An Easy Outlining Method for Writers Who Don't Enjoy Planning
About the Author: Rayanne Robison
Rayanne Robison is a long-time writer and poet living in Colorado with her two adorable cats as she earns her Bachelor of Arts in Japan Studies from MSU. She loves the Lord and hopes that, as she begins her publishing journey later this year, her words will give readers a taste of His goodness. You can learn more about Rayanne on her website at www.rayannerobison.com and follow along with her work on Facebook by clicking here.
My personal journey as a writer has been a lonely and meandering one.
For as long as I can remember, a thousand fantastic worlds have lived in my head, the safe places I went when the real world was too painful or quiet to bear. About the time I began to understand myself as an individual, around eleven or twelve, I started writing down these worlds and the stories that took place in them. It was a carefully guarded secret, something that only happened when the mood struck.
As one might expect with such an organic and aimless writing practice, progress was slow. In retrospect, I realize that I was attempting to write about five stories under the guise of one. When I grew frustrated with the inconsistencies and difficulty in plot progression, I split this one story into three set at three different times within the same world, which, sadly, did nothing to clean up the confusion.
With frustrations mounting, I set the project aside and attempted to write several other stories. Soon, I had as many as seven ongoing projects. It would often take me months to decide how the next scene in any one story should go, and it wasn’t long before I began to forget what I really wanted to say with each story as I flitted between them.
I also had a bad habit of writing 20,000 words worth of story, only to realize that I’d merely set the scene for the main plot line. In the terms of the classic hero’s tale, the warrior hadn’t even set out on his quest yet…
What turned the tide in my writing struggles?
As I got more serious about writing (and more frustrated with my ignorance of the craft), I began to listen to teachers, writers, favorite authors, and fellow fantasy nerds, and they all had one crucial piece of advice for the novice: Use an outline.
I resisted this idea. I liked my freestyle, write-when-the-mood-strikes approach. I thought that using an outline would inhibit my ability to describe and share the worlds in my head on paper. But I also recognized that if I wanted to actually finish a story (i.e. have even one completed manuscript ready for editing), I needed to step up my game.
I’m not going to pretend that learning to use an outline was easy for me, or that a single moment’s decision completely changed the way I approach writing. I was seventeen by the time I took a class called “Writing and Drawing for the Graphic Novel” that finally sold me on the whole idea of outlines, even though I’d been trying to use them on and off for years. By then I had closer to 25 projects cluttering my documents folder, most of which didn’t have proper outlines accompanying them. But the ones that did, they made progress.
One story of mine, Deadeyes Rising, went from a single scene to a two-book series, with one of the books nearly finished, when I used “writing an outline” as a serious brainstorming practice. It took at least three different outlines, but I finally found one that told the story I wanted to tell. And with it, fleshing out the world, characters, and story itself became so much easier.
What can an outline do for you?
I chose to share my experience with you today for two reasons. The first, obviously, is to sound the praises of outlining. Even if you don’t enjoy planning, outlines can serve several key purposes in your writing process, including:
Keeping track of the overall goals, themes, and character arcs for your story.
Stopping you from wandering too deep in the wrong direction.
Helping you brainstorm your story as a whole to avoid writing and scrapping dozens of ultimately unnecessary scenes.
Clarifying your characters’ roles in your world and each other’s story arcs.
Reminding you of what you’ve written so far, and what your next steps should be if returning to a story after a break.
Extra motivation — I don’t know about you, but brainstorming a story always leaves my fingers itching to write.
De-stressing the writing process — If I know where I’m going, I don’t hesitate to set out.
What does a good outline look like?
Personally, my outlines remain organic in nature, since I started out self-trained. I use three sections:
In Section #1, I write about the themes/goals of the story in paragraph style.
In Section #2, I bullet-point outline a very simple sketch of the story.
In Section #3, I follow up with a paragraph about each of the characters.
I keep my outlines simple because that’s the best way to ensure that I actually create them. I also find that the simpler my outline, the easier it is to change if I decide I don’t like an initial idea, which happens often for me.
It should be noted that this method works for me because I built it for me. Your own outlining process may be totally different. However, I did build my outlining process based on what I was taught were the essential brainstorming elements that should be considered when crafting a story. Though your preferred format may be different, I’d encourage you to include similar brainstorming notes in your own outline, so as to keep your story on track.
Do you resist the idea of outlining?
The second reason I wanted to tell you my personal story is to encourage you, my fellow writers.
I made writing hard for myself. I tried to do it alone, aimlessly, secretly, and without any instruction at all. This invariably led to long years of little to no progress and a whole mess of stories that seemed doomed to never see completion, never mind be read by someone else. Ultimately, it was my love for writing that pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and attain the skills I needed to succeed.
If you’ve made writing hard for yourself, I would say two things to you now:
#1: Keep writing what you love.
#2: Learn to love writing so much that you’ll do it the hard way if that’s what it takes to succeed.
If you don’t make writing hard for yourself in the way I did, you may be wondering why I have the audacity to tell anyone else how best to write, and you’re right. I’m not the wise old sage instructing the young in things long since learned. I’m the underdog telling you that if I can grow and succeed as a writer, then you definitely can. So do what you need to do to tell your story, and don’t let fears or weaknesses or inhibitions hold you back. Because we all have them. So let’s overcome them together.