Outline VS No Outline

16 May

I read that Charles Dickens never knew what would happen as he wrote. Have you ever seen how big his books are? And everything connects with each other. I think that’s amazing and it proves you don’t need to outline every single thought that contributes to the plot. However, I also believe that it depends on the writer, because there are writers who have the story in their heads from beginning to end and make it work too.

I’m definitely a wing-it-person myself, I try to outline as much as I can, but it doesn’t seem to work for me. It’s like the story is already there, all I need to do is write. So that’s what I do. I just write. It starts with a basic idea, then the characters (sometimes the other way around) and then the words just flow onto the paper. Alright, it’s not always that easy, but for a first draft I just tell myself to keep going, writing for the sake of writing. Then I can always edit later on. Plus, by forcing yourself to write you usually come up with great ideas. At least, that’s the case with me. Of course I do take a little break sometimes to assess different plot turns and see which will work best, but once I know which direction I want to head in I’m good to go. And when I find that I have no idea which way to go, that’s where I just write the first thing that comes to mind and usually that sparks great ideas later on. Pressure can be a good thing, I’ve learned. If you’re stuck it’s also a good idea to write the ending, or a future scene so that you know what you’re writing towards.

The pros of outlining are that you know exactly what to write and why you’re writing it. If you do it well, then you basically already have the roadmap of your story and all you have to do is follow it to the end. Then comes the editing and you can see how well you’ve done. The advantage of this is that you’ve already decided where you’re going and figured out what works and what doesn’t. You’re focused and have a clear vision of your final destination. Now all you have to do is drive there, which goes much faster if you know where you’re going.

The cons of outlining are that there is no room for creativity, you’ve already thought about which scene goes where and after hard work you’ve come up with the perfect full circle, but what if you discover something along the way? Oh, what is that? Another character just popped up? No, that can’t happen because it’s not planned. But it can happen, because in the imagination anything can happen. Writing is a creative endeavour and no matter how perfectly planned the story is, you still never know until you actually write. You might also get tunnel vision and at some point lose track of the big picture because you’re so focussed on what your outline told you to write that it might take you a while to notice that it’s not working. I’ve heard stories of writers that had an outline and started writing, but then realised something wasn’t working and they weren’t sure what. It could be something in the plot that looked good on paper but just isn’t right, or it could be the lack of soul. Sometimes, because you don’t have a clear goal, you go places that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. Something that doesn’t necessarily contribute to what you had in mind, but does in fact benefit the soul of the story in some way.

The pros of no outline are therefore that you have more freedom. You’ve packed your bags and are ready for the road trip of a lifetime. You know roughly in which direction you go, but anything is still possible. Predicting what lies ahead can’t always be done and sometimes you need to react on something along the way, something that’s unpredictable. Let’s just stick to the driving metaphor and say that there’s a road block, then you need to find a way around it at that moment and who knows where that might lead to? And that can be a good thing. You have room for creativity and you find that your original idea may lead you to a completely new and better idea.

The cons of no outline are that you can get lost along the way. Without a clear destination you might end up driving in circles. If you don’t at least know what you’re trying to say and what you’re writing for, it’s hard to determine what should be written in the first place. A book needs some structure in order to make sense, so it’s good to have some things planned, even if it’s just one scene at the end and one in the middle.


What works for me is the middle ground. Somewhere between plotting like a villain and winging it like a politician that was just caught cheating. However, it is up to the writer. Everybody has their own system and what works for me, won’t work for them and vice versa. So which are you? Plotter? Winger? Or plonger?


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