To Outline or Not to Outline

That always seems to be the question, at least for me.


I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo right now. I’m already behind, and writing this blog post isn’t getting me any further ahead, but whenever I do National Novel Writing Month of any sort, the question of whether I should outline or not is always something I have to consider.


This July, my project is more for fun than anything else. I haven’t written in quite a few months—unless you count a half-finished flash fiction piece, which I don’t because it’s just kind of sad to me that I couldn’t even finish a flash story. So I’m trying to get myself back in the writing mode with something fun. And I decided not to outline.


When I say I’m not outlining, I don’t mean I’m going in with a premise and nothing else and just winging it. I have a premise, definitely, but I also have an ending in mind, as well as a beginning. I also have a few specific scenes in my head and a rough plot. But largely, I’m going to discover how to get from Point A to Point B while I’m writing. And for what I’m doing right now, that’s fine.


But I have come to the conclusion that in almost all other cases, I need to outline. If I write by the seat of my pants, I end up with a mess.


A few years ago, I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMo without outlining. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, but when I finished it a little after November, I put it in a folder on my computer and didn’t look at it again. I was positive that it was terrible, so terrible it couldn’t be revised and just had to be rewritten. So, the next year, I rewrote it, again without outlining, and again I felt like it was terrible. This past spring, I went back and reread both drafts, and they weren’t nearly as bad as I thought. Except where did that box of snakes come from? And why did I just kill all the people chasing the protagonists? Well, what did I expect? I didn’t outline. And something had to happen.


At this point, with some tweaking, I could probably jigsaw the two drafts I have together, smooth some things out, and have a pretty good draft for this book that I could work with. But in order to do that, I need an outline.


On the other hand, I have also had the problem where I outline so much that I don’t end up writing anything. I put tons of details into my outline, down to lines of dialogue I don’t want to forget or what color shirt each character is wearing, and then I have no motivation to write the scene.


I found my sweet spot when I was planning my thesis novel at the beginning of my senior year of college. My advisor told me to write one or two sentences for each chapter and leave it at that. This worked really well for me, because it was a plan, but it wasn’t so much of a plan that I didn’t want to write the book after I finished the outline. But I only recognized that this worked because I had experimented with different ways of outlining and realized what didn’t work as well. And while this might be right for me, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. And while it was right for that project, another project might require something different.


Now, back to writing by the seat of my pants. Happy Camp NaNoWriMo!


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