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Craft Talk

To outline, or not to outline, that is the question

Talk to a writer. Any writer at any point in their career: fledgling, published, J.K. Rowling. Each and every one of us will tell you a different thing about the writing process. One stickler that jumps out to me is to create an outline.

I’m chewing on Dani Shapiro’s “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” and what stuck out to me is that she offers a solid argument against outlines. In her “Structure” mini-chapter, she says that:

Outlines offer us an illusion that we are in control, that we know where we’re going. And while this may be comforting, it is also antithetical to the process of making work that lives and breathes.

There are so many arguments FOR outlines that reading her advocating AGAINST them was refreshing.

Other writers insist that any writer worth their salt MUST always have an outline. They tell you to use index cards, post-it notes, smoke signals. Use whatever you can, but write that outline!

I have found that outlines work against me. I use them, though sparingly. They’re not something I depend on as part of my writing process. As of this post, I have 11 outlines for different stories.

I’m not big on traditional outlines, with bullet points, Roman numerals and all that shit. I write it like a screenplay pitch. I paint enough of a picture so that my future self knows what I was thinking about doing in the first place. They’re not very long, maybe one or two pages. My longest pitch was for a trilogy of novellas at a whopping 4 pages.

I put enough words on the page to trigger memories of what inspired me to believe it would be a good story. I include barebones character descriptions, like names, ages, gender, relationships to the other characters, and their initial role in the story. I give myself a beginning, middle, and end to work towards, with plenty of room to veer off course as necessary.

I have yet to begin any of these 11 stories. I have no urgency to write to them. An outline to me is something to be studied and built on, but not right now. Procrastination is strong in me, as you can tell.

I like staring at a blank page and going completely nuts on it from beginning to the end. I’m confident enough in my abilities that writing this way works best for me. Is that first draft good? Hell no. First drafts are crap, everybody knows that. Fix it in post, as they say in the movies. Revision gives me life.

Hearing that another writer does it this way too made me feel less alone. Whenever my professors in my writing program gently insisted that we should write outlines because they do help, I shrank into a dark corner, thinking I was weird. I’m having a hell of a time incorporating what I learned there into my writing life.

I came out of my writing program with so many new, inventive ways to burn the toast that every writer before me has perfected in their own way that it’s these small reassurances that tell me I’m on the right path.

Today’s question: do you or do you not outline? Let me know in the comments!

write on, Guilliean
write on, Guilliean

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By Guilliean

Filipina adjacent. (Bad) Feminist. INTJ-T. Mélomaniac. Pokémon Trainer. Raconteuse. Tsundoku. She/her. Hire me; link in bio!

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