Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Never Too Good To Outline

As I worked on The Onyx Cluster, I relearned a lesson I wish I could just get through my head - I'm never so good at this writing thing that I can just do it off the top of my head.  I need to outline so that I know where the story is going.

I was cruising along on my most recent work, having gotten the basic framework down months ago, when I started running out of material.  Sure, I knew the gist of what I wanted to say, but I was struggling to find ways to give it depth.  It took me all of five seconds to figure out that I was trying to write by the seat of my pants rather than just take the 20-30 minutes I would need to outline the next 5,000-6,000 words.

Outlining lets us slow things down and focus on where the story should go.  We can play around with ideas and scenes in a way we really can't do when we're at the computer typing.  Sure, we could decide to play around with those things while doing the nitty-gritty of writing, but that results in a great deal more time spent than just outlining since I can outline 5,000 potential new words in 20 minutes, but it takes me around two and a half hours, if I'm on a roll, to write 5,000 words.  What's worse, if I get through with those 5,000 words and they're shit, I've lost much more than time; the loss of time and shitty ideas have also killed my motivation.  However, while outlining, I can scribble, cross out, and totally rework ideas I find terrible, and I've lost maybe about three minutes.

So why does it take so much effort for me to go back to outlining?  I think it has to do with the basic flaw in most writers - we just want to write.  We love getting our stuff down on paper, and we feel that if we're doing something else, our juices aren't flowing properly.  We all need to understand that there's a difference between being an amateur hack and trying to be a professional.  Being a professional is so much deeper than just sitting down to write.  It means outlining, editing, re-writing, and so forth.  These are the unsexy things that differentiate between a hobbyist and someone who has a chance to do this for a living.

Although it might seem to take up more time to outline, I think it saves time in the end by allowing momentum to continue when we're actually writing since we don't have to stop and mentally outline in the moment.  We have a ready reference to go back to when we get stuck.  It takes effort to think about this, but when we do, we can produce work that is of greater quality, and that makes us better writers.


  1. I used to write without outlining ... and I have a bunch of unfinished manuscripts to prove it.

    1. Unfortunately, that's usually the result, no matter how much we may want to avoid it.