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The Value of Outlining examines the importance of outlining, especially for the pantser
The Value of Outlining Your Creative Writing

Lauri Brett

Do, Review, Arrange, Redo is the method I used to write my first novel. I felt my way through its mechanics by process. Do you feel inhibited by the idea of outlining your creative writing? Maybe you think you’ll put a hex on it if you box in its natural flow with an outline. I have years of design and fine art production behind me, and I was always prolific in sketching projects before starting them. For some reason, though, when it came to writing, I was never much of an outliner; instead, I wrote reams of stuff, and then revised like crazy. In non-fiction writing assignments in college, I would write twenty pages, read them, discover the organization hidden in my ramblings, then roll up my sleeves and nail down the topic’s organization. I’d write three to eight drafts, until the twenty pages had become five. Postscript: I always received A’s on all my writing assignments, but they didn’t come together quickly.

In those days, an outline always seemed either unnecessary to my process, or just downright undoable. To use a parlance popular with my writer’s organization, I was a diehard ‘pantser.’ For those unfamiliar to this moniker, it encapsulates the term “writing by the seat of one’s pants.” Writing what comes, without planning it ahead of time.

Fast forward. I have completed my second novel of mystery/suspense fiction. The outline has become vital to my survival as a fiction writer. Surprisingly, though, it has actually set me free. For while my methods at one time produced A+ papers, and later a novel that took more than two years to complete – they were enabled by time windows that seem luxurious by the standards of production I must live by today.

Things are different now. Rather unforgiving circumstances find me, besides placing my freelance articles in various publications, in the final revision of my second novel. My twin boys are both in the Special Education category in school. They require a substantial investment of my time to assist their optimal functioning: social, emotional, educational. Under these circumstances, it’s too easy to forget the rhythm and flow on one’s last pages, not to mention their intended content. There are many times a day when the expression “I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on,” runs through my mind. Even in the best of circumstances, without an outline it would be too easy to forget the progression of your character arcs, the conflicts to be dramatized in your third act, etc.

I don’t have time for that now. Thank goodness the outline has set me free.

The writer Janet Evanovich, in How I Write, advises “Try making that short outline and then pushing through from page one to the end (no matter how crappy the writing looks to you) … never pick up the earlier work until the book is completed.” In my current writing organization, bestselling Romcom (romantic comedy) author Kristan Higgins also advises this. I’m not able to be quite such a purist at this time in my life, but I now realize the truth in that Best Case Scenario. I have it in mind each time I have my “return to the desk” time. Now that I am an outliner, and no longer a pantser, I don’t have to do essential problem-solving when I get that “return to the desk” time. I can go right to my zone of prose. Using an outline sets the pantser free, rather than inhibiting him. To quote Evanovich again:  “Details come to me as I write … As it turns out, I usually stick to the original outline, but I don’t have it carved in stone.  I try to be flexible when I need to be.”

Years ago in New York City, a screenwriter friend confessed that in order to begin a story, she had to write the last scene of her script first. It has taken me a long time to understand why she did that. She was a big-time outliner, who used post-its for outlining each beat of her story. At the time, I thought she was a post-it nut. As a pantser, I couldn’t imagine writing any other way than feeling the flow of my prose. Basically, it was a groping-in-the-dark method that could find success, but was very slow. Do, Review, Redo. Now completing my second novel, I outline often. With an outline, progression essentials are noted like billboards along a highway – it’s unlikely you’ll be writing so fast that you’ll miss them.

With an outline, detours become possible without the fear of getting lost. For example, during the outline phase of my most recent novel, I wrote a chapter that would occur much later in the book. I wanted to put my heroine and the murderer in a room to watch what they were made of. That activity was a pantser activity; I had outlined things about them already, but I needed to write the scene as a tool for discovery. That was fine, because I had already written an outline. Having the outline kept the activity focused. Have I killed the pantser in me? Or is it a dual existence I reveal, a drowning pantser grasping at a last-straw outline? Outlining advances production. So if you want to produce, you must outline. Do not fear you are killing your inner pantser. Our inner pantser never dies, for he is the keeper of our most creative flames. All creative writing involves the pantser. It must. But outline you must, too, for otherwise you may lose your way.

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