A Voice on Outline Driven Writing

Outlining versus Free Form writing is a hotly contested debate in author circles.  I know, I know, the subject doesn’t carry the weight of  discussing a solution to violence in Afghanistan, or searching for a missing jetliner in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  But the fact that writers seem willing to spill blood over the issue, says something about us – we’re a bit too tightly wound for our own good and the voices of the characters in our heads start to take over if left unattended too long.

Image courtesy of getkjfit.com

Image courtesy of getkjfit.com

I’ve written a few novels using a detailed outline and others in a free-form, or more commonly called the seat of your pants method, used by “The Pantser.”   Both methods work, but recently, as I wrote a section for a novel from an outline, a voice called out…

Voice:  Hey!  Whatcha doing?

Me:  Writing.  Hush, don’t make me lose my place.

Voice:  Writing?  Huh, doesn’t look like much.  Following an outline, I see.  That’s not really writing, you know.

Me:  Yes it is. An outline keeps me focused on the story, moving between plot points, without getting sidetracked on mundane details that don’t add anything to the story.

Voice:  Boring…  I thought you were supposed to be creative?  Where’s the creativity here Michelangelo?  Looks more like coloring by numbers to me.  You’re just phoning it in.

Me:  What?  Wait.  Who are you anyway?

Voice:  Who am I?  Nobody important according to your precious little outline.  I’m just some mundane detail, a secondary character you killed off in the last chapter.

Me:  You needed to go.  Your arc in the story had come to and end.  Sorry.

Voice:  Says your outline.  Come on, be a real writer and write me back in.  You know you wanna.

Me:  Nope you’re gone.  You served your purpose, thanks.

Voice:  Ooooh, bring me back as a ghost, or maybe as a zombie.  Zombie’s are the new black, everyone’s doing them.

Me:  Not gonna happen.  No zombies in this story.  I’m keeping on track to the ending I’ve set up for this book.

Voice:  A flashback?  Flashbacks are cool.

Me:  Why?  It serves no purpose in this story.  I’ve linked all the scenes, chapters and characters together in the outline and it makes sense.

Voice:  *yawn*  Boooring.  Where’s your passion, man?  All this nonsense about formula and outlines, it’s all poppycock.  Where’s the spontaneity?  You’re locked in on the story, a slave to the Almighty Outline.  You’ve made writing a child’s game of fill in the blanks.

Me:  No one’s locked anywhere.  Maybe you should go lock up in the No Outline Sanitarium for Unwanted Characters Killed (NO SUCK).  I used to think I was locked to my outline, but it’s not like that.

Voice:  What was that?  I couldn’t hear you through all that booooorrrring. What about bringing me back as reincarnated werewolf?  Nobody’s done that yet.

Me:  This.  This is why I use an outline now.  You can’t pull me off track.  If I want to go off on a library snipe hunt, I can always find my way back to the path.  My outline doesn’t tell me how my characters get from one point to another in a story, I figure that out as I write.  I know the characters need to get to a place and time and I have creative license to design that journey any way I choose.

Voice:  So, I’m hearing yes to reincarnated werewolf?

Me:  It’s my choice.  And No.

Voice:  You chose poorly.

Me:  The point is, the outline lets me know if a plot idea is necessary to the story, or a waste of time that I’ll have to delete during revision.  I can weave in plot twists and changes in character arcs and the outline serves as a trail marker to get back to the main storyline.  I can go anywhere the story demands.

Voice:  So, let me get this right.  You chose to write my character out in a bloody pulp?

Me:  Yep.

Voice:  You’re not right.

Me:  Sanity is overrated.

Voice:   I still think a reincarnated werewolf would be cool.

Me:  *finger hovers over delete key*

Voice:  Ok, Ok!  Geeze, don’t have to get all sensitive and shit.

Me:  I’ll let you know about the werewolf thing, but don’t hold your breath.

Voice:  Fine.  Whatever.


I do use a blend of outlining and pantsing as I write.  The outline hits the big points and I get to fill in the meat of the story in between.  I like the free-form creative feel of letting the characters loose and finding out what they do.  The outline is only a survey marker I use to find the route to the next big point in the story.  I don’t feel tied down this way and on the days I don’t have much creative juice flowing, the outline provides me with a starting point.

This hybrid approach seems to work for me, It might not be for everyone, but it’s something that help me push forward

What works for you?




  1. Enjoyed the peak into your writing head. Thanks for putting some humour back into the outline versus pantser debate. No need to spill blood when you can have a chuckle instead 🙂

    1. Thanks Diane and sometimes I’m surprised with the voices in my head.

      James L’Etoile jimletoile@comcast.net http://www.jamesletoile.com

  2. Pantsing. Definitely. FIrst drafts…no problem. I follow the character. I trust the voice that wants to come through. When I try to impose structure during a draft, the character stops showing up. It’s the rewrites…the endless rewrites…that keep me up nights. I need to find a saner way to handle rewrites.

