- On December 20, 2015
My most common writing advice questions involve plotting and outlining. I’m often asked things like “Do you outline?” and “How do I outline?” To answer the first, yes, I outline all of my novels. The answer for the second, however, is much more difficult to find. Outlining is a very personal process and is different for everyone. Some use the basics, while others choose much more complex paths. Personally, I use a more basic approach, but it works every time–for me, anyway.
First, let’s talk about plotting vs. outlining. I tend to use these words interchangeably. However, some would argue that plotting is thinking of your novel’s plot, while outlining is writing down and mapping out said plot for your character(s). To me, there is a fine line between the two. Because of this, I think of the same process when someone mentions either word.
One of the most common things I hear from new writers is that plotting/outlining doesn’t work for them. Instead, they simply sit at the computer and write what comes to mind. To me, this approach can cause many issues, including plot holes, weak characters, and writer’s block. Even the best editors can miss some of the worst writing mistakes, so it’s important to not rely too heavily on your editor to make your novel “perfect.” Because let’s face it: there’s no such thing as perfect.
On average, I write 3,000-5,000 words per day, and I’ve been known to finish an entire novel within just a couple weeks. The words I’ve written are also good words, requiring only average editing work afterward. I’m not shooting in the dark or sending my editor a craptastic manuscript. I believe I can write this well and this quickly because of my devotion to my craft, as well as my plotting/outlining capabilities.
Here’s the catch: you can do this, too. My plotting and outlining process is very simple and is something I constantly recommend to newer writers or advanced writers who want to try outlining. I begin a new book my plotting (see definition above). I think about the world I want to create and the characters living in it. I often dream about it, and I find myself daydreaming, too. At this point, I can’t stop thinking about this new book idea. Once I have a general idea of what I want to accomplish, I sit down to pen it out. I make a numbered list. Each number represents a chapter. Beside the number, I write a sentence or two, giving a basic idea for the chapter. Once I have a general story line, I’ll go in and add bullet points. The bullet points represent key things that need to happen during the chapter. And that’s it. That’s all I do. If it’s a complex novel–think epic fantasy–then I’ll sometimes create a story board, but usually, I don’t write anything that requires such planning.
Because I have an outline, I never face writer’s block. When I sit down to write, I know exactly what I’m going to be working on. Occasionally, I’ll come across a scene that’s difficult to write, but it’s important to remember that plotting and outlining are not tools of the gods. They’re basic. They’re used to make writing easier, not eliminate the difficulty completely. If it was easy work, everyone would write successfully.
If you are one who believes you can’t plot or outline, perhaps give it a try with a clear mind, leaving any negativity behind. Remember that your mind is quite powerful. If you believe outlining won’t work for you, then it won’t. But if you remain open, you may just wonder how you haven’t been plotting and outlining all along.
Comment below with your plotting and outlining habits!