initiate a certain reaction or authors pursuing a call to action;
  • Writing projects with a clear focus and
  • writing projects limited by a timely deadline.

A successful writing process depends on various factors and outlining is no panacea for every situation. However, a thorough outline can guide the writing process toward realising the goal in an efficient manner. A sound outline can be a good foundation for any substantial writing project and is especially helpful if you write in a team and / or according to a set of constraints.

Details & meta

Tue, 15/03/2011 - 14:26