Four Reasons Outlining Improves Stories and Saves Sanity

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Happy Saturday, and here’s hoping you had an interesting Friday 13th. I have a ton of NaNoPrep planned for this weekend, but for right now I want to take moment to talk about something near and dear to my heart. Outlining.

I touched briefly on it in my last blog post, but I feel like Preptober is the best possible time to get more into all the reasons why outlining is such an amazing part of the writing process. This isn’t going to be about the multitude of different outlining methods out there because I need to get to work on my own novel sometime today, but rather I’ll get into why you should outline in the first place. What is it about outlining that is so positive and beneficial?

Keep in mind that these are, of course, my personal opinions. Always do you when it comes to your writing. These stories are your babies, after all, and how you take them from vague idea to fully formed masterpiece is entirely your business.

So here are four reasons why outlining is awesome.

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Better Final Product

Let’s start with the obvious. Anything you get into is more successful with a plan. Would you travel to a foreign country without even Googling what currency they use or how to say “thank you” or what important cultural aspects you should keep in mind during your visit? Would you go parachuting without asking for some kind of instructions on how to land or, I don’t know, get the parachute to open? Would you jump into a bottom-less pool if you didn’t know how to swim?

I’m not saying you will drown or go splat on some nice farmer’s cornfield if you don’t outline your novel, but the thing is that when you start writing without any idea where your story is going, the whole thing will be clumsy and half of it is probably going to be entirely pointless when it comes to furthering the main plot of your novel. Yes, any first draft is going to suck; it’s what first drafts do. But your level of preparation is what helps determine how much your second draft is going to suck and how much work is required to make it readable. With an outline, each draft is going to be better than it would have been if you didn’t outline.

If you have a solid road-map of your major plot-points, you can spend the second draft fleshing things out, building up relationships that came out too weak, make the core conflict more dramatic, etc. Without an outline, that second draft is essentially going to use your first draft as an outline while you try to make a coherent and meaningful story. That’s not the best use of your time, is it?

Which brings me to my next point.

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Easier Writing Time Management

Writing a novel is hard. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time. And most of us have full-time jobs and full-time lives and have to squeeze in precious writing-time wherever possible. If you have an outline, you know exactly what to write next when you finally manage to sit down with your laptop or notebook. All you have to do is look at your outline, figure out what’s next and set your fingers and creativity loose on the page.

Without an outline, you have to either just type away, see what happens and hope for the best, or you lean back and think long and hard about how to solve this problem you just ran into. Thinking is fun and all, but right now you’re supposed to be writing and all this planning-as-you-go is eating up your time!

Don’t you want to finish your novel? Don’t you want to introduce it to the world and have them fawn all over this beautiful thing you created? Don’t you want that to happen as soon as possible instead of unnecessarily dragging it out? Obviously I’m not saying you should rush through any part of the novel-writing process, but if you just take a chunk of time before you start writing to do all this big planning and plotting, you will make it through all the rest a lot faster.

“Well, doesn’t it take the same amount of time if you plan before or if you plan during?” NO! SO NOT THE SAME THING! That logic doesn’t take into account that outlining will help shorten the planning time spent between drafts, or that it makes the actual writing time flow easier which can only benefit the quality of your final product. Don’t you want to be able to spend your writing time actually writing instead of doing the thinking part? Sure, the thinking part is fun but it would also have been fun if you did it beforehand.

Speaking of which…

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All the Creativity and Excitement!

When I hear pantsers (which is a ridiculous term and I hate this whole “pantser/plotter” thing, but that’s a conversation for another day) talk about why they don’t outline, the reasoning usually goes something like this: “I think knowing what’s going to happen up front takes the fun out of it. I like to be surprised, to see where the characters and the story takes me and discover new things as I go.”

In response to this I cringe and try changing the subject. Because the idea that outlining somehow makes the process of writing less exciting or takes the creativity out of it is just so insane to me that I can’t even get into an argument about it. First of all, how boring does your story have to be if knowing what happens next takes the fun out of writing it? How is spending days, weeks or months submerged in your story and playing around with characters, conflicts, themes, worlds and plots not creative?

Like any part of writing, outlining is hard, but I also think it’s incredibly fun and exciting. The main reason is essentially this: all that fun you have figuring out your story while writing without a plan? That fun is just as much fun when you do it while planning your outline. You can have all that excitement before you even start writing, and it won’t take the fun out of the actual writing because… well, why would it? Your story is awesome! You’ll have another one of those scenes you’re all excited about just waiting around every corner, cheering you on. You get to bring those hard-core action sequences to life. Those relationships you’ve spent so long obsessing about, you finally get to see them in action – the teasing and the kissing and the tension, you get to make it all come alive on the page!

Outlining does in no way take the spontaneity out of writing. It just moves it to a different format and allows you to experience it all in one go. How is that not exciting?

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Help You Cling to Sanity

The outline I’m working on for the Perrinne Legacy is pretty detailed. Not extremely detailed down to every line of every chapter, but enough that I know every big and small event and how they tie in with the main plot and all the subplots, not just for Book One but for the whole trilogy. It’s so exciting getting to devote all my Legacy-time to figuring out plot-holes and developing full and interesting characters, and it’s rewarding to think that all this hard work is going to make the writing-process smoother.

