IF YOUR BOOK IDEA is your baby, you probably want to give that baby the absolute best start in life. So, will writing an outline for your book kill your baby?
Outline formats can be anything from rigid (picture Roman numerals) to the type of flexible book outline many writing experts recommend these days.
By the end of this article, you’ll know whether you’re one of the writers who may be better off writing a book without an outline.
When you’re dreading the moment of getting started, the act of putting it off can make it more painful than it ever needs to be.
There are a million ways to procrastinate about writing (I bet you’ve even practiced some of them—haven’t we all?), and writing an outline can be one of them.
Trouble is, it seems so innocent. Because writing an outline definitely looks like you’re working on your book.
Which can lead to. . . .
Have you ever concocted the perfect plan . . . but then you kept spinning your wheels perfecting that plan?
Fear of moving forward on something that’s important to you is a common thing and nothing to be ashamed of.
However, be aware that sometimes having a plan can give you an excuse to spend your time fine-tuning it—instead of taking action.
I know a writer who has spent years writing outlines for the novels she wants to write. But the books never get written.
This is because her outlines become too sprawling, with too many moving parts, and she ends up not knowing how to execute the story.
A book outline can tend to train your mind to start at A and proceed to Z. If you’ve got a lot of experience writing books, this won’t be a problem. However, if this is your first book, starting at Chapter One, Sentence One can sometimes be a mistake.
Your imagination is stimulated by diverse approaches, such as moving freely in uncharted territory. Going from A to Z can be like getting to school on time.
This approach can also fool you into writing too much back story. You may be better off plunging in at the white-hot moment in your story that keeps boiling in your mind.
I know a woman so highly educated that her references, even in casual conversation, whiz straight over the heads of her listeners. She’s been struggling to write her novel because she knows too much.
For this woman, the advice “write what you know” is a nightmare. She hasn’t been able to separate what’s germane to her novel from the encyclopedia set in her head.
Writing an outline can be like getting too much education. You end up having so much detail at your fingertips, when it’s time to actually write the manuscript, you’re writing to cram all that detail in. This can muddy your connection with the reader.
“You wrote your book in OUTLINE form. Now your brain—your muse—your creative story-telling impulse—WHATEVER it is that makes us want to write stuff down and share it with the world—is telling you that your job is done: you already shared your story. You’re finished. There’s nothing left to say because you already said it all. IN YOUR OUTLINE.”
— Meg Cabot
Having an outline certainly lets you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. But have you ever been on a journey you didn’t have an itinerary for?
How about a life journey where, at every twist and turn, you reap more from it than you could ever have planned to?
This can happen when writing a book sans outline and it can be both scary and delightful.
Before you run away, let me show you the value of being scared. Successful blogger Henneke Duistermaat put it brilliantly when she tweeted:
Dance With Your Fears
Your fears tell you that your writing matters to you. You’re stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s an opportunity to grow as a writer, and as a person.
Those are not just pretty words from @HennekeD (and, by no small measure, illustrated with her own artwork). Henneke plowed ahead as a guest blogger even when she was afraid, and even when she wasn’t quite ready. This eventually led to her being able to leave her job to blog full-time.
Writing a book outline can tame your fears. You may believe that’s desirable, but it may also be a little too safe.
Writing a book when you don’t know what’s going to happen next can be a heart-stopping roller coaster ride.
The exquisite terror that you don’t know where the heck the next sentence will come from—but then sentence after sentence of unexpected story flows out of you as you type—is unsurpassed as one of life’s great highs.
But where do these mysterious sentences come from?
They emerge from that vast reservoir of ideas and creativity we call The Imagination.
When it comes to writing advice, the imagination is an incredibly overlooked resource.
Sure, everyone assumes that to write creatively you’ll be using your imagination. But exactly how do you go about “using” your imagination to write a book?
That’s the whole point. You don’t use it. It uses you.
When you’re writing a book without an outline, there’s a much greater chance you’ll entice the imagination to come out to play full force. And, once you do that, you’ll discover that the imagination is incredibly gifted at knowing what the story is.
Before finding this article, you may have taken a class or read a book on how to write your book outline.
And now you have that Expert stuck in your head, telling you how it should be done.
What if that’s completely wrong for you as a writer? What if you really need to have a more organic process? Perhaps your true self wants to write the book in a way you wouldn’t consciously conceive of because you’re stuck on thinking you need to plan it out.
