Outlines: a little meander through process

Hi, peeps!

Every once in a while here at Women and Words I’ll talk a bit about writing process and writing craft. I do this to pass stuff along to other writers (and brainstorm and get tips!), but also to shine some light on the weird writing world to readers who sometimes wonder what the hell we do all day (or during the time when we’re working on stories).

I’ve been emailing with an author who’s just starting out and working on her first novel (GO, AUTHOR!). She asked me the other day about outlining, and said she was a little frustrated because she couldn’t find formats that seemed to work for her and what did I suggest.

Cue the obligatory stroking of the chin and the “hmm” expression.

I do suggest outlines for authors just starting out because sometimes, writing your thoughts down in a formal process helps keep your ideas organized and can also help you see potential plot-holes or character issues. I did, in fact, suggest that maybe she should try an outline for her draft to help her keep things (like chronology) clear.

I explained that every author is different and has to figure out what system works best for him or her (or whatever pronoun you prefer to use in reference to yourself) in terms of outlines. So I sent her to THIS LINK which has, I think, a nice template you link to that will help an author jot thoughts down and start organizing.

Which brings me to my point about PROCESS.

I don’t outline. I’m one of THOSE authors. And there are benefits to that.

But just because I don’t outline doesn’t mean I’m not keeping track. I do, in fact, keep a journal (PEN and PAPER, yo! OL’ SKOOL!) in which I keep track of characters, character traits, and chronology. The way the latter works with my OL’ SKOOL method is that after I finish writing a chapter, I’ll get my notebook out, write “Chapter,” (I generally don’t number my chapters until I’m done) the day and time of day the characters are dealing with, where they are, and a phrase or two about what happens in each scene. outline

That way, I keep track of my chronology and I can ensure that something that happens later in the book is in keeping with the timeline and with the arcs I’ve got my plot and subplots moving through. Also, the physical act of WRITING — i.e. pen to paper — is a mnemonic device for me. When I write things down, I remember them better.

Back in the day, you had to take notes longhand in college courses, and I took such detailed notes that I didn’t really have to study because I remembered the material from each day simply because I wrote it down. I would thus just have to review my notes before an exam. It’s a habit I acquired in high school and it carried me through my grad school career. I took all my notes longhand for my dissertation, too. As an aside, it’s not just me. People who do that, in general, tend to remember things better. Even up against modern tech in a classroom, longhand notes will do you better.

At any rate, I’m an organic kind of writer, in that I start at the beginning and go on through, though I’m able to remember where in a story something happened originally and I can go back and make adjustments if something works better later on that requires a change earlier. So I’m constantly working not only in a linear fashion through the novel, but also switching back and forth, from beginning to end to middle to beginning or wherever when I decide I need to change something earlier to fit a development in the story later. I like being flexible like that, because it’s easy for me to jettison scenes and entire chapters if necessary without thinking “ERMAHGERD I CANNOT WRITE THAT BECAUSE IT IS NOT IN MY OUTLINE.”

NOT TO DISPARAGE outliners. I want to make that VERY VERY clear. Outlining works for some authors, and it works well. I think that’s great. I’m not one of those authors. I never really have been. Not even when I work on nonfiction, though I may write some big themes down that I need to address.

So. My suggestion, if you’re a new author and you’re starting a new project and you’re not sure you’re quite ready to just start writing and away you go, the story is just flowing right out of your fingertips from the keyboard into the magic pixels and you’re giddy like you just drank a Red Bull, take some notes. That is, use a simple template like the one I linked to above (here it is again) and write it out LONGHAND.

Seriously. That’ll help you focus your thoughts and it’ll help you remember the things you’d like your story and characters to do. But if you are, in fact, one of those people who works very well with a detailed outline, here are 7 steps to help you craft that.

And, a topic for another blog, I suppose, is how Scrivener can help you with this whole outlining thing, too. Click here for a picture of how this author does it. He’s got screengrabs, too. If y’all want to know about that before I get around to it, just ask Fletcher DeLancey. She loves her some Scrivener. ๐Ÿ˜€

Anyway, there you go. Some insight (or not) into outlining. Some do, some don’t. If you’re an outliner, find a system that works for you and have at! If you’re not, well, guess what? Even though you say you’re all organic, you, too, will have a system. It just won’t involve a typical outline.

Every writer has a system. For most of us, it takes a while to develop and we do tweak it and adjust accordingly. But it’s usually a natural outgrowth of how we approach projects and express ourselves. So if you’re in the process of figuring out who you are as a writer and developing your system, it also requires that you understand how you operate and what works for you and what doesn’t. Writing, like all creative pursuits, involves a lot of intuition and that requires that you know yourself, including your strengths and weaknesses and what’s going to work for you (writer, know thyself!).

So there you go. Some Friday fodder.

Happy writing, happy reading!


  1. Andi – Thank you. The timing of this is wonderful for me. I am beginning a new story and was asking my mentor about this today. Great tips!


  2. Andi, do you use Scrivener? Didn’t we talk about this once? I’m old and I forget shit. I’ve been thinking about trying it for years, but I’m not sure I’m disciplined or organized enough to pull it off.


  3. I am just starting out writing my first novel too and this is tres helpful…so THANK YOU!!! I put the links in my favorites so I can go back and review them later. Right now my muse has been clamoring all day to get writing..so I better listen to her before my head explodes ๐Ÿ˜‰


  4. I very much work like you, but often add a couple of notes where I want to go in the next scene or chapter. And highlight stuff on my “outline” that I know will come up later. And yes, everything in longhand, which is a big help. What happens to kids who don’t learn cursive anymore?


    • I’ll tell you what happens to those kids. They can’t be historians because they won’t be able to read historic documents…

      I don’t actually write fiction longhand, mind you, but I know a few authors who do…


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