I used to think my outline for Spiralling was pretty good, too. I look back at it now and laugh because it hurts too much to cry. That outline is… well, pathetic seems harsh but also painfully accurate. If I spent half as much energy on my Spiralling outline as I am now on Perrinne Legacy, I wouldn’t currently be struggling so much with the second draft. See, before I even got to the end of Spiralling Draft One, I’d had some huge realizations that got the whole story to make more sense, and without them it basically made n sense. But I couldn’t just leave draft one unfinished, so I had to trudge on forward.

The result was hurrying to write a bunch of crap I knew would be changed anyway, and even stuff that was still the same ended up suffering. For instance, the climax of the story ended up maybe one third of the length I had intended and without any heart and soul. They’re just words that couldn’t make anyone feel anything. It wasn’t until I was well into Draft Two and nearly done with my Legacy outline that I realized the only reason I was in this mess was because I didn’t spend as much time on the outline as I should. I was blinded by my eagerness to just get going with the writing.

Now, I’m actually going to have to make an entirely new outline between drafts two and three just to make sure draft three doesn’t have the same problems as the first attempts. Sure, it will make draft three a lot easier to work on, but if I had done the outline right the first time, my second draft would have been my first and several months of my life wouldn’t have been wasted on 148.000 words that are essentially meaningless.

Lesson learned. Never again. I would rather spend three months making the most detailed outline ever than ever again come to the realization that I wrote a whole novel wrong. I’m still not done with draft two, and I am spending a lot of time just losing my mind having to figure out all these things that I should already know. Because I should have solved them all while I was outlining. It is slowing me down and driving me crazy. Learn from my mistake, children. Outline, and outline well.

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There you have it; four reasons why outlining is absolutely the best option for both your story and your sanity. I could do a lot more points because outlines are absolutely fabulous, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Dig into all the different ways you can outline. Personally, I worship at the alter of Rachel Stephens and am currently using her “How To Build A Novel” approach, which is just… Aaah, it’s just magical. I’ve tweaked it a bit to suit my own style, but her videos and the accompanying book-version are all just fantastic. Also, Rachel Stephens is like my muse – whenever I watch her videos, always without fail something goes click in my head and a problem gets solved or a brilliant idea hits. So yeah, check her out. It’s worth it.

Go out there and figure out what outlining system works best for you. Experiment, go nuts, have some fun with it! Because outlining can actually be so much fun and truly exciting, and there is no way you’re going to lose anything by trying it. The only possible side-effect of outlining is improvement of your writing and your process.

Now I have a novel to write, so if you’ll excuse me,

Rain S.
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6 thoughts on “Four Reasons Outlining Improves Stories and Saves Sanity

  1. This post is spot on! It gets under my skin when people say that writing without an outline is more creative. I argue the same as you–how can writing a story be less creative, simply because I do my creating before I get to the first draft? It really makes no logical sense. I just want to work out some of the broad points before I start into the writing–making sure I have somewhere to go by the end, and make sure there aren’t plot holes (there will still be plot holes, but I can usually avoid the bigger ones by outlining first).

    Chuck Wendig says something similar to what you said here about people who say they’re worried they’ll get bored with their story if they outline it before they start writing. If you’ll get bored with it during the planning process, it’s probably not that great of a story to begin with. I hesitate to say that to people, though, because it verges on insulting their story.

    In the end, even the hardcore “pantsers” might just not have hit on the form of planning or outlining that would work for them. They may have the wrong idea of what planners do (some seem to think that if you have an outline, you don’t have the freedom to venture from it if the story starts to go somewhere unexpected, but if I care about my story at all, why wouldn’t I at least explore this new direction?).

    Anyway, I could also go on and on, but you have made the biggest points already, and you’ve made them well. I do still agree that people who write without outlining or doing much planning at all, if they enjoy writing that way, I would never tell them they need to change. But I hope that they at least consider the benefits of planning, and I even more hope that some of them will stop treating planners like our writing process is inferior and not creative. I shouldn’t let it bother me, but it’s become a pet peeve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well this totally made my day 😁 Thank you! Oh yeah, pet peeve indeed. I’m a lot more creative when an outline is involved, every story gets so much better. But of course I get it maybe doesn’t work that way for everyone. Part of why it was so fun to write this is because most of the people in my writer’s group don’t outline so I never get to geek out over it! Glad to know I’m not the only one obsessing! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I want to start off by saying this is a great blog post and I absolutely love it.

    Until this past year, my idea of an outline was a few bullet points and a cast list. Since I’ve begun to seriously get into outlining, not only has it taken a load of stress off my shoulders, my writing has also improved tremendously! I think outlining is at least worth a try, even if someone is a hard-core pantser.

    (I’m curious as to why you don’t like the pantser/plotter thing. Would their perhaps be a future blog post explaining why?)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, I really appreciate it!! 😄 Same, outlining used to be just a few notes and now it involves three full cork-boards and a significant increase in quality. I wish more pantsers would just try it!
      Haha, well it’s just the fact that there’s a divide at all that kind of bugs me. Like can’t we all just be writers and get along? 😂 But yeah, good chance there will be a blog post about that in November when everyone is working towards the same goal.

      Also, thank you so much for notifying me about the error message! I have no idea what that was about but I’ll look into it 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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