5 Really Good Reasons To Outline Your Novel - before you write a word

Outlining isn't a necessity, but there are so many advantages to it that even die-hard 'pantsters' should think twice about rejecting it. I have taught hundreds of people to write and 90% of those authors who finish writing their books have used an outline of some sort. Most of the authors I’ve interviewed also use outlines. 

Outlines can be:
  1. 50-page detailed plans
  2. a reworking of The Hero's Journey
  3. a simple series of index cards with a list of characters, major scenes and sequels
  4. structured timelines
  5. a series of character questionnaires showing development, motivations, flaws and strengths
  6. story maps
  7. one-page chapter-by-chapter outlines
  8. one-page synopses
Outlining does not mean that you have to put in every detail. (Note: There are some outliners who do include everything.) It does mean that you have a map to help you navigate and finish a first draft. 

Some authors have plotted their stories for decades in their heads, making notes in journals. As George RR Martin, creator of A Song of Fire and Ice says: 

    All the major things have been planned since the beginning, since the early 90s, the major deaths and the general direction of things. Obviously, the details and the minor things have been things that I've discovered along the way, part of the fun of writing the books is making these discoveries along the journey. But the general structure of the books has been in my head all along. 

Source for Outlining Methods

Here are five advantages tor outlining your novel before you start: 

  1. There is very little chance of writer’s block. Getting stuck in a rut or losing the plot are the most common reasons people join our course. They have tried the ‘pantser’ method and failed. None of these writers have outlined or worried about whether they have a plot that is strong enough to see them through. Once they join Writers Write, and work out that they need a plan, they are much happier and mostly more successful. If you get stuck, you simply look at the outline and move on.
  2. You reduce the number of rewrites and edits. Outlining is similar, in many ways, to a first draft. If you spend time planning the book, you will have already written at least one rough draft before you start on the manuscript. You will also be able to write more quickly because you have a plan. The freedom of having an outline allows you to be more creative when you’re writing scenes. You can use your writing skills to craft the story instead of frantically trying to think about what happens next.
  3. You spot problem areas before you begin. It is easy to write yourself and your characters into impossible situations. It might be fun, but you may have to scrap an entire book and begin again if you can’t write yourself out of it.
  4. It improves creativity. By thinking everything through and planning your story you’re stimulating the creative process. Even if you write the first draft without referring to your outline, you will have a head start with your story. You will also be able to thread ideas through the story and to foreshadow more effectively. You can’t foreshadow if you don’t know what is going to happen next.
  5. You can develop compelling characters with clear story goals. This allows you to imagine how your character will develop over the course of the story. Because you know what happens, his or her arc will never be out of step with the rest of the manuscript. 

What do you have to lose by outlining? Very little. In more than 10 years of teaching, I have never had students say that it has made their writing worse. Most of them are grateful that they do not have to waste more time on books that fall flat. 

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. Email  news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

    Text © Amanda Patterson

    If you enjoyed this post, read 
    1. The Author’s Promise - two things every writer should do
    2. 7 Extremely Good Reasons to Write the Ending First
    3. What is the difference between a commercial and a literary plot?
    4. Basic Plot Structure - The Five Plotting Moments That Matter 
    Amanda is the founder of Writers Write. Follow her on  Pinterest,  Facebook,  Google+,  Tumblr  and  Twitter.  


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    9 responses
    Love this article. This is my very problem. I did write an initial outline--chapter plan, but the characters took me in a different direction; and now I'm stalled. I think it's time to go back to the chapter plan and get these characters under control. And that's just what I'm going to do: go back and rework the outline.
    Good luck, Dianne.
    Did you use an outline? If so, did you find it helpful? I've never used one but maybe it's time for "old dog, new tricks." Hope your trip to Detroit was fun and relaxing. V
    6 visitors upvoted this post.