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Dear Editor: Should I Be Outlining My Novel?

—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)— BookWorks’ own “Dear Editor”, Betty Kelly Sargent, a 30+ year publishing veteran, is back with her latest column where she answers reader questions, this one about outlining. Dear Editor: Should I outline my novel or just start writing and see where the story takes  me? —John T. For most authors… [Read More]

—(Originally appeared in Publishers Weekly)—

BookWorks' own "Dear Editor", Betty Kelly Sargent, a 30+ year publishing veteran, is back with her latest column where she answers reader questions, this one about outlining.

Dear Editor:

Should I outline my novel or just start writing and see where the story takes  me?

—John T.

For most authors writing a novel without an outline would be like trying to drive from Chicago to Tucson without a map.  You might get there eventually but at what cost?

Outlining Is Your Map

In Write Away, Elizabeth George writes, “I have always had to have an outline: the plot in advance…I do two things,” she says. “I create a step outline.” This is a series of scenes. “Then I expand it to a running plot outline…a present tense stream-of-conscious affair…just firing away at computer keys, writing down what I see happening in each scene on my step outline.”Why outlining your novel pays by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.com

John Searles, author of Strange But True, works from a loose outline. “It’s always a very fluid process as I discover what works and what doesn’t in crafting the story,” he says, “So the outline changes many times as I move forward with the writing.”

Outlining Isn't for Everyone

Not all writers rely on an outline. In The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett writes, “During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together I don’t take notes or make outlines…I get everything set in my head and then I go.”Why outlining your novel pays by Betty Kelly Sargent for BookWorks.com

Each writer is different and it is up to you, of course. Most of the successful novelists I have worked with over the years have used fairly detailed outlines. They were in a hurry to get to Tucson.


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2 thoughts on “Dear Editor: Should I Be Outlining My Novel?”

  1. Dear Editor
    I had a tough time deciding the genre for my book ( The Cinderella Elephant) a collection of short stories based on reflective practice.Since it was part management and self help, along with stories based on adventure, heartbreak, personal loss ( memoir), I didn’t know where to place it. It is important to decide the genre first and tailor your book accordingly? These stories came from my heart and years of experience.

  2. Quote: For most authors writing a novel without an outline would be like trying to drive from Chicago to Tucson without a map.

    Ah, but I not only drove, I moved, trailer and all, from Seattle to Auburn, Alabama with no more guidance than a 2×3-inch scrap of paper listing when I changed Interstates. It can be done, particularly thanks to a simple idea. When I was on a north-south Interstate, I didn’t need to know specifically where I’d run into and the next west-to-east one I needed to take. It simply had to happen. And the flexibility that encouraged went quite well. I hit Denver with no real plan to get get through the rush hour traffic. On a hunch as I approached Denver, I took a three-digit Interstate assuming it might be a bypass. It was and I flew through the city. Too much planning can be inflexible and foolish.

    That said, the complexity of my latest, a guide to stress management for doctors and nurses, is proving so complex I’m starting to wish I’d outlined it rather than go by my usual seat-of-pants feel. And since it builds heavily on my personal experiences and those of others, it is almost like a novel.

    The critical outline-or-not factor is probably complexity. The more complex a work is, the more help a preliminary outline can be. It is important, however, not to be bound by that outline. What looks good in a short summary may not prove so in practice.

    Finally, keep in mind that there are apps designed for writers that merge outlining into writing. The one I use, Scrivener, allows for free-form writing, writing using a traditional outline, and writing using the on-screen equivalent of note cards. You can not only pick the method you like, you can mix them in the same document. And it not only runs on Macs, Windows, iPhones and iPads, but it synchs documents between all those platforms using Dropbox.

    There are several such apps out there. You might try each using their free trial period, and go with what you like best. All are better for book writing than Word, which was designed for business correspondence. And as far as I know, all let you export to a Word-like format for publishing.

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