Tips for Writers—Why I Outline

lettersThis week’s blog post is on the short side, but it’s critical advice for writers. If there’s one habit you can adopt to help you write more quickly, craft a more satisfying story, and finish what you start, it’s this: Outline. Here are some reasons why.

Speed

Writing quickly is a valuable skill in the current marketplace (and one I am actively trying to improve at myself). Today’s readers are voracious. They don’t want to wait a year for the next book in a series they love. To meet the demand, writers need to pick up the pace.

Outlining facilitates faster writing because it provides a blueprint telling you what to write next. Staring at a blank page and a blinking cursor is never easy, but it’s slightly less painful when you’re armed with an outline telling you the next scene that needs to be written. With an outline, you’ll spend less time trying to decide what happens next, and more time writing what happens next.

Craft

Speed is important, but all the speed in the world won’t help you if your stories don’t satisfy readers. Craft is just as important as speed—actually, I think all of us would agree it’s more important.

A lot of what makes a story satisfying is its structure. We can get into this subject in a future blog post, but suffice to say that readers, if only on a subconscious level, expect a certain structure in their stories. They expect a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and each of those must function along the lines of the beginnings, middles, and endings of all great stories.

If you’re writing by the seat of your pants (we call these writers “pantsers”), then you run the risk of going astray structurally because you’re constantly focused on your story at the micro level and not at the macro level. If you fumble the structure of your story, chances are the story won’t satisfy your readers. Outlining forces you to look at your story from a macro level, and increases your chances of getting the structure right for maximum reader satisfaction.

Finishing

Another pitfall writers are prone to is a failure to finish what they start. Books can be fun to write at the beginning, when you first dive in, everything is fresh, and the possibilities seem endless. But that feeling inevitably fades. At some point (usually near the middle of the book), the shine wears off, your enthusiasm flags, and writing becomes a chore. The temptation to stop, to just give up on this story and start working on a new one, can be powerful.

The problem is, you will always reach this point. If you allow yourself to give into temptation every time, you’ll start a thousand books and finish none. What you need to do is have faith in yourself, have faith in your story and your ability to tell it, and keep writing until you reach the end.

Getting to the end can be a slog. You are going to have to—painfully—put one word after another, one sentence after another, one paragraph after another, even when they don’t come naturally and every moment at the keyboard feels like a struggle. When you reach this point, it’s going to be a lot easier to fight your way through the draft if you have an outline. An outline is a map, a guide, and a lifeline. It tells you what to write next. It leads you step by step to the end.

An outline does not need to be a rigidly formatted structure of indented lines and Roman numerals. There is no correct form. Some writers create bullet-pointed summaries. Some use spreadsheets. Some use index cards. I’m still changing and refining my methods with each new book. As I mentioned above, some writers don’t outline at all, and if that works for you, then you can ignore this blog post. But if you find yourself facing some of the challenges described above and you don’t currently outline, I’d strongly urge you to give it a try. You might find that it helps you.

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