The Writing Process: to Outline or Not to Outline

I may be alone in this, but as a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways there are to write. To be more specific, I’m actually referring to novel writing because that’s where my interests lie, but I imagine it could likely be applied to other types just as easily.

Regardless, there’s no one way to write, and I like to take the occasional look to see how others do it.

You can sum up the process into roughly three stages: planning, writing, revising. I think most people can agree to that, whether their planning consists of, “Oh, I have a great idea!” or it’s months of outlining, those are the essential steps. But it’s how writers go through those steps that makes them different, and to me, interesting.

The most likely differences you’ll find in comparing one writer to another is in how much planning goes into their work. Some people obsess over doing very detailed outlines, some to the point that every chapter or even every scene is determined before they sit down and write, while others do little to no outlining at all. The person who outlines may very well know exactly how the story is going to flow, all of the way to the end, while the one who opts to just dive right in might not know what the story is about, let alone how it’s going to end.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about that to me is that people can follow either of those ways, or anything in between, and be successful (I’m defining success here as completion of a manuscript). Think about that for a minute: many people are accomplishing effectively the same thing, only the way they in which they do it can be completely different. Isn’t that fascinating?

In poking around for an example or two to link to, I found how Garth Nix writes. In a nutshell, Garth actually adds an additional step before the planning phase (“Thinking” — I’d consider that part of the planning phase, but he doesn’t — again, different methods, same end result) but follows the same basic steps. There are a couple of interesting things that he does, however: he outlines each book (in addition to years of thinking about stories and jotting down notes), and he writes in longhand. To the latter point, I’m not sure if he still writes in longhand as there’s no date attribution on the page, but having done that before, I understand one of the benefits it offers when it comes time to editing (seeing your work in a different physical format changes how you see it — this’ll be something I get into at a later date).

But for the purpose of this blog entry, I’m more interested in his outlining. Garth makes a point of determining beforehand what each chapter, roughly, will entail. Once he gets going on the story proper, he typically revises the chapter outline to further focus on where he’s going and what he needs to write. Having the outline with chapter notes gives him a path to follow, even if all of the specifics aren’t yet determined.

This is in contrast to a writer friend of mine who similarly outlines, but where Garth only does chapter notes, this friend goes into specific details about everything happening in that chapter. For him, without all of those details, he gets lost. Where Garth may be using his chapter outlines as a guide, for my friend, it’s almost like a GPS — go here, do this, do that, end, new chapter, etc. As he has told me, without that strict and specific outline, “I can’t write.”

Contrast both of those with authors who don’t outline at all. While it’s been years since I read it, Stephen King in On Writing mentions that he typically gets an idea (a “What if” scenario if I recall correctly) and just goes with it. I may very well be remembering this incorrectly, but I don’t believe he does a whole lot of outlining but instead just runs with the idea and is, basically, along for the ride as it almost writes itself.

So how is it that writers can all have different approaches and yet be successful? That’s just one of the joys of writing, that there’s no one right way to do it, except that you must write.

So where do I fit in with the outlining/non-outlining crowd? Somewhere in the middle, actually.

Even though I’m focusing my efforts on revising a manuscript for epublishing right now (I’m preparing to send it to an editor, first, of course), it started in the most cliche way possible: a dream. I took it from a dream and just went with it. The Stephen King way, if you will.

However, there’s another manuscript I’m working on right now (I’m over 100000 words into it and I’m thinking I’m somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 finished — Stephen King-sized, no?) that I did something of an outline for. It was more of a summary than an outline, but it has been helpful as its scope has gone beyond my usually tightly focused works and the summary helps keep me organized.

And while I may have a summary written for that one, another one I’m working on (that’s at around 30000 words and is something I work on sporadically) is strictly a “What if” book. I have no idea where it’s going, and yet, I still manage to write it. But for other, finished, manuscripts? Summaries.

So if I had to throw myself in one camp, I’d hesitantly put myself in the Outline camp, but because I dislike outlines, I’d prefer to call it the Summary camp because that’s what works for me. But, just the same, I can wing a story.

Both are effective methods for me, but I admit there’s a thrill I get with winging a story that I don’t get when I know ahead of time what’s going to happen. It’s almost like reading a book: each word is a surprise.

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