How Bestselling Writers Outline (or Not) Their Novels

Few things divide writers more than the question of whether or not an outline is used in writing a novel. The spectrum of views on outlining shows that the best answer is the one that works for you. These books describe different approaches used by different authors to craft bestselling books.

By the Seat of Your Pants (No Outline)

Write by the seat of your pants, no plan, just dive in and tell a story. For some writers (sometimes referred to by the unflattering ‘pantsers'), this is the only way to write. Outlines feel restrictive and confining. An outline comes from the critical, rather than creative side of the writer's brain. 

Dean Wesley Smith is an enormously prolific bestselling author who advocates this approach. His book Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel Without an Outline covers the reasons why writers might choose to take this approach.

There are very few articles and books on how to just type in the first word and head off into the dark writing a novel with no plan, no character sketch, nothing but pure exploration.

This isn't a long book. Smith covers common myths about writing with an outline, the difference between creative and critical voice, the benefits for long-term writers, and hints on how to tackle a novel without an outline.

Whether you've written with or without outlines, this is a good place to start looking at other approaches.

Outline You Crazy Fools

As often as the debate comes up, there are always writers that fall into both sides. Typically writers are pretty mellow about the whole outline vs. no outline approach. Whatever works for you is fine. At the same time, each group is still quick to tout the perceived advantage of their method (or disadvantage of the other). 

Usually both sides lay claim to the same advantage. Case in point: In Smith's book, he makes the point that long-term novel writers get past the need for outlines, and are more productive as a result. Libbie Hawker, in Take Off Your Pants!, makes the same argument in favor of outlines saying that it is superior if your goal is a full-time writing career because it will increase your speed and volume of production. 

Hawker isn't alone in the outline space:

And many more! 

Can't We All Just Outline, or Not?

For the most part, writers recognize that different methods work for other writers. Some authors also write outline books that sit somewhere in the middle between no outline and a detailed outline. 

James Scott Bell, author of many books on writing and otherwise, introduces us to the “tweeners” that fall between plotters and pantsers. His solution to the conversation? Start in the middle! His take on the topic is Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell.

Another approach is detailed in Randy Ingermanson's How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. Although the snowflake method calls for what sounds like a very detailed outline, it's shorter than a 100-page detailed synopsis, so I guess it falls into this in between category? The Snowflake Method has been a popular feature on Ingermanson's website for many years. (You can also get a 50% discount on his Snowflake Pro software for buying the book).

Do I Outline? Do You?

I love reading books like these (and other writing books). It's fascinating to see how other authors approach writing. Over the years and many novels, I've written outlines for some books and I've written into the dark. For my current work-in-progress, I wrote a short 2-3 paragraph synopsis for each of the first three books in the series. I don't have detailed outlines. I am creating Bibliogalactica, an encyclopedia of characters, places, and all the other nifty bits from my novels. Some of that material is what people include in outlines. Even Dean Wesley Smith says that he sometimes outlines after he writes so he can keep track of the details. That's useful. I want to be able to pull up details about a character, a world, or a timeline when I start writing a new book.

What about you? Do you outline or not? Do you fall in between, or do you use different methods depending on the project? Share in the comments.

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