Why I Don’t Outline

October 25th, 2006

There is a war going on, people. It may not have affected you yet, but it exists. It's a battle between two factions of people, some of whom feel strongly that their belief is the only correct one, whereas the rest of us…well, we feel we should have the right to choose.

Have you guessed who I'm talking about? That's right:

Writers who outline their books before they write them, versus writers who hate to outline.

PSYCH! You thought I was talking about something else didn't you? Ha. Not. But read on anyway, because this is important. Well, to aspiring writers.

I am just going to come right out and say it: I hate outlines. And I don't use them.

You would think this would be the end of the discussion. I mean, to outline or not to outline should be a matter of personal choice. It's really nobody's business whether I outline or not.

Well. Have you ever bought one of those How To Write A Bestseller books? I did. Back when I was struggling to get published. The first thing those books tell you to do is outline your book idea before you write it. These books basically say that if you DON'T outline your book before you write it, that you are a slacker or sloppy writer who will never get published.

There are even certain computer programs to help you write, say, a screenplay—computer programs you HAVE to use if you want a studio to read your screenplay, as I found out the hard way—that WON'T LET YOU PROCEED TO THE WRITING PART until you've finished an outline first. Also crafted “character notecards.”

I am not kidding about this. There are like OUTLINE POLICE out there, trying to make EVERYONE outline their books and screenplays before they allow them to start writing them. No one, according to the Outline Police, gets the choice NOT to outline.

And that's just not right.

Now, I would NEVER say that if you are a writer who likes to outline that there is anything wrong with that. Personally, I am a proponent of having the right to choose.

What I'm trying to say is that if you are a writer like me who hates to outline, you should not be FORCED to outline. That is an infringement on my personal right not to outline, and it's not cool, people. I should have the right NOT to outline if I don't want to.

And I am NOT saying everyone shouldn't know how to make an outline. Because outlines can come in handy. Such as for term papers. I think outlines are ideal for expository writing.

So if you are a student and a teacher is making you learn how to outline right now, do not say, “Meg Cabot doesn't outline. Why should I?” Because you must learn HOW to outline. Whether or not you CHOOSE to outline after you are out of school SHOULD BE your decision (if the Outline Police will back off and let you decide for yourself). Personally, I would recommend that you continue to use outlines for any expository writing you might want to do.

But for creative writing? It depends on what works for you. I often hear the following from aspiring writers:

“I don't understand why I can't seem to finish any of the novels I'm trying to write! I did everything it says in my How To Write a Bestselling Novel guide book. I made hundreds of notecards for each character, and outlined my entire plot, putting in every single detail so I wouldn't forget anything! So why can't I write my book?”

I will tell you why I think you can't write your book:

BECAUSE YOU ALREADY DID.

Yeah. You wrote your book in OUTLINE form. Now your brain—your muse—your creative story-telling impulse—WHATEVER it is that makes us want to write stuff down and share it with the world—is telling you that your job is done: you already shared your story. You're finished. There's nothing left to say because you already said it all.

IN YOUR OUTLINE.

I am not making this up, people. This has actually happened to me.

Personally, I think you have to be careful with story ideas. Until they are written out, they are delicate, ethereal things, easily lost. I know they don't seem that way when they are tugging at your brain and going, “Write ME next! No, ME! Byotch, get out of my way, I said she's going to write ME next! POW! Unnnh! SMACK!”

But the truth is, story ideas don't come along often, and when they do, you have to treat them with care. Outlining them too thoroughly—even TALKING about them too much over coffee with a friend–can actually ruin them, because it can make you feel as if the story is already told.

And when that happens, if you're like me, you're dead.

I know this is not be true for other writers. I am actually friends with writers who outline (but who are not members of the Outline Police, and who agree that all writers should have the right to choose, and that stories for which outlines were never written can actually be good).

But for me, my story can only be told ONCE. After it's told, it can never be told again. EVEN IF ALL I DID WAS TELL IT TO A FRIEND OVER COFFEE. It's done. It's over. No amount of sitting in front of my computer will ever bring it back.

This is not to say that I don't know what's going to happen in my story before I begin writing it. I do. Obviously, I have a beginning, middle, and end planned out in my head before I even start the first chapter. You don't leave for vacation without knowing where you're going, right? HOW you get there may still be up in the air. But you have at least a vague idea on where you want to end up.

Because writing a book, to me, is like taking a trip. I know in my head where I want to go. I just don't write out an elaborately detailed itinerary.

Because the fun part—to me—is figuring out how I'm going to get there, and checking out the interesting sites I see along the way.

If the Outline Police had their way, they'd spoil all that. And it's NOT FAIR.

I know some of you published authors out there are going, “That's all well and good, but you can't propose a book to a publisher these days without submitting an outline or at least a synopsis.”

This is very true. But there are ways to write the synopsis so that the entire story doesn't get told in it, and there is still stuff left over for you to have fun discovering.

So, anyway, I just wanted to take a moment to remind all those outliners out there that those of us who don't outline? We're people, too. And many of us are still decent storytellers. We may have a different way of going about our storytelling than everybody else. But that doesn't mean it's wrong. We may have pretty good reasons for why we choose not to outline.

Because that's what it is: A choice. A choice every writer should have the freedom to decide on her own.

More later.

Much love,

Meg