Do you really need to outline your writing?

Do you outline your writing?

Let me be honest right off the bat: I don’t outline my writing. Having said that, I’m not a fiction writer and I don’t often write long pieces; I’m often writing blog posts or articles that are made up of 1,500 words or fewer. The few times when I’ve written something slightly longer, I have made use of a very lose, skeleton-like outline, just to organize my thoughts, but never to organize my book. Rigidity has never been a friend of mine.

I like to start writing and see where my thoughts lead, and then I rearrange paragraphs, add things, remove things, and rearrange paragraphs again until the thoughts flow well. This is even more true when I do interview-based pieces. For my Ehlers-Danlos piece, one of the articles I’m most proud of to date, I did zero outlining. I knew I wanted to use people’s experience with diagnosis and difficulty in getting one as a framework to a call to action for more research, longer doctor appointments, and better understanding of chronic conditions that affect whole body systems. To some, this may seem like an outline. To me, it was a framework.

I always knew I’d start the piece with my own experience, because that’s what drove me to write the piece. And I knew I’d weave interviewee’s experiences into a larger narrative of the issues with our compartmentalized health care that ignores whole-body issues, leaving the chronically ill, chronically ill-treated. Finally, I wasn’t sure how I’d end the piece, but I knew I’d address the need for a changed health care system in one way or another. But did I sit down and go:

  1. Intro (here I’ll do this)
  2. Body (here I’ll do that)
  3. Conclusion (here I’ll do the other thing)?

Goodness no. 

I refuse to even use the dot notebooks for my Day Book (which I won’t call a bullet journal because it’s nothing of the sort) because it restricts my creativity; why would I want an outline to tie my own hands behind my back? I know outlines aren’t this dramatic, but that’s the way I feel about them.

So, for this piece and many others, I just started writing. Then I arranged and rearranged, beat myself up for not being able to use all the amazing quotes I got because I could only write 1500 words, tried to fit more in, took things out, put more things in, took things out again, and so on until I was happy with piece. Having said that, I’m not against outlining. For some people and some situations, outlining can be a good thing. 


Should you outline your writing? MultiTalented Writers. Background photo by Statup Stock Photos on Pixabay

There are times I would recommend you outline your writing

For longer forms of writing like a research paper, novel-length books, and long-form articles that are required to follow a specific format, an outline may be a good idea. I still don’t think it’s quite a necessity for novels, but take my ideas about this with a grain of salt, as I’m not a novelist.

For my Mind Maps for Freelance Writing Success book, I didn’t do an outline. I just started writing, because I had a zillion ideas running through my head about what people might want to know about the mind mapping process and how I use it to my advantage in freelance writing.

For the book I hope to write about family adventure travel, I’ve created a loose outline, because there was a somewhat clear process we followed to be able to go on our cycle trip and then our RV adventure with our kiddos. So again, for the most part I don’t use outlines, but there are times where I can see their utility.

So should you or should you not outline your writing?

Whether or not you outline your writing is ultimately up to you and your preference. Are you a writer who enjoys “spilling it on the page?” Then outlining is probably not the best route for you. Are you a very organized person who wants to have a clear picture of where your writing is headed before you start writing the work itself? Then outlining is a good idea.

Personally, I’ll just keep spilling my guts out and moving my words on the page like my thoughts swirl in my head, until the jumbled mess of connections clears up and makes sense, much like a painter may paint a beautiful background, only to paint over it, and then paint over it another time, until she’s satisfied with her work (or until she thinks it’ll do—most of us are never really fully satisfied with our work, but deadlines keep perfectionism at bay).

If you do want to outline your novel, here’s an excellent article on how to do it (including a free template) from Reedsy.

If you want to outline your non-fiction book, here’s a simple template for that, from Just Write a Book.

And finally, though I personally don’t recommend outlining short works like blog posts, if you must, you must. So here’s a super detailed article on blog outlining from BlogingX that will be useful to you even if you decide to “go with the flow” later on.

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Mariana Abeid-McDougall is a writer, a wife, and a homeschooling mom in an out-of-the-box, adventurous family. She's on a mission to show the world that writers don't need to niche to be successful. She hopes you'll join the conversation on the MultiTalented Writers blog.

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