Writers, don’t fear the outline

There is more than one way to write a book, or better stated, to conceive a book. However, outlining is often given a harsh shake of the head. Not creative enough. Constraining.

Recently I asked a number of writers why they felt this way. More to the point, I asked them what they meant by outlining.

What is outlining

What did I learn? Their idea of outlining was superficial. Mainly the outline consisted of plot points. Often accompanied by detailed character sheets off to the side somewhere. Essentially the outline was a laundry list of things that would happen. This happens, then this.

And then . . .

Lisa Cron, in her excellent book Story Genius, would call this the ‘and then’ problem Something happens and then something else. She suggests “therefore” or “but”. A minor difference that is a big one. (Sort of how being a half degree off in your trajectory to Mars doesn’t sound like much but will end up as a big miss.)

Sophie Hannah – outliner

Recently, I had the good fortune to hear internationally best-selling crime fiction author Sophie Hannah speak about her writing habits. She is a plotter. A serious plotter. Two to three months to plot, then about two months to write, then a month to edit. Clearly this isn’t a superficial and “then some stuff happens” outline.

So why do people object to the outline

Writers love to write. We create scenes, we place our characters in the midst of their greatest fears and snatch them away from their greatest dreams. Outlining isn’t writing.

Or is it?

Sophie Hannah doesn’t follow a format when outlining. Some parts are first drafts of scenes, other parts are a jotted note or two. Most importantly, the outline contains what is needed to write the book. Maybe it starts: Bob is found in a locked room, stabbed to death five times, and the police on the scene can find no possible way in or out without the master key they retrieved from the locked safe downtown at the bank.

Details matter

If it’s in the outline it plays a role and it has to be there. With an outline you can change the components again and again before spending time word smithing . . . because you will have written and polished and thought about the other scenes all the way to the end before you actually write about killing poor Bob. It’s possible that by the time you write, Bob is Dorothy and she’s found in a locked room on the 30th floor of a high rise apartment building. . .

Outlining is writing without the word smithing. It’s the essence of the scene. And while something is only the it can change without hurting the author’s (MY) feelings. I can make big changes with fewer (or no) regrets if I have immersed myself in the story, without pouring my soul into every word choice and sentence rhythm.

Next time you start a book, give outlining a try. As Lisa Cron would tell you, it’s all about story. There will be time for the rest of the writing.


  1. So far, I’ve been unable to outline, only sit down and write. I’d love to emulate Sophie Hannah’s process. Right now I’m close to finishing the first draft of a romance due in January.
    You inspired me to pull Lisa Cron’s book off the shelf so maybe I’ll try to outline the next NYPD Detective Corelli mystery.

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