Ask an Author: Do I need a writing outline?

by | Jun 24, 2014 | Ask an Author | 0 comments

I’ve been self-publishing for close to a year and a half now, and while that might not make me an expert, it is an ever-evolving landscape, and current knowledge is the most valuable. I’m active in the Reddit community and always available on Twitter, ready to answer questions other writers have about any part of the process. To expand on that, I’m going to start posting some common questions that I get, in the hopes of reaching people who might be too self-conscious to actively seek assistance.

I’ll start off with one of the most common ones, and hopefully branch out into reader-driven questions. If you have a question you’d like answered, post it in the comments.

Do I need to outline before I start writing?

There are two broad schools of thought on writing: plotters and pantsers (as in “fly by the seat of your pants”). The plotter is someone who creates a writing outline, who plans ahead, who knows the ending before writing the beginning. The pantser has a concept, a character or two in mind, maybe a general idea of how they want the story to go. They write for the discovery process, letting the characters they create and the personalities that emerge control where the story goes once it starts.

Most plotters will write faster. That’s understandable since it’s  easier to plow ahead when you know exactly where you’re going. The pitfalls of plotting are the forcing of characters into certain actions at certain times, whether or not they make perfect sense given how you have come to expect the character to react. This can be fixed by even more careful planning, or through editing and revision to smooth over and jarring bits of  errant characterization.

If you want to write for the wonder and discovery process, and to explore theme, concept, and character, pantsing may be the way to go (George RR Martin calls it gardening, planting things and seeing what grows). This is by no means a fast way to write (and GRRM is a prime example of that downside). But you can come up with some wonderful surprises. Leave a few plot points lying loose, and have well-developed characters, and you can be amazed at the clever solutions they might come up with.

These aren’t hard and fast designations, and you can cross over all you want, but if the plotter mentality appeals to you (or you want to maintain a consistent pace and/or hit deadlines), outlining before you write would be advisable.


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