    1. I completely get you on the insanity of rewrites. It took a long time to get into my thick head that my character gets to have a say on the structure. If my outlined direction starts to sound off, then we reset the path until it sounds right. Same outcome, just different scenery on the way there.

  3. […] last blog post, A Voice on Outline Driven Writing, talked about using an outline as a guidepost for your story.  An outline doesn’t mean that […]

  4. […] the characters take the path between the two points and it’s never a simple, straight line.  I posted a piece on outlining a few weeks ago about my […]

  5. […] Image courtesy of getkjfit.com                                                       A voice on Outline Driven Writing […]

  6. My process is very similar to yours. I have a plan, an outline of sorts, that strikes at the major checkpoints and milestones along the way. I came to your site to look for something to reblog while I work on a deadline that is fastly approaching. I think I just found it. Thank you!

    1. Hi Sue! It is nice to know I’m in good company wandering about the plot wilderness. Thanks for the reblog. Mi blog es su blog…

  7. Reblogged this on Crime Fiction Writer Sue Coletta and commented:
    As some of you know I’m working on a deadline, trying to get Timber Point ready for submission to a publisher whose window closes on Saturday. So, I came across a perfect post to reblog instead of writing one, and save myself time in the process. Win win. Hope you enjoy it. And please, tell me what you think.

    Next up: I’ll continue with the series, Badass in Heels.

    Have a great, productive day, all!

    1. You led me here, and I love it.

      1. I’m so glad. Always happy to be of service. *tips hat*

      2. Wait. I did? How so?

      3. I found it via your reblog.

  8. I love it, and do it the same way.

    1. That’s good to hear that someone else feels the same way. If I don’t have some guidepost to aim at, it starts to feel like I’m writing an episode of The Walking Dead – wandering around and nothing good will happen.

      1. I’ve been toying with posting a sequence about how I do it. I may never get there.

  9. A great post which shows both points of view.

    I prefer to work to an outline. With my first novel I had a sketchy outline and I found that I had to do quite a few rewrites to the first draft. I’m now working on my second novel and I’ve found it much easier to work with a more detailed outline. I don’t think that this affects creativity because the act of producing the outline is creative in itself. You’re coming up with plot ideas that you can develop further as you add meat to the novel. Plus, an outline can be as sparse or as detailed as you like, and it doesn’t have to be rigid; you can change it as the novel develops.

    I couldn’t work without an outline because I also work as a copywriter, which means I often spend a couple of weeks at a time away from my WIP. I don’t like to work on my novels and client projects simultaneously because the writing styles are different and I don’t want overspill. Therefore, having an outline enables me to transition back into writing my novel more easily. 🙂

    1. Thanks Heather! You’ve touched on something here that I struggled with for a long time. The mindset that developing an outline is “creative work.” For the longest time I didn’t make that connection and the act of outlining seemed dull, and about as exciting as watching paint dry. The same went for editing. It felt detached and clinical, until I finally saw that this is where the real creative work happens, taking a raw lump of words and shaping something from that mess.

      I really appreciate your point about using the outline as a place to come back to after time away from a WIP.

  10. heatherjacksonwrites · · Reply

    Like most writers, I started off pantsing, but when I learned about outlining, I was sold! It made everything so much easier. It solved the problem of writing and getting stuck in the middle of wondering what to write now. Plotter forever!

    1. You’re right on Heather. Getting stuck in the middle of a story gets very frustrating. Some little nibblet of an outline makes a huge difference.

  11. I do the same as you. When I write shorts, I pantser, but I discovered long ago, that doesn’t work for longer projects for me. For novels, I need an outline for the same reason you said: I need to know major plot points and where the story is heading. All the rest, it’s pantser’s time 😉

    I’ve revised my entire trilogy so far, and the story is definitely the same as my outline. But if you read the first draft and the last (at the moment) draft, you woulnd’t probably recognise it 😉

    I enjoyed the article a lot. The banter between you and hte voice was fun. And you know? Once it happened to me, one of the characters I discarded came back to haunt me. Only she got her way and I finally got her back in the story.
    Eh… I was weak. Or she was weaked… don’t know…

    1. I do like the freedom to go off and explore, but the outline is a lifeline so I don’t waste a ton of time and words getting to where I’m supposed to be. You have to watch out for those discarded characters – they have a way of popping up at the least convenient time. I’m glad you liked the post. Thanks so much.

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