Scenes - To Outline or Not to Outline - An Experiment

I believe it’s important that everyone experiment with different strategies to uncover their most efficient and effective processes, because what works for one may not always work for another.  

My friend Doreen (co-author of Choices) and I were talking the other day about how different our writing processes are. She can write a nearly perfect first draft with no outline or idea of where the scene is going to take her. I, on the other hand, have to plan and build, writing multiple pre-drafts until I have a workable “first draft.” Basically, I’ve been sitting somewhere in the middle of outlining and pantsing. What we found is that while we both end up with first drafts we’re happy with, she gets there a lot faster.

And while I know we all have different strategies that work best for each of us (because we each process and organize information in our own way), I began to wonder if I could find a way to speed up my own ideal process with this in mind.

Because I’m always on the search for the best and most efficient practices, and I’m always working on improving my skills, I’ve decided to experiment in the hopes that I can optimize my method by combining (or scaffolding) steps, which will hopefully increase production.

Looking back, I’ve always fought the whole “official” outlining process because I thought it would inhibit the organic progression of the scene. I wanted to let the characters tell the story. But by doing that, I was instead suppressing my ability. An outline still allows the story to tell itself, the characters still have a say—it’s just the way the information is processed that’s different. And it took me a long time to come to that realization. (Call it stubbornness!)

Having worked with many authors over the years, I’ve found that the majority of us outline in some form or another, whether it’s somewhere in the middle of pantsing and outlining (as I was doing) or writing very detailed multi-page outlines. There are many different types and levels of outlining, and it all comes down to what works best for each individual.

WHY OUTLINE

When outlining your scenes, you are essentially identifying the purpose of the scene, which main points or events are necessary to the scene, eliminating boring or insignificant details, and ensuring you include details and dialogue that move the story forward. This allows for a strong scene to evolve, and that is what a successful book is built upon.

Up until this experiment, my process looked like this:

  •  Have a general idea about a scene. Maybe jot down a few notes.
  •  Determine where, what, and who.
  •  Sit down and write a pre-draft, let the story tell itself, get stuck, repeat, eventually getting themