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Why Everyone Should Outline (even if it's just a little)

Pantsing. First of all, I feel like plotters get a better word to describe themselves than pansters do. Pantser just sounds weird. Does this mean I’m biased about pantsing from get go just because of the word? Maybe.

But I also have some good points about why being a plotter is better than being a panster (no offense to all you discovery writers) #sorrynotsorry.

I just finished watching Jenna Moreci’s video on outlining, which is what prompted me to write this post. She said a lot of things I’d been thinking for a while but hadn’t yet articulated. Jenna is clearly pro-outlining, as am I #dontatme.

By the end of this article, all of you discovery writers might hate me, and that’s fine #hatersgonnahate. But I feel like this is an important topic to discuss. A lot of people will say, just write how you write, and that’s true. If you absolutely cannot write off of an outline and the only way you can ever draft anything is by discovery writing, just know that instead of revising, you’re going to be doing a ton of rewriting (possibly having to rewrite your entire book) in your second draft. That feels like a monumental waste of time. But I know for a lot of people, it can also be defeating.

There are a ton of reasons why I’m a fan of outlining, so below, I’m going to give you my top five.

Foreshadowing

How can you foreshadow if you discovery write? Well, the answer is you can’t. And foreshadowing is one of the most important things that keep readers reading. It’s the little nuances, the little hints about what might be coming that keep readers on the edge of their seats, chomping at the bit for one more page, one more chapter because they just need to know what’s going to happen. If you’re a discovery writer, I encourage you to at least know your ending. Knowing how your story ends (but maybe not how the characters get there) will at least give you a way to add in all of the subtle foreshadowing that is so important for a story to have.

Characterization

I just read Story Genius by Lisa Cron, which I would recommend to every writer. It’s an amazing book. And much like Jenna, Lisa Cron is a proponent of some plotting—i.e., the kind that involves knowing your characters really well and understanding where their stories are headed. Characterization is a really important part of outlining, and you’ll find that when you know your characters really well, plotting becomes much easier.

Before you begin outlining your novels, you should have a really good sense of who your characters are, what their external conflicts are, what their internal (and yes, there absolutely needs to be both in your novel) are, and the important moments from their pasts that made them who they are when the novel starts. When you do outline sketches of your characters, it allows you to discover them before you ever start writing your novel. It gives you a better sense of their voice, the way they’d react to certain situations, who their essences are. That means when you finally start drafting, your characters will come alive from page one. But it also means you’re better equipped to outline your story. Chances are that if you’re outlining, you know your characters really well #winning.

Rewriting

I mentioned this above, but when your novel is outlined, that means you’re ending with a cleaner first draft. When you go into your second draft, you can now focus on revising more than rewriting. Your plots points are on fire, you foreshadowing is set, your character arcs are beautiful, and that climax is, well, stunning (okay, so this might be a little exaggerative, but I’m trying to make a point, here). You can focus on more of the finer, smaller details than having to do big rewrites. This saves a lot of time and energy. I know of some writers who will discovery draft an entire novel, get to the end, and have no idea how to even begin to fix it, so they give up and start again on a new idea. I know that no writing a waste because you always learn something—whether discovery writing or plotting—but if you’re trying to self-publish or get an agent, having to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite because you can’t outline is a big waste of time. Not to mention, once you have an agent, you’ll have to outline—even if it’s just the most basic of outlines. So might as well start now #notimelikethepresent.

Control

Outlining gives you a lot more control over your story. You decide what happens and when, instead of winging it and letting your characters lead the way. Characters tend to want to do a lot of things that don’t often make sense in the context of a story. You, the author, know what needs to happen in order to make sure everything comes together. Your characters don’t. Hell, if I gave my current main character her choice, she’d sit herself down in front of a TV, turn on Housewives, order some pizza, and veg out for days. Imagine what a boring novel (albeit, a great night) that would make.

And the nice thing about an outline is it’s not like it’s written in blood and you’ve made a pact to follow it or your soul will be overtaken by a demon. You can stray from your outline, and sometimes, as you’re drafting, you might realize something needs to happen that you didn’t foresee or the current plot point isn’t working and you need to redraft it. The great thing is, because you plotted and you know your characters so well, creating a new plot point in that moment is a lot easier. Not to mention, you’re figuring it out BEFORE you’ve drafted. No rewriting has to take place, just re-plotting a few elements.

A Good Story

If you outline right, using resources available to you (on the internet, from other writers, from books, etc.), outlining means you have a good story before you’ve even started writing. It means you have a story that builds conflict, that doesn’t wander, that hits at the characters’ internal conflicts, that builds momentum, that will keep readers eagerly turning the pages. And that’s all before you’ve ever written a word!

It also means you’re less likely to quit halfway through because you don’t know where the story is going. You have blueprint to work off of, and that will give you the confidence you need to finish writing the novel. Which is the point. I mean, who starts writing a novel only to want to quit halfway through?

So those are my top five reasons why you should try outlining. Am I saying that because you outline you’ll write a bestseller? No. Am I saying because you’re a pantser you can’t write a bestseller? Nope. What I am saying is that because you outline, you’re already a step ahead of others who don’t. What I am saying is that you’re making your life easier by outlining. What I’m saying is if you outline well, you shouldn’t have to do a ton of rewriting in the revision stages—of course you might have to do some, but it should be far less than if you were to discovery write. So save yourselves time and agony and try outlining. Even if it’s not outlining your entire novel, just knowing the end can help tremendously.