To Outline or Not to Outline

8313170_sYou are considering writing a book, you have a story in mind but you aren’t sure what to do in preparation. One of the most common questions asked of successful fiction writers is if they use an outline.

Creative Writing Now addresses this question with a few pros and cons to consider:

“Writing with an outline helps the writer:

It can make it less intimidating to start writing.

You have a roadmap as you’re writing your novel. You know what you have to write next.

You can avoid writing yourself into a dead end. You can solve story problems before you’ve wasted a lot of time writing scenes that you would only change or cut later.

You can set up your ending because you know what is coming. You can prepare the reader for scenes that are coming later in the book.

For certain kinds of novels such as mysteries, some kind of outline or plan is almost necessary because there are many small details that have to fit together at the end.

Writing without an outline:

A reason some writers prefer not to work with a detailed outline is that they feel that the outline stifles their creativity and makes them less spontaneous. Other writers do make an outline, but only after a lot of free-form brainstorming. Some writers do the outlining and detailed planning and then choose not to look at their notes a lot while they’re actually writing.”

Sarah Domet of Writer’s Digest suggests that there are three different ways to outline your novel:

The structure-plus outline is the most traditional method, yielding the kind of outline that looks most similar to the one you were likely taught to create by your fourth grade teacher. These outlines contain detailed written descriptions of the individual scenes that will progress in a linear fashion throughout your novel. 

THE SIGNPOST OUTLINE. For the signpost outline, you’ll lay the groundwork for the basics up front, and then you’ll develop the nuances of the scenes as you write.

THE NOTECARD TECHNIQUE. Let each individual card represent one scene of your novel; on it, list the setting and characters involved, as well as the major plot details and the scene’s purpose.”

Outlining Tools

If you are looking for a tool to guide you through the process Y Writer is a free software download that can help. I’m not connected with this company but have heard many people find that it is beneficial especially for first time novel writers.


yWriter is a word processor which breaks your novel into chapters and scenes, helping you keep track of your work while leaving your mind free to create.

If you are more old school and would prefer a paper outline, Annie Neugebauer has created a simple outline format with prompts that you might enjoy using.  Check out her Plotting Worksheet with Prompts.

If you are more of a visual learner, you might prefer to create a series of mind maps for your outline. Here is an example from Writing for Success of one method of mind mapping.


Bottom Line: Whether you decide to use an outline or write by the seat of your pants, understand that you don’t have to stick to a single method, nor do you have to stay with your original plot line. As your story develops and the muse takes hold, you may decide to go back and create an outline or change the outline you started with.

There is no right or wrong way to create the arc of your story; there is only the need that your story has an arc.

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