Written by A Guest Author May 26th, 2022

Reasons You Should Outline Your Novel (Even If You’re Not a Plotter)

By Ashley Taylor Clark

If you’ve ever interacted with the online writing community, you’ve likely heard the terms “plotter,” “pantser,” and “plantser” thrown around. These shorthand terms group writers into categories based on one crucial part of their writing process — namely, whether or not they outline their novel before drafting.

Regardless of which group you fall into, however, outlining is an important step in the writing process. It helps you better conceptualize your story from start to finish, and your outline literally never stops being useful. As an editor, I often advise my clients (plotters, pantsers, and plantsers alike) to outline their novels, and the results in their final products consistently speak for themselves.

Regardless of where you are in the writing process — whether you’re just putting together a new idea or getting ready to revise for the umpteenth time — here are a few reasons you should outline your novel.

1) It helps you plan your story in advance.

It’s a common practice among writers to claim that a good story writes itself — that the characters start running as soon as you’ve written their feet, and will carry the story through fun twists and turns to its natural conclusion.

This simply isn’t the case. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and all the stars and planets will align in such a way that your plot simply clicks into place; the rest of the time, you have to wrestle everything in line yourself. An outline helps with this part of the process immensely, letting you create and connect your plot bunnies before you actually start putting pen to paper. Drafting feels a lot more intimidating when you’ve got 30K words under your belt and no idea how your story should end.

2) It gets the ball rolling as you start writing.

Beginnings are notoriously difficult to write. Most of what we envision in our heads takes place in Act 2 (where the real adventure takes place), and it can be hard to establish what the protagonist’s life looks like before the story begins.

This is especially true if you tend to write your scenes in chronological order, or if you’re doing a program like NaNoWriMo and don’t want to jump around your story too much while hitting your daily word count goals. Having an outline to follow through the rocky first act of your story can push you through those early scenes and get you in the habit of writing regularly. Your writing schedule will be more established and you’ll be more motivated by the time you get past the inciting event and start writing the real meat of the story.

3) It keeps you on track as you progress through your draft.

Every writer knows how difficult it is to stay on track when writing a novel. It’s far too easy to get distracted by an unexpectedly interesting character, get lost in the fun back-and-forth of a minor piece of dialogue, or fall victim to a whole litter of plot bunnies that lead you away from your original vision.

In her book Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, Jessica Brody refers to outlines as a series of road markers to keep you from losing track of your story. Knowing your end goal and understanding how each step helps you reach that goal can be indispensable when you’re in the thick of drafting. According to Brody, creating an outline — or “beat sheet” — helps keep you “in line and on the right path toward [your] final destination: a satisfying end to the novel.”

4) It helps you develop your ideas.

Of course, there are times when one of those aforementioned plot bunnies actually ends up being good for your story. Discovery writing has its perks — that shiny new idea may blend seamlessly with your current plot and add a layer of nuance that takes your story to the next level. Now all you have to do is find a way to work it in.

This is where your outline comes in handy. With your entire plot and structure laid out neatly in front of you, you can revisit your major story beats and see where to add or revise scenes so your new idea plays out in a natural, well-paced way. Your outline doesn’t have to be rigid and unchanging — according to Sarah Domet, author of 90 Days to Your Novel, you should think of it more as a recipe that can be built upon and modified as you go. “Recipes guide us,” she says, “but the creativity still belongs to the head chef.”

5) It’s a god-send for revision.

No story idea truly survives the first draft. By the time you’re finished with the drafting phase, you’re inevitably going to have content that needs to be either added or cut from your manuscript. When it comes to making fundamental story changes, revising can sometimes feel like starting over from scratch.

An outline makes the process a lot easier. When you start revising your story, you can compare your current draft to your original outline to see where they differ. From there, you can put together a revision plan based on what changes you’d like to add, keep, or remove. This allows you to approach revision holistically, rather than getting overwhelmed by a bunch of minor details right at the start. Simply create your revision plan, make the necessary changes to your outline, then rinse and repeat until you have a draft you’re happy with!

Outlines don’t have to be a chore, and they aren’t reserved just for plotters. Taking the time to outline your novel is beneficial regardless of your methods, and will help you out at every stage of the writing process. Try it out, and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run!

Bio: Having spent all her life in the rainy PNW, Ashley knows the value of spending time inside with a good book. She turned her passion for stories into a career as a freelance fiction editor, sharing her expertise and enthusiasm with her fellow writers.


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