Would You Write A Book Without an Outline?

You probably wouldn’t drive across the country without a map.

You probably wouldn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner without recipes.

Would you write a book without an outline?

The practice of outlining a book in detail takes an enormous amount of discipline. Focusing on the infrastructure of the story is a whole different ball game than writing in free form and letting things evolve as they may. My first book was a result of rambling writing sessions, often resulting in superfluous content which ended up being taken out of the story. Although it was fun to just write and see what happened, it seemed there had to be a more effective method out there, one that would result in a greater yield with less exertion. Most writers have other jobs, and when it comes to writing time, every moment is precious.

Some writing coaches suggest that creating a detailed outline is the most important part of book writing, and the part where most authors struggle. Writers may spend weeks or even months on the outline alone, to provide some frame of reference for how detailed the outline can be. Writing a book is a project, not unlike building a house. There is the foundation, there are the walls, the flooring, the roof, etc. Only when the skeleton of the house is in place can homeowners enjoy working on some of the more aesthetic features of the home – picking out colors, the yard, creating curb appeal, you name it.

A project manager friend who has been intrigued by the writing process asked how my latest book was coming along. Our casual conversation at a wedding evolved into something else when I mentioned being stuck halfway through the book. The project manager asked if she could help me in going back to the drawing board and getting serious about planning it all the way to the end. I started sending her samples of my content and images of people that remind me of my characters. She would go through what I had written so far against our burgeoning outline and provide feedback: “I don’t think the character would say that on page 73,” or “When are the characters ever going to make it to Barcelona? You said that they have been saving up their mileage points for the trip,” etc.

At first I wondered if it had been a little premature to share my work with someone else. She had questions that were not always easy to answer, such as why I chose one title over another. Each time I had to explain an aspect of the story, it helped me figure out how to convey metaphors and messages with much greater clarity. After a few short weeks of this exchange, we finalized the outline. It’s all been downhill from there. Writing to an outline hasn’t seemed restrictive at all. It’s been like driving with a navigational system in the car, so you can better focus on the traffic, the scenery and the passengers.

Compass and Bible
Writing can be a very solitary profession, but creating an outline is a great opportunity to collaborate with others, should you desire to do so. It’s a lot easier to get someone to read an outline than to read a manuscript of 120,000 words or so. If you can have the feedback given to you in a postive way by someone who can deliver it in a manner that makes you comfortable, then your writing will become that much better for having another pair of eyes review it. Having to discuss and explain your work, your ideas, and your story line can be pretty awkward in the beginning. However, writers have to do it eventually anyway, so why not start from the get go?

Writers, do you sit down and just write, or do you use a more formal approach?

17 Replies to “Would You Write A Book Without an Outline?”

  1. I outline. However, after I’ve fleshed out the characters and know them more intimately, I sometimes have to adjust, as you detailed. I have to let the characters be themselves. The adjustments may be minor, but they make a more satisfying story. If I try to stick to my outline, they end up stepping out of character. Another pair of eyes attached to an insightful critic helps me see when I’ve done this, like your friend who came alongside. I have a carefully chosen First Reader.

    1. Having a person you really trust is key. The First Reader / Ideal Reader can help in streamlining the outline. As you mentioned, the outline is only there to help with structure. If it feels too uptight having one, then there is no point having one. Thank you for your response, Melinda.

  2. Outlining for me is like doing the dishes, or making my bed. I’d rather do something else when I start out, but when they’re done, I feel so good, and everything else seems to fall into place.

    A cluttered environment means a cluttered mind for me. Uncluttering my story by creating an outline makes me feel better, and helps the rest of the story fall into place.

    1. I feel exactly the same way. Having an outline is like having a perfectly clean desk, brand new toner, your favorite paper and lots of sharpened pencils for edits. For people who respond well to structure, there’s a big psychological component in organization that allows the mind to focus better.

  3. I just wrote a blog post about that last month, actually. I suppose I do sort of do an outline, but it’s not very formal. I write out the basic storyline, with a few key actions or decisions that I want to have happen in the story, and then I just sit down and write. Spending loads of time working on an outline always seemed like a waste of time to me (time that I could be writing!)

      1. I’m the same, Brittany. I use a loose outline and then follow the characters. At the Christian Writers Guild conference, I took a workshop by Steven James on writing organically—allowing the characters to drive the plot, even if they mess up the outline. It encouraged me, because that’s how I write. I think since God made each of us uniquely, surely we’ll discover unique techniques for writing. There’s probably as many ways to write as there are writers.

  4. Outlines can be difficult. Sometimes I get so caught up in the planning and structuring, I forget to actually write the thing! But, if I write without some sort of outline to guide the story, I usually write myself into a corner. I outline with mind maps, lists of important events, lists of characters and what they bring to the story, etc.

    I’ve been trying to decide if I should share my outline with another writer-friend of mine. Honestly, I’m afraid they’ll ask questions that I don’t know the answer too. After reading your post, I think I’ll give it a try! My story is a work in progress, after all, and far from perfect. 🙂


    1. I did feel a little silly at first not knowing the answers, but I’d rather have those conversations with a friend instead of an editor. The important events aspect is a great way to structure an outline. I also like what you mentioned about including what each character brings to the story and will try and incorporate that, too. Thank you Isabella.

  5. I couldn’t write a book witihout a detailed outline. I first make my outline and then a work at filling in my outline with as much detail as possible. Enjoyed your post. (Check mine at drstoop.com.)

  6. I guess I’m a little weird. I have a rather impressive sense of spatial orientation and can frequently remember every single detail of a project I’m working on, from the order of events to where they happen. The only things I can’t seem to remember to save my life are physical descriptions of my characters. I know every little detail of the characters (past, present, and future), but eye color? Not a chance.

    The only thing close to outlining I’ve ever done was matching a timeline to the appropriate progression of symptoms for a medical condition (I’ve actually done that multiple times).

    Now, that isn’t to say a certain amount of the book hadn’t been figured out before I got that far in writing. For example, the novel I’m working on right now, I have the entire plot in my head. I know every major event that will happen. I have them written down in Reminders, in an unordered mess, but I can find it all easily enough. It took me less than a week to come up with the idea, start writing, and finally decide all the major plot points. Most of it is still just in my head. I write anywhere from 2000-6000+ words a day (on days I sit down to write, since life can get in the way) and the 2000 word days are only so low because maybe I only started writing at nine o’ clock at night. I have yet to have trouble getting the words down on page. I don’t get stuck unless it’s something physical (like a headache or I’m too hot because I forgot to put the A/C on) and my brain is shutting down accordingly.

    I never get in front of the computer to write unless I can just let it flow out of me like free writing. Sometimes I’ll pace my living room, gnawing on an idea, trying to get it right. Other times, I might surf the internet, trying to research an idea. Still, I think outlining doesn’t really apply to what I do. Outlining implies some sense of organization I lack in spades.

    So, for those of you who don’t outline, don’t worry about it. It can work. Just find something, a system I guess, that works for you. I don’t think I could ever manage an outline anyway. The minor details of the story tend to come to me as my fingers are flying across the keyboard. Sometimes I’m very much surprised by what comes out of my head.

    And sorry this got kind of long…

    1. Please don’t apologize! This has been a great exchange of ideas. There are so many different ways to structure a story. Thank you for your comment.

  7. I don’t use a detailed outline at all. I usually have the start of the story in my head, and the ending. I know a little bit about who I want in the book, but then it just sort of morphs from there. What I have been doing is making very detailed character bios. Everything from their birthday, nicknames, boyfriends, schooling, likes, dislikes – I’ve been trying to flush out my characters that way, but an overall outline? No.

  8. I outline, re-outline, and then most likely outline again. It’s a little obsessive! It actually gets in the way of my writing at times. Attempting to loosen the OCD chains on my next project 🙂

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