Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Get a GRIP, part 5: the Plan

While this is part 5 of this series of posts, this is the fourth step in pre-writing—the stages you have to follow before you start writing even the first draft of your brilliant document. If you recall, I call the process “getting a GRIP”:
G – goal or purpose—what you hope to achieve with your writing
R – reader or audience—the most important ingredient
I – idea or thesis—what you’re trying to say

Now, the Plan, or outline.

Creating an outline is the biggest favour you, as a writer, can do for yourself.

I know, there are a lot of writers who say they prefer writing “by the seat of their pants.” I’ve learned that approach wears out a lot of pant seats.

With an outline, you can make sure that you have covered everything you need to cover in your document, whether it’s a memo, a report or a novel. An outline is like a road-map: it helps you tell, at a glance, whether you’re getting toward your destination or resolution, what are the obstacles in the way, and whether there isn’t a better route to follow.

I have tried writing both with and without outlines. Once, I interviewed a very interesting typeface designer. I thought he was fascinating, and I even thought I had a great lead. So immediately after the interview was over, I turned on the computer and dove right in. I wrote about a thousand words when I realized I could not logically go any further, and I had not written anything important, or even readable, yet.

So, I deleted everything and started over. I wrote a new lead and another 400 to 500 words. Got stuck. Deleted. Started over again.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to figure out what I wanted to say with this article, and in what order. I moved away from the computer, took out a pen and a piece of paper (I know, I’m a cave-man) and wrote a thesis statement and an outline.

You don’t have to write down an outline; if you can remember a lot of different ideas in the right order, you can do it in your head. But you still need an outline. To put it another way:

The time required to write an outline plus a good document is less than the time required to write the same quality of document without an outline.


Why create an outline

An outline helps you:
- make sure you include everything you want/need
- organize your ideas
- make sure you leave out information or ideas that don’t belong.


How to create an outline

I start by gathering all the ideas, information, facts, quotes, research and whatever else I’ve gathered in my research, then jotting it down (on paper or on screen) in the order I think of it. Someone else a long time ago called this the “scratch outline.” You might call it brainstorming, except that it involves just one person (usually). Write everything down. Some of these ideas are gold, and you might lose them.

Don’t write whole sentences, yet. Just jot or type single words or short phrases. You’re trying to get the ideas down as quickly as possible, while they’re still fresh and hot in your mind.

Once you’ve run out of steam and can’t think of anything else to write down, start looking for links. Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together.” Look for similar ideas and linked facts, and for categories as well as items within those categories. You’ll probably need to make another list after this.

Once everything is grouped, start looking for a logical order to put them in. Here, you have a lot of choice: chronological (for an incident report, for example), or most important to least important (like a newspaper article). Proposals often use the “problem-solution” approach: describe a problem, explain why it’s a problem, the show the solution and its ultimate effects. Advertisements do this, too: “Does the opposite sex run away from your bad breath? You need Moosebreath Away!”

Word processors have outlining tools or views that make creating and rearranging your outline easier.
Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just try different arrangements of ideas and facts. Move them around and imagine the sentences you can craft around the short phrases in your outline. You can fill them in now, if you think of something particularly good.

Don’t be afraid to add new ideas that you realize you had left out, and be even less afraid of taking things out if it seems that they don’t belong.

It really helps if you already have a thesis statement written; however, I sometimes find the main point comes out once I start massaging all the information I have. But a complete thesis statement is a must for a finished outline. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES GO BEYOND WRITING YOUR OUTLINE UNTIL YOU HAVE DECIDED ON YOUR THESIS STATEMENT. Think of it this way: if your outline is your road map, then the thesis statement is your destination. You don’t start a journey without deciding where you’re going, do you? Okay, so do I, sometimes—but when it’s something as important as writing, don’t do it.

Start with knowing your goal, identifying your reader, and writing your thesis statement (although it may evolve)

  • Make a scratch outline
    • brainstorm
    • generate Lots of ideas
    • jot down short phrases or single word
  • Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together”
    • group similar ideas
    • look for general categories and specific items within categories
  • Organize the ideas and information
    • choose from logical, chronological, problem-solution, geographical, etc.
If you’re having trouble deciding on which order to use, go back to the first steps: what are you trying to achieve, who is your audience, and what is the main idea you want to tell them?

I firmly believe in using an outline to write fiction. You need to know your characters and setting, and you need to know where your story is going. Otherwise, it doesn’t go anywhere and your beautiful prose does nothing but bore the reader.

Kirsten Lamb agrees with me (although she may not have heard of me). She has devoted several recent blog posts to the idea of structure of novels. “Novels have rules. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.”

You have to know where your plot is going and why your characters are going there. I’ve read a lot of wannabe writers’ blogs, where they say they let the characters lead them. I don’t know if any of them have finished, let alone published a book.

Having an outline for your plot allows you to spot those plot holes, figure out your characters’ motivations and pace your plot developments so they don’t bore the reader, nor leave them breathless.

In future posts, I’m going to put in some exercises on outlining. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has been happy with the result of their document, whatever it may be, that did not have some kind of outline at some point. Remember, even if it was just in your head, it was still an outline.


