To Outline or Not to Outline, That is the Question

Should you outline your novel before you write it? It may be a question as old as writing itself. And there are compelling arguments for both sides. An outline gives your writing precise direction. It forces you to think through your novel, plot your plot, develop subplots, add flesh to your characters before they are living and breathing on the page. Outlining takes you from beginning to end in a linear fashion and lets you see your novel before you write it. You fight through many of the details upfront so the writing flows smoothly later. It helps you build and maintain momentum.

Others argue that writing without an outline sets you free. No constraints. No chains to restrain your creativity. You develop your plot twists on the fly, create characters and their sensibilities as you go, add flesh to your protagonist as it occurs to you and in context to what you have already written. And free-flow writing offers the one thing every writer longs for—a sense of “discovery” in his or her work. The perfect ending will come to you through the course of the writing process, not when you sit down, before having written a word, and attempt to outline an entire book.

So, which is it? To outline or not to outline? Surely, there must be some middle ground. I think I found middle ground from an author right here in my home town. Two years ago he was an obscure writer having never published a significant work. Yet, he quietly and oh so diligently was editing his debut novel—a novel he labored over for the last ten years. Today, he is a bestselling author with a $650,000 advance in the bank. His name is Chad Harbach. He authored, “The Art of Fielding,” a novel about a baseball star at a small university on the shore of Lake Michigan, and what happens to him and four other characters when he starts having trouble on the field.

Harbach was back in town recently at a special book reading and signing event. A devoted fan in the crowd later asked if he knew how the book would end when he started writing it. His response might help answer this notion about middle ground.

“When I first started…I had no clue how to write a novel,” he said. “I can’t remember who said this but…when you are writing books you want to have a compass but not a map. I think that is right. If you try to plan out too much…it is going to be boring for you as a writer, and then it is ultimately going to bore the reader.”

To outline or not outline? Maybe after all it’s not a question of which is better—but rather, which works better—for you. Do you need a general direction of where you’re going or precise directions?

As writers, we all need to navigate through our novels to safely arrive at the final destination. But the real question is what do you need to navigate, a compass or a map?


The Writer’s Refuge blog is a place for writers, like you, to break away from your daily routine and for just a few minutes find insight, inspiration or simply a word of encouragement.

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Published in: on May 16, 2012 at 9:43 pm  Comments (3)  
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