Reasons to Outline Your Novel. Maybe.
Updated: Apr 7
There are only two hard-and-fast rules to writing: write, and read. Luckily for us, those aren’t too difficult rules to follow. Equally unlucky for us, however, is the lack of guidance those two rules provide.
There is no one-size-fits-all route to writing. There are courses, yes, and plenty of books and blog posts and inspirational graphics and hosts of other things meant to get us writing, but to say they apply to every writer ever is to say that every writer ever has the same process, the same interests, the same motivation.
And that isn’t the case.
We’re a weird, diverse bunch. Some of us like to write at the same time every day. Some of us write in twelve-hour bursts at odd times in the month. Some of us prefer pen and paper. Some of us prefer laptops. Some of us refuse to write on anything other than a vintage typewriter in anyplace other than that one creaky table in the corner of our local coffee shop.
So, yes--the advice I’m about to give should be taken with only the most sizable grains of salt. It’s intended for the writer who hasn’t decided whether they write at noon or at midnight, with a pen or with a keyboard. And there are master authors who have never followed this advice, but for every one of them, there is a master author who does:
You should (probably, maybe, only if it suits you) outline your novel. (Maybe.)
Persuasive, I know. But maybe the following points will help convince you to give it a shot.
Outline for efficiency.
If you’re a new writer, chances are you’re diving into your idea head-first. You’re getting it onto paper, in which case, kudos to you! You’re already doing more than a great many of us. But (and again, this only applies to most of us) the chances of you getting lost along the way are pretty high. It’s much easier to finish an outline than it is to finish a novel, and what is an outline if not a novel’s bones?
An outline is a guide. It represents the most important part of your novel--the story--and is a means to organize your ideas, making the actual process of writing your novel much easier, which brings me to my next point.
Outline for early mistakes.
If you’re a first-time writer, you more than likely hold some level of emotional attachment to your draft. It’s your precious! You’ve never written this many words in your life! Getting this far is a feat on its own; you couldn’t imagine putting a hacksaw to the product of your blood, sweat, and tears.
But you will probably have to.
They call it “killing your darlings” for a reason. It’s much easier to revise a nine-thousand-word outline than it is to edit a ninety-thousand-word novel. It’s also easier to correct plot holes and weak spots when you aren’t attached to whole chapters and acts.
The outline gives your a bird’s-eye view of your novel, helping you to get the bones of your story right the first time without having to figure out fifty-thousand words in that you’re going in the wrong direction--which brings me to my last (and hopefully most persuasive!) point.
Outline for less pressure.
Writing a novel is hard. Finishing a novel is harder.
Forty-thousand words are nothing to sneeze at--and that’s the minimum word count for a piece of fiction to qualify as a novel. That isn’t considering genre, because if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, the average word count is over twice that.
Beyond the impressive amount of time and energy required to tackle this beast, you’ve got to craft a believable cast of characters. You’ve got to create an immersive world. You’ve got to come up with a story that’s well-paced and exciting, and you’ve got to write it in a way that integrates it all purposefully and efficiently.
No pressure, of course.
Now, outlining isn’t a fix for this pressure (you’ve still got to write the thing, after all), but it is a relief. Throw your ideas out there and see what you like. Make your mistakes in the outline and fix them without the burden of having to rewrite tens of thousands of words to accommodate for it.
Your Grain of Salt:
I’m a hardcore outliner. It compliments my anxious and totally-charming-but-admittedly-perfectionist tendencies. Not every writer is an outliner, though, and novels that come from outlines aren’t necessarily of higher quality than those that don’t. Outlining is just one of many ways to further organize the writing process.
If you’re like me and you like to have everything (or at least as close to everything as humanly possible) figured out before diving in, then maybe outlining will make writing your novel a crap-ton easier for you. If you’re a devil-may-care writer who does their work in spurts (but does their work), then by all means! Continue! No two writers’ journeys are the same. And in the end, it isn’t about how we write the thing as much as it is that we write the thing.
So, outline or no, write the thing.
Do you have a sparkly new idea for a project, but would like an editor to take a looksie before you crank out those words? Click here to learn more about the Editorial Assessment!