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Find Buried Treasure In Your Outline

Let’s pull a few skeletons out of the closet right away.

Do you outline your writing? 

There is a wealth of writing wisdom out there that says the first step for taking your writing from amateur to pro is to develop the practice of outlining what you write.  They say it’s a surefire way to kick your butt and get you thinking about your content the right way because it's your specific treasure map.

I have a high level of skepticism about any "common wisdom" writing advice, but over and over again I read the same thing in interviews from writers who have "made it".  In fact, I just read the same thing from Amanda Hocking (self-publishing sweetheart and recently signed St. Martin's Press author- to the tune of $2M!).  She spends 3-4 weeks outlining each of her new novels before delving into the actual content writing. 

So as much as I'd like to sputter and say it aint' so, I can't deny the simple truth that outlines have secret powers.  They can even make you prolific.

Outlines also have something else that makes them valuable.  They hide buried treasure.  Riches beyond your wildest imagination. 

The Devil is in the Details

I'm not going to make you pull out your pirate gear and go in search of my hidden meaning here. The buried treasure that outlines hide is knowledge

When done correctly, outlines can make you a better, more efficient writer.

There is probably another part of you that is rebelling saying “Well Christy- I’ve heard you say on more than one occasion that you just need to write.  Write write write write.”

I still believe that's true.  But I can tell you from having written two manuscripts sans outlines that it has made my job of editing ten times more difficult.  That’s because I can’t see the forest for the trees.  I have to go back and forth between chapters to remember what happened when in the story.

If I had an outline to reference though, this task would be much easier.  In fact, that is one of the first things that Chris Baty suggests after NanoWrimo wraps up (and after the much needed time away from your manuscript): go back through the story and outline the important plot details.  (I didn't do that because I thought that I could do it without that.  You can ask me later how well that's going....)

The Bones of Your Story Emerge

Once we strip away all the fleshy parts, we are left with the bare bones of the story.  And this is where our analysis and quest for buried treasure really begins. 

  • Our characters stand naked for us to see  (Oops- we lost John Doe somewhere around Chapter 20.  Better go back and pick that poor fool up!)
  • We can see incomplete subplots.  (I forgot to close the loop on what happened with So and So and her father.)
  • We can see story arcs that don’t jive between the beginning and the end.  (Eek! She was twenty at the start of the book and suddenly she’s thirty-two years old at the end of a story that only spans 2 weeks.)
  • We can see where we got lost which is usually somewhere in the middle.  (Well- that makes no sense at all!  That character would never have gone to that place!)

Outlines keep us from making a mess of things.  That is why they are valuable. 

Does every piece of writing need an outline?

I would guess that most gurus would say “yes”.  They would probably say that even a briefest blog post needs an outline with your opening thoughts, three sub bullets, and closing. 

But for me, anything under 1000 words isn’t trying my skills in seeing glaring content gaps.

In those instances, I use my first draft as an outline.  But for a behemoth project like a novel, I think that it is well worth the time investment to sketch out the high level details of what you think will happen during the course of the story.  That’s not to say that having an outline means everything is written in stone.  But it shows you how to get to the end.  And it is quite comforting to know where “X” marks the spot.  You may sleep a bit easier just knowing how your story is supposed to end.

Just to get some other thoughts on the topic, here are some dead simple resources on drafting outlines:

Your Outline Is Your Friend

Building An Outline

Outline Or Not?

Do you outline?  Why or why not?

(photo credit talliskeeton)


Reader Comments (2)

Hi there Christy,

So happy to see a defense of the outline. All through my academic career, and now in my professional life, I outline everything. Not only that, but I tend to outline with pen and paper, not on the computer. For some reason it seems to flow better that way.

I always tried to tell people who had writer's block that outlining was a great way to get the little hamster rolling. You start with your main point, and then you outline how you can make other people believe that point. Then, how are you going to support each of those points? It makes the whole process of writing, which can be very squishy and blobby, quite linear and seemingly controllable.

I love your writing voice, too :) Sorry it's taken me this long to come over here!

April 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMargie Clayman (@margieclayman)

How delightful to see you here Margie! I love that you came to visit. :)

I think it was because of my academic pursuits that I have rebelled against the outline, but it is hard to stomp my feet too hard when it just makes sense. :) I agree that it is a great way to get the little hamster rolling. I just read something similar in Steven Pressfield's new book Do the Work as well. He doesn't make the process seems scary (which I think is another reason writer's don't want to do it).

Outlining definitely does give a sense of control. For those of us who like being in control, it's a comforting feeling. I'll be outlining future novels from here on out because I just think it will make my writing stronger. I can worry less about where the story is going, and more about the details of the story itself.

April 24, 2011 | Registered CommenterChristy Smith

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