The Problem with Outlining Your Novel

Outlines are helpful because they make us feel safe. They are a blueprint which convinces us, rightly or wrongly, that we know what the story is going to be about and where it is going.  

Novels are large wieldy beasts that contain multiple threads and components. An outline is a great way to make all that seem just a little bit more manageable. It can be difficult to hold an entire novel in your mind, but an outline basically acts like a second brain that can store your story in a small number of pages.

It takes a long time to write a novel, so it can be good to know before you start writing that you’ve already thought about some of the potential problems that could occur and solved them.

This type of planning can give you the confidence to start, but an overreliance on an outline can actually be detrimental to your novel. 

If a writer spends too much time creating an outline and then fiercely sticking to it, they may shut themselves off from the sudden insights and awareness that can only happen once you actually started writing. 

Often, we may plan something out ahead of time, but once we start writing a scene, those events may no longer make sense or feel organic. 

If a writer has sunk hours into the creation of an outline, they may feel beholden to follow it, even if the ideas and scenes they mapped out fail to come to life on the page. 

When it comes to novel writing, writers should learn how to remain curious and open about their stories. 

Rather than working from an outline as a way to prevent major rewrites or edits, it is perhaps more accurate to say that a novel emerges slowly and through multiple drafts as the writer critically reflects on what they have written, adapts to sudden changes or ideas, and incorporates new material as the discover it in real-time. 

The good thing about stories is that if you write something and it doesn’t work, you can either move it someplace else, revise it, or delete it! If you write a bad scene, the entire novel isn’t going to collapse as a result. Instead, we need to think of novels as beings that evolve and unfold over time as we continue to engage with the work. 

Outlines are incredibly helpful tools for sorting out our thinking, but we are under no obligation to follow them, particularly if you want to challenge yourself by pursuing a new idea or you just want to see what happens, following your curiosity and instincts. 

The entire novel doesn’t need to be figured out before you start drafting. Give yourself permission to discover the story as you write it – that’s half the fun! 

Something to consider before you start is: how would I write this draft differently if no one was going to read it?


Follow-through_ How to complete a long-term writing project (1)

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