Part of being a writer is learning to trust yourself.
Trusting yourself is not a straightforward process. In fact, learning to trust yourself is an act of faith. But you have to actually strike out and make the journey. You can’t sit in a safe place (write an outline) and expect trust to happen.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
― E.L. Doctorow
There’s a reason this saying has survived since 1785, when Robert Burns wrote his poem, To a Mouse, about the critter whose carefully-built nest was accidentally plowed under:
It’s possible you could write a watertight (or even a flexible) outline for your novel only to discover that the main character has other plans. In a desire to chart their own destinies, characters in fiction have been known to grab the reins with fierce determination.
Do you know this feeling?
You’ve composed the perfect to-do list to get your through a busy day. These are all really important things you need to do. Some of them you’re even highly motivated about.
But something about putting them on a to-do list spells your doom.
Now you don’t feel in the mood for anything, least of all the stuff on your list. You can’t understand why you were energetic a few minutes ago but now you’re feeling lethargic.
The same can be true of writing an outline for your book. Because suddenly it feels like a “supposed to” or a “have to.”
Closet writers may not be doing any writing at all. Yet they have a burning desire to write (usually buried under layers of lack of self-belief) and this unlived desire causes them much fear and pain.
So, why would closet writers be better off writing a book without an outline?
Because they’re a blank slate. In meditation it’s known as Beginner’s Mind. In this state of mind you can work without expectation.
You don’t know anything so you don’t have hang-ups about doing it wrong.
As soon as you adopt a writing technique (such as outlining) you lose your innocence and your Beginner’s Mind. Your learning curve as a writer during your first book can sometimes be more valuable than the book itself.
Sometimes it’s not appropriate to start writing the book by writing the book.
For instance, I’m helping a therapist write a book that’s intended to help clients and potential clients. Instead of focusing on The Book right away, I gave her an assignment to write about herself.
This ended up being such a rich vein, she had a blast writing it. It gave her the ice-breaker she needed to find her flow in a natural way. It also gave her insights and perspective on her own life and how this will help her write a book intended to help other people. Some of these insights will create chapters for her book.
She was writing the book already, just not writing “chapters” for it yet.
She was starting with writing she never would have considered with a book outline.
Sometimes we’ll hear advice about writing, take it as gospel, and then lock ourselves into believing it without any real benefit.
This can happen in any area of life. You’ve probably heard about a famous study proving how the 3% of Yale graduates who have a written plan when they graduate tend to earn ten times more than the other 97% put together. I must admit, these statistics impressed me. But is it really true?
One day I stumbled on an article by consultant Mike Morrison that opened my eyes. Mike did hundreds of hours of research and discovered that . . .
. . . there is no such study!
This demonstrates how easily we human beings can take something on as truth without checking the facts for ourselves.
Have you researched the topic of writing an outline for a book? If yes, did you get a stomachache that worsened the more you tried to make yourself fit the mold? It may be that you need to listen to your stomach.
Mark Twain said it with understated humor:
If you’re always too nervous to follow your own North Star, you’ll be stifling your own creativity.
If, deep down in your gut, the process of writing an outline for your book feels wrong for you, then be your own change agent.
Be the minority who doesn’t have to do it the prescribed way.
Remember the mythical Yale study mentioned earlier? Researchers at Dominican University decided to do an actual study on the effects of having specific written goals.
The study shows evidence that accountability and commitment can have significant impact on achieving a desired goal.
Among the writers I’ve been helping for the past 18 years, I’ve noticed that written goals do not have a broad appeal. (Some writers visibly shrink when it’s mentioned, so I don’t suggest it unless someone wants it.)
However, most writers respond beautifully to accountability and commitment. Some even crave accountability and seek me out for that very reason.
These days things are more casual. When I was a little girl (way back in the 1960s), my mother would dress me for church in formal clothes.
I was already an obedient child, so wearing formal clothes put me on my BESTEST best behavior. This is nice for the parents and all the other church-goers—but a child can only suppress herself for so long.
The minute I was allowed to change into play clothes and go outside to find a way to get dirty, that’s when I could breathe again.
The imagination is like this too. It can obey you, but only up to a point. And then you’ll either have a melt-down because of internal pressure (which may get triggered by something else, such as a work incident) or your imagination may seize up and refuse to do anything.
How do you feel about outlines? Is writing a book without an outline for you?
Leave a comment and bare your soul!