Friday, October 18, 2019

Writing Without an Outline

by Linda Thorne

 A couple of months ago, I moderated an author’s panel on this subject at the 14th Annual Killer Nashville International Writer's Conference. The topic is one that’s applicable to many writers. I found it interesting that all the authors on this panel, like me, write without an outline. I thought this either a huge coincidence since there were six of us in total or else it's evidence that most writers do not use outlines.

Authors are divided into two factions: those who outline and those who do not or more loosely, plotters and pantsers. I’ve heard the two camps discuss the topic in person and in blog debates, each side harboring strong opinions. Arguments can become intense with no one willing to budge from their position.

What I learned from the authors on this panel last August is although they claimed to be pantsers, none were. They may not outline, but they have other tools that guide them and keep them on target. I use copies of calendar months I print off from Outlook. I’ll scribble them down initially and when it gets too messy, I’ll type the list in Word in small font, print and cut and tape the typed wording onto each day in each month of my book's time frame. Sometimes there’s a transition and I’ll line through a week or so. I don’t need too many words to describe anything. Only a couple of words to trigger a scene or to state a new character is “on stage,” which means their first appearance. Others use different methods to look at the whole picture, or chunks of it.

Toward the end of this panel, I told the panelists and those who attended the session about my favorite article of all time on this topic. I found it by accident a few years ago, and I’ve kept it, reread it from time to time to keep myself focused. "Go Organic" by Steven James – Writer's Digest March/April 2013. I’ve copied the first part of this article below:

“I have a confession to make.
When I was in school and a teacher would assign us to write an outline for a story, I’d finish the story first, then go back and write the outline so I’d have something to turn in. Even as a teenager I thought outlining was counterintuitive to the writing process.”

6 Secrets of Writing Without an Outline
Above is the link for his republished version of Go Organic that he put on the blogpost, The Writer’s Dig, on October 15, 2013.

I honestly believe the old outline we were taught to use in high school and college is outdated. I’ve read that if you don’t use an outline, you’ll spend the same amount of time, if not more, by writing without it. I agree with that, but like Steven James, I can’t outline. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me. I know it takes me at least the same amount of time writing an outline would to find the controls to get the story in proper prospective, but I need to use what works for me.

What about you? Do you outline or do you simply start writing to see where it will lead you or, do you go organic with a plan that works for you?

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Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

No outlining for me either, though I do jot down notes, and what days things happen.

jrlindermuth said...

I don't do a 'formal' outline either. Knowing too much in advance spoils the surprises my characters will provide for me.

Gloria Getman said...

I guess I'm somewhere in between. I sometimes use a calendar to figure out a plausible time frame. I don't want my character going to the bank on Sunday. I make a list of days in Word and record what ought to happen on those days, but it often changes as the characters dictate. Not sure what my method would be called.

authorlindathorne said...

Thank you for your comments. Most writers I meet say they don't outline. So far, your comments just confirm that. I verified at the Killer Nashville Writers conference that none of the panelists had been asked whether they outlined or not before being chosen for that panel, so when 100% of us did not outline, I figured the pendulum swung toward not outlining.

Saralyn said...

I’m also a pantser, and I love the calendar idea! I’ve found the hardest details to keep straight have to do with numbers—times, dates, years, ages, sequences. Otherwise, I like to keep plotting loose enough for characters to run away with a scene if they need to. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic!

Patricia Gligor's Writers Forum said...

Great topic!
When people ask me if I'm a plotter or a pantser, my reply is "I WISH I could be a pantser but it doesn't work for me." Believe me, I've tried.
In life and in my writing, I function best when I have a plan. That plan changes constantly, of course. The chapter-by-chapter outline I create before I actually begin to write keeps me going in the right direction but that direction often veers off the path. :)

authorlindathorne said...

Well, we picked up another pantser in Saralyn, but thanks to you, Patricia, we know there are outliners out there. It's sounding like you're in the minority. I honestly wish I could do a little outlining. You're not crushing yourself with it because you've got an open-ended outline that changes with those creative new changes that develop as you write. I don't think an outline would work unless you allow it to change and adjust along the way.

Amy M. Reade said...

I don't outline, though I do write a detailed road map before I begin to write. I refer to it often to make sure I'm on the right path. I've tried writing with an outline and I found that it added a lot of time to the writing process. I'd prefer to use that time to rewrite rather than prewrite.

Here's one thing I can say for sure: both methods work! It just depends on the person.

Morgan Mandel said...

I don't start out with an outline, but I usually know what I want to happen at the end. I just don't always know what surprises come up along the way!

authorlindathorne said...

Thank you Amy and Morgan. More interesting fodder.

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