I outwardly claim to be a “pantser,” writing by the seat of my pants, as I do so many other things in life. Inwardly, I yearn to be a planner in life and an outliner in writing, but my outline resistance has deep roots. And then, last spring, during a workshop on story structure, this simple comment changed my ways:
“Planning a vacation doesn’t ruin a vacation … yet,” said Claudia Gabel, senior executive editor at Katherine Tegan Books during the SCBWI Western Washington conference in April 2014.
Okay, it didn’t actually change my ways … yet. But the potential and inspiration are there. I still needed to hear from writer friends who work with outlines. Here’s what I’ve learned (bios of authors interviewed are at the end of this post):
If you haven’t always been an outliner, what was it about a particular book/project that turned you around?
Dori Hillestad Butler: Selling a project on a proposal and then having an editor need to see a chapter-by-chapter outline! I was a very reluctant outliner at that time. But now I actually like to outline. I think it saves me time overall. It helps me focus. And because I have an outline, I usually know what’s coming next…unless I get partway into a story and realize my outline is wrong. Sometimes that happens. When it does, I usually re-do the outline. Sometimes I wonder if my “outline” is some other writer’s idea of a “first draft.”
Sheela Chari: I was a pantser type for sure. But when I decided to try my hand at writing a children’s mystery novel, I discovered I really needed to have a plan. Not a foggy one where I had some notion of how it would all end, but something more detailed that could help me construct a satisfying mystery story, where chronology, timing, and the sequencing of information (i.e. clues) were all crucial. There was no way to do this without planning things out on paper.
Christina Wilsdon: I have always been an outliner. I can remember writing reports about different states back in 5th grade and how putting all the information I gathered into the right categories felt so efficient and kind of like herding sheep into the right pens. Over the years, as projects got more complex, outlining helped not only to corral information but also revealed gaps I should fill and sometimes even fostered connections between categories.
Stacey R. Campbell: I did not use an outline while writing my first book. That book took me four years to complete … Then one morning, over coffee, I read an article of the value of creating an outline and decided I would give it a try with my second book Hush. I finished writing Hush in less then six months.
Briefly, what is your process for creating an outline? Do you know the end, and build in between?
Jennifer Phillips: I used to do a traditional outline starting with the beginning and working sequentially but then I read some writing advice that got me experimenting with the ending first. For fiction, I think this is a very interesting technique and I’m going to try it more. For non-fiction, it depends on the nature of the work. But I’ve been outlining a biography on Horace Mann that I’m slowly tackling in between other projects and life. I started with a high-level outline of the overall chapter structure first, after I had done a bunch of initial research, and then I started outlining within each chapter, just a brief description of the beginning, middle and end to make sure I’m telling a narrative story within each chapter. I also add outline notes about sensory details I want to include when I outline a book or short story.
Sheela: The outline never stays set in stone – it evolves along with the rest of my story. This way I have room to change, take the story in a new direction, but always have a game plan that I can refer back to when I get lost.
Christina: Most of my completed works are nonfiction. For these outlines, I know I usually want to go from introductory broad-overview sorts of topics and end with a wrap-up that’s broad. And then I plan the in-between.
How often do you refer to your outline?
Jennifer: I use my outline throughout a writing project. One reason is that it serves as my memory. I have to juggle a lot of family/work commitments and I can’t usually tackle a project in one continuous stream of writing. I also don’t feel constrained and imprisoned by it; I’ll revise the outline if a story is emerging differently than I expected. The one exception is when I’m doing a work-for-hire non-fiction book. The editorial team, in my experience, provides manuscript specs and requests an outline for initial approval before you start writing. If I want to change some significantly from the approved outline, that’s a conversation with the editor first.
Christina: For a long nonfiction book, I actually copy and paste the outline into my document, and start writing in the outline sections. I go back later and re-title the outline’s items and move and delete as necessary.
How do you use your outline in writing a synopsis?
Jennifer: My outlines become the first draft of a synopsis. I make a copy and work right from that file.
Stacey: As for the synopsis- so much easier with an outline!! It’s practically done for you
Any tips for reluctant outliners?
Jennifer: Just start with a high-level beginning, middle and end. Don’t get bogged down in the type of outline you may have used to write an English composition assignment. And if you’re a visual person, make it visual. Don’t torture yourself over trying to find a perfect format. Do whatever works for you!
Thank you so much to these generous authors for their insights on outlining:
Dori Hillestad Butler is the author of the Edgar-winning The Buddy Files mystery series and The Haunted Library (August 2014) chapter book series.
Sheela Chari is the author of the Edgar-nominated middle grade mystery Vanished, the book that switched her from pantser to outliner.
Stacey R. Campbell is the author of Hush; her debut middle grade Arrrgh! is coming in September 2014.
Jennifer Phillips is the author of Girls Research: Amazing Tales of Female Scientists, for grades 4 through 6.
Christina Wilsdon has written many nonfiction books, including the middle grade For Horse Crazy Girls Only.