Using a Writing Roadmap

Pushpin on map

Steven Covey once offered the advice to begin with the end in mind. Knowing where you are going is the key to success not only in business and in life, but also in writing. The first step for a student to learn in writing is thinking through the main idea he or she wants to convey and then determining the key points that develop that idea. This approach not only works for a simple essay or speech, but also for a manuscript for a new book.

Know your starting point: Just as a student should be able to state the main idea of an essay in one sentence, an author benefits from communicating the purpose for a new book in an overview. You often see a polished version of an overview taken from a book proposal on the back cover of a book. This overview is usually about seven sentences, arranged in one or two paragraphs. Think of the overview as much more than an abstract. The overview should go beyond summarizing the key message of the book to piquing reader interest.

Plan the rest stops along the way: At the beginning of manuscript preparation, you probably will have have a clear idea of what you want to say in the first few chapters, but only a vague understanding of the direction of the rest of the book. For your book proposal, you will need a chapter outline, which can provide direction for your writing, but consider what rest stops you will visit on your journey from the introduction to conclusion of your book. For a fiction book, these rest stops are the important events in your overall plot. For a nonfiction book, these rest stops are key ideas that develop your theme. Planning these rest stops in your writing roadmap will help you drive your writing forward.   Knowing you need to reach the next point in the development of your ideas will keep you from becoming sidetracked and adding good, but extraneous, information to your manuscript. If you link a certain expected word count to each rest stop, you also have a tool for planning your writing progress in order to meet a publisher’s manuscript deadline.

Arrive at your destination: You probably will come up with some great ideas while writing your manuscript that go beyond the material outlined in your book proposal. Wonderful! You might be able to incorporate some of these ideas along the way, but others may need to be saved for an additional book. Honor Steven Covey by keeping the intended conclusion of your book in mind as you finish each chapter. Make sure your readers arrive at your desired destination when they finish the last page of your book. Did your book fulfill the mission you envisioned? Did you support your ideas sufficiently? Did your words fly like an arrow and hit the bullseye? While you do not not need to tie up every loose end, do your final paragraphs provide a satisfying conclusion? Let your writing roadmap guide you to where you want to go.

How do you map out your writing project? 



Organizing Ideas into an Outline


The bridge between brainstorming great ideas to fill the blank pages of your book and coherent writing that communicates your message to readers is a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.

But how do you begin to organize all the puzzle pieces of ideas?

Organizing Ideas

Organizing Ideas

Write down your random ideas

Like someone preparing to solve a jigsaw puzzle, you need to gather your ideas without worrying how they fit together. Collect your thoughts on a piece of paper or type them down the page of a Word document. If you must, scribble on a napkin as creativity strikes. Decorate your desk with post-it notes. Just capture the ideas and spread them out like puzzle pieces on a table.

When writing my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I thought of illustrations and concepts that helped to communicate the main concepts in a certain chapter. I knew those ideas would shape the paragraphs yet to be written, but I needed more time to figure out how to make those ideas flow together. My first step was to capture those ideas and polish them into gemstones in their own isolated and random paragraphs. The process of stringing the gemstones together to make jewelry would come later.

Look for relationships between ideas

How do you begin to work a section of a jigsaw puzzle? I usually start by grouping together the pieces with similar colors or the pieces that have complementary shapes. Like a jeweler preparing to make a bracelet out of polished gemstones, I think about patterns. Before writing an outline for a book, I consider the relationships between the ideas in the chapter. Do I need to present the ideas in a chronological order? Should I arrange concepts next to each other in a way that creates contrast between different ideas? Should I build reader interest by adding a little suspense into the chapter, carefully delineating the problem before sharing the solution?

This grouping process helps me begin to write sections of an outline and start to order the sections of the chapter. If I have created paragraphs in the chapter itself, I cut and paste my ideas and write a few transitional sentences. I am on my way to filling those blank pages.

