Writing Tips for Beginners #5: To do or not to do…an outline

Oooo, the outline. There are really only two schools of thought regarding the outline. Those who do and those who don’t. Let’s start with those who do why they do it, how they do it and how you can do it, too.

If writing is a journey, the outline is your roadmap. It’s your ideas, plot points, and events organized into a travel guide. If this is your first project, the art of outlining is going to help you on your path to completion.

Now this isn’t to say that only beginners use outlines. When I was at a Comic-Con panel in 2010 one of the writers said she can’t function unless she has the whole story outlined from beginning to end. It is essential that every writer knows how to outline.

There isn’t one proper way to outline. They’re really kind of written in code based on how the author organized information in general. When I was teaching at Universal Academy in Kansas City. I taught my students to start with the plotline. This should be at least one sentence, but not longer than a paragraph, just enough to tell me where they are going with their project.

They then had to draw a line down the center of their paper. On one half they had all of characters and character attributes; on the other half they had their places as well as a few adjectives and their significance.

Again this is just one way of doing it. Also, keep in mind, they were doing short projects, not chapters.

Another way that I’ve done an outline is like this:

Chapter 1:

People and event(s)

Chapter 2:

People and event(s)

You get the idea.

More common for me however is to write a paragraph about the chapter. That way seems to work best for me.

What’s going to work for you? I don’t know. However, I do know that ehow.com has a section on outlining and there are books dedicated to the subject for more ideas that you can try.

Now, on to those who don’t outline. Let’s start with me

Despite my understanding of and teaching the importance of outlining, I am not a habitual outliner. I tend to just dive right into my projects (as I do with everything in life). I like to see where my ideas and story take me.

The problem is that I never stick with the outline. It’s like writing a New Year’s resolution; half way in I’m out. I also find that, as the story progresses, there are often a lot of details that I didn’t consider when I wrote the outline that make the outline invalid. Then I end up feeling like I wasted a bunch of time writing an outline that didn’t get used.

However, I do outline when I get lost. I often come to a point in my story when the chain of events gets tangled. Then I must sit down and outline from either that chapter or the chapter before it and continue forward. And it helps a lot to clarify where I’m at and where I’m going.

Another thing I’ve started doing is writing tons and tons of notes. It’s like a conversations with myself about either something that has happened or something that I want to happen. This way helps determine if events are necessary, can wait or be cut altogether and where the story goes from there.

So, should you outline? In the beginning, yes. As you get more experienced, you’ll be able to use your better judgment.

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