One of the great debates among writers is whether an outline is an essential planning strategy or a counterproductive shackle.
There’s no question that having some kind of plan improves the depth and quality of the finished work. But that plan doesn’t have to be an outline.
In an informal study, composition teacher Rory Stephens found that about 50 percent of writers found it helpful to make an outline. However, some writers do their drafting n their heads. For these think-writers, as Stephens calls them, an outline may be redundant.
Even writers who find outlines helpful may not need to make a formal plan. For a short piece, a key idea with a few bullet points may be enough. If your organization has a typical format for a progress report, all you need to do is follow the format.
Rachel Aaron, author of The Spirit Thief, is one of the adventurous types who makes up her own format. Her description of how she developed the concept for her series about the charming thief Eli Monpress is a good example of think-writing by letting an idea find its own path.
Monpress began as “a character concept” from a Dungeons and Dragons player who conceived a thief who wanted to increase the bounty on his head. The other characters crystallized around Eli. The wizard Miranda was originally a rival thief, but Aaron “realized this woman was way too duty bound to ever steal anything.” So she became “the cop to Eli’s robber.”
Once the characters were in place, the novel “evolved naturally. After all, I had a thief and a cop, now I needed a crime, and what better crime than kidnapping a king? But, since nothing can ever go smoothly, the king had to have a dastardly brother waiting in the wings. Once I figured those bits out, the novel found its own way.”
This kind of flexibility requires a willingness to believe that disparate ideas will eventually come together into a coherent whole. Those who can sustain this belief leave themselves open to possibilities. They can quickly recognize and adapt to new ideas.
Those who write by outlining can also take advantage of possibilities. As a general rule, outliners should stick to their plan—unless an idea that’s obviously better comes to mind. If inspiration strikes, it’s usually best to go with the momentum and capture the idea. You can always check your new organization by making an outline based on your draft (called a “reverse outline”). That gives you the best of both worlds: focus and flexibility.
For an explanation of reverse outlining, see this post to Rachael Cayley’s Exploration of Style blog: http://explorationsofstyle.com/2011/02/09/reverse-outlines/
Several studies by Ronald T. Kellogg explore the benefits and drawbacks of outlining.
Rory D. Stevens wrote “Variations in Composing Style,” Journal of Advanced Composition, II(1-2), which is available at http://www.
Quotations from Rachel Aaron are from “Interview” in The Spirit Thief (Orbit, 2010). Aaron posted a more detailed description of how she plots at http://thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/09/how-i-plot-novel-in-5-steps.html
For a self-scoring quiz on whether your brain tends to organize by outlining or by random association, see /quizzes/are-you-a-web-or-step-thinker/