Make the central idea the focal point

The key to ordering the puzzle pieces correctly often involves finding that one central piece that helps you place all the others in the right place. In making jewelry, a jeweler will often select one gemstone as the focal point. When I write an outline, I ask myself what idea is the most important for the message I want to convey? Depending on my organizational pattern, that idea may need to come first, last, or even in the middle of the chapter. Placement of that idea is not about position so much as focus. Every other idea in my chapter will drive attention to that one main concept. Once I choose my central idea, the chapter outline falls into place. Writing the chapter is now as easy as filling in the blanks underneath each section of the outline with supporting details.

For non-fiction writers, a chapter-by-chapter outline is an essential component of the book proposal you will send to publishers. Deep into the publishing process, that outline may help you make structural changes to your book in order to sharpen your message. However important the outline may be to editors, think of that outline as a gift to you. It is your map through the thick forest of your ideas, keeping you from wandering off the path, and safely leading you to your destination. It will help you meet your deadlines on time and keep the ink flowing onto those blank pages. The time you spend writing your outline is an investment. So, go ahead, open the box, dump the puzzle pieces onto your desk, and outline your next book!

What method do you use to organize your writing?

Puppies, Unicorns and Dolphin-Shaped Balloons


Have you heard of the term bait-and-switch? Yep. This is one of them, and for good cause. If the title had read “3 Reasons to Outline,” would you seriously have stayed tuned? Not only is the topic of outlining boring, it often causes big hivey welts to break out on some people. So if you need to slug back a few gulps of Benadryl, go for it, and let’s move forward with…


1. To keep from crashing head first into the lack of confidence wall.

Yes, you can write an entire novel without drafting an outline, but the chances of losing steam and curling into the fetal position about midway through are pretty high. What you thought was a plot screeches to a halt. Characters wander around like zombies on steroids. Your narrative is a flaming train wreck of twisted words. Reaching this state of mind has a way of sucking all the confidence marrow from your bones. This is where an outline comes in handy. Think of it as a safety net and/or anti-zombie mega-gun. When you hit midway in your story, you can reach out and grab the outline rope to pull yourself up to the grand summit of a finale.

2. So you know where you’re going.

I’m not a huge map fan. I can’t fold the dang things. I know. I know. There’s this great new invention called MapQuest. Yeah. That’d be great if I had a smart phone—which I don’t. Even so, there have been a few family vacations where I’ve been awfully thankful for a map. That’s what your outline is. Writing a story is a lot like going on a road trip. Sure you can throw your bags in the car and hope for the best, but what happens when you hit construction? Or worse…road closed? That’s when a map is your best friend. Same thing with a meandering story. An outline will keep you on track to end up where you wanted to go.

3. It works out the kinks.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing an outline is not a magic pill that takes you to happy writer land (but if you could market that, you’d make scads of money.) Planning out the major scenes ahead of time, thinking through all the what-if-that-happens scenarios, straightens out your plot so you’ll be less likely to have to rewrite unnecessary chapters.

Convinced yet that outlining is the greatest thing ever? I wouldn’t be, either. Outlining sounds about as much fun as scrubbing the toilet—outlining as in Roman Numerals and sub-points and all that analytical falderal. I say it’s time to start thinking outside that no-fun box and reinvent the outline.

Newsflash: there’s no law that says you have to write a text-on-screen outline.

Maybe you’re a Pinterest type of person who creates story boards. That counts. Perhaps you love the smell of dry erase markers and get off on mind mapping a tale on a large whiteboard. Shoot, I even know some writers who adore 3M sticky notes and plan out a novel by decorating a wall with their scenes. Go ahead and get creative. That’s what fiction is about, folks.

One parting thought to shoot down the scare factor of outlining. You have my permission to outline only chunks at a time. If scribbling down the entire story totally freaks you out, just do the first third, then take a break and write the first chapter. Before you end the first third, however, you should plan the next third. Savvy?

Outlining does not have to steal the joy from your writing. Turn it around to enhance the joy of your writing…and keep from having a nervous breakdown halfway through.

What about you? Are you fans of the outline or more pantsers types?

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?