• Outlining Schmoutlining: How Do You Organize Your Writing?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 23 comments


    Discussion questions: Do you outline your writing projects? If so, how closely do you stick to that outline while you write? Or do you, like me, start with very little direction and try to write your way into a story? And what is your approach? 


    While we’re on this jag about organization (see: “Losing Your Writing, Vol. 2” and “Organizing Your Files“), I thought it might be interesting to talk about organization within our writing projects.

    As I’ve mentioned, I recently finished Chapter 1 of my novel. Then I lost it when my computer died, and for the next week and a half I waited to see if the dude at the computer repair shop could recover it.

    Many writers in that situation would move on to Chapter 2.

    I couldn’t do that, because I don’t outline.

    Not only do I not outline, but I also have only a hazy idea of where this book is going. I know, at best, a small handful of the major plot points, I have a tenuous grasp on what I imagine are the themes, and I almost never know what I’ll write when I sit down to write.

    And when I do write, I go on autopilot. After a writing session, I often have very little idea of what it is I just wrote. You know that thing where you read a few paragraphs of a book and then realize that even though you were reading, you aren’t at all conscious of what you read? That’s what I’m like when I write.

    I almost never know what I wrote until I read it afterwards. And when I finished this Chapter 1, I didn’t get a chance to read it before my computer went kaput. Therefore, I couldn’t move to Chapter 2 because I didn’t know what the hell happened in Chapter 1.

    I guess another way of saying it is this: Rather than outline my story and then writing, I try to write my way into a story.

    Like any other approach, this has its pros and cons. And until my chapter returned to me, I was swimming around in the cons.

    Now I’m back to the pros, which include the freedom to go in any direction that feels right at the time, and the element of surprise I experience when reading my work, which I think allows me to more easily read my work as a reader rather than as its writer.

    What’s your approach? Are you an outliner? If so, how firm a grip do you keep on that outline? Or do you write your way into a story, like me; and does it work well for you?

    Let me know in the comments.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is fiction editor at the Texas Observer and co-host of the Yak Babies podcast, and has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2019 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coachingprivate instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    Hans De Léo

    When I started writing, I was a pants-er. Everything was in my head, I kept no notes, no character sketches, scene sketches, plot outline, or anything. I just didn’t see any reason for having any of those things. Until I found myself going back verify details like eye color, a name, an event, or if I revealed a particular piece of the Changeling Universe. Since then I’ve become a firm believer in outlining, although no to the point that your friend does. The last one I wrote created the premise, characters, locations, and outlined the entire plot. So far so… Read more »


    I like the way you think and what you said.”I write me way into a story.” That’s my style too. I’ve tried line item./ Idea/subject outline . Get the list but go off on tangents when I’m composing. So j just keep on winging it. I’m

    Barbara Mealer

    You are in good company, as Stephen King, Anne Lamott, and Jerry Jenkins are all seat of the pants writers. My first tome of 500,000 words was written like that. It ended up a fun story, but will require tons and tons of editing. From that, I learned to make an outline of sorts to write my books. I actually like the James Patterson method where he gives a line or two of what it going to happen in each chapter, which for him is usually a complete scene. He builds on that, dropping in clues, twists and turns as… Read more »


    Another thought after reading a comment here. When I began to take writing seriously I didn’t know about designing/out lining a story before writing it like I’ve read about since.

    Jill-Ayn Martin

    I know my MCs, my victim, 4-5 suspects, the setting and the inciting incident. From there I write “into the dark,” not knowing who dunnit until near the end. I figure if I’m surprised, my readers will be too. :-)

    david william lemke

    I’m a pantser, but not by choice. I read a book on how to write a novel designing its structure like movies do. So I tried it. 4 weeks went by without anything getting written. I found myself avoiding the computer. That had to end. So, while keeping story structure in the back of my mind, I went back to my old ways and poof! the muse returned.

    david william lemke

    I was working on a story and was about a dozen pages in when I realized I needed to know where it was going if I was ever going to write any more. Fortunately, I’d had some dreams and daydreams that I thought were for something else, but I figured out if I used that in this story,(now clearly a novel) even though it would appear maybe a hundred or more pages away, it would give this piece some direction and urgency. Just having a direction works wonders even if everything changes along the way.

    stephen Glick

    I write an outline for the first few chapters.As my ideas take off I outline the next few and so on.


    Hello David I am an outliner, comes from my character along with my work. so I apply this way to writing and it helps me. In writing I am an absolute beginner so it is the natural “proxy way” i took to move In and venture in a long thick story. However I cannot resist changing and leaving the highway of outline. And when I m far away, Happened several times in the same story (1st one…) i stop writing and re outline (the price of taking freedom while staying an outliner) and I feel fine to have this freedom… Read more »


    From the beginning, it was all in my head. When I started the first few pages 20 years ago, there was just a mental movie going on I was trying to keep up with! I had started other project and did chainmaille artistry for about 18 years, and later somehow the story came back to me. now since I picked it back up, I was trying to remember as much as I could about what was supposed to happen. I had started jotting things down on notecards, and then tried to get those in an order that seemed to make… Read more »


    I noticed afterwards reading through more comments that some people enjoy surprising themselves with their writing, and I have run into that myself. I’ve actually given myself goosebumps from a few of the things that I had written that were purely unplanned, but worked out so well and set implications that even I had not thought of!

    Jerry Schwartz

    I don’t outline, although I do sometimes jot down an idea for possible use. I generally start with a story concept: a succubus rescues a baby boy from a car wreck and decides to adopt him, for example. Then I compose the pornographic scene that always seems to be integral to my plot development process. Those two pieces become the anchor points. The pornographic scene is the target, and I write towards it. Then I write what comes after it. Then I throw it away and join together the two pieces. Sand and varnish. I guess you could call that… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Yes, the pornographic scene is always the climax. It’s typically followed by “and then they loved happily ever after.” What I meant was that I remove that scene altogether. Either it no longer fits the story, or it’s just unnecessary. If I still want the protagonists to wind up between the sheets, a simple fade to black works much better. Unless there’s a compelling reason (the bed has to collapse to explain a trip to the emergency room, for example), it’s more effective to let the reader use his or her own imagination. “If someone shared your erotic fantasies, they… Read more »

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