  1. I am a write by the seat of my pants kind of writer--EXCEPT, I really need to outline my next book. I NEED too. Ahh...I didn't set out to write a series, but it has turned out to become one (my zombie western romance YA) and so I can see where outlining would be very helpful. Some points will be stretched out over several books and without an outline I will be in a heap of trouble soon.

    Great post. And you explained it so well. Thanks

  2. You're welcome, Angela. What is the overall arc of the next volume in the series?

  3. This is a very helpful article. I have been struggling a bit lately and thought it was because I had grown dependent on my co-writer (which is partially true), but after reading your post, I think it's more of an organizational difficulty. I'm going to try fleshing out my outline and see if that helps. Thanks for this article! -Karen

  4. Anonymous7:08 AM

    That's an interesting way to outline. Thanks for sharing!

  5. C.A. Kendrick2:27 PM

    I did make an outline. And I did finish my novel. And I've read through it - as have others - and it seems to be a coherent, focused piece of work. But I came across my outline the other day, and there were characters I never created and scenarios I never used.

    Perhaps the outline helped me keep my focus on the arc of the story. But I don't think dogmatic adherence to an outline would work for me. As the story and characters develop, new ideas pop up and it would be a shame to ignore them - just because they aren't in the outline.

    What I find works astonishingly well for me is to write out back-stories for all my characters, which I never intend to share with my readers. This just allows me to get a firm grip on their motives and attitudes. Then when I throw them into the plot of my story, I know how they'll act and what will come after that.

  6. haha - when writing short non-fiction articles I sort of outline - I establish what the main point of what I want to say is. After that, usually I don't have a problem pantsing through the article to establish that point. I only outline under the most dire circumstances.

    For fiction *gasp* outlining takes all the fun out of it. I admit that planning and character sketches and outlines make the whole process for time efficient - no argument. But, I discover who my characters are through a first draft (I call it a vomit draft). I put them in hot water, challenging situations, face tough people to learn who they are and what they're about.

    My cowriter is a planner and I drive her nearly insane.

    We chat on the phone where I pants out loud and she shoots holes in my pantsing ideas - but writes the final product down. She fills in a few sketchy details - I promise to more or less stick to 'the plan' and she lets me pants when 'the plan' doesn't seem to be working. So far it's worked pretty well. Her plan keeps us on track and away from rabbit trails - but my pantsing has notched up the tension and action in places too.

  7. Scott,

    I have enjoyed this series. I'm a heavy outliner and have been for a while. (Writing a doctoral thesis at the moment, and it's obviously essential.)

    Interesting to hear your thoughts on this.

  8. Lisa, it seems to me that, even though you don't admit it, you have at least some kind of an outline-you have some ideas about where you want your plot to go. And your writing partner also imposes one on your work, so it's there.

    Have you ever tried to write an outline - at least, where your character starts and where you want him/her to get to?

  9. Robert, glad to hear from you.

    I would be interested to learn the process you use to go from outline to draft. I think that different writers have different techniques.

  10. I believe in the outline...kinda. I know writers who get so pulled in by the outline that they refuse to write until the outline is complete...thus they never start writing or it takes them literally months. My idea of an outline, or at least how I use one is to get the initial thoughts (plot) on paper. Then I start writing. I keep the outline in mind but I don't freak out if I go off plot. That is what you are supposed to do (in my opinion). I will go back to the outline and adjust things, but again the world does not end for me if the story begins to take on a new form. I think that is part of the process. I really love your article and the way you explain the mechanics of outlining and how it is useful, however I cannot help but warn those from becoming to outline focused. Writing is a free thought and trying to cage it is only going to be detrimental to yourself and your muse. :0)

    Just me two cents...love your blog, what a great find! KUDOS!

  11. I find outlines (or outlining techniques) are essential to make clean progress with a novel. The first three novels I wrote wandered all over the paper landscape and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to get back to where I thought I should be.

    This wasn't because I was committed to not working with an outline or a map or a plan. I just had to figure out a method that works for me. I finally did and it's made my writing process infinitely better.

    That's not to say I don't still take detours, explore sideroads or graft an addition onto the site map - but the outline keeps me on track. It's fun to compare the initial outline when I get begin writing, with the one that I conclude with. Two different documents.

    I know published authors who pants and are successful, and lots who plan and outline. Whatever works to get the words out in the order you want them, is all you need to figure out. What allows one writer to excel is not going to work for another.

    I love it when writers share their techniques though because I'm always interested in trying something new. Great post!

  12. Hi Everyone. I pants my short stories, and if I can find the hook and know the characters, they're easy to write.
    But I've been working on my first novel since Halloween, pantsed through the first two chapters, and then ran out of steam. I need to learn how to outline in order to write novels. OR, I need to learn how to outline in order to have another tool with which to discover my best method for writing a novel.
    I look forward to your outline exercises, Scott.

  13. My writing buddy and I were talking about this very thing today. I "pantsed" my just-completed novel and it took years. Though I'm happy with the result, I wouldn't do that again. I come out of the business world where I always knew exactly why (G), who (R), and what (I). Thanks for giving me an acronym to work with and reinforcing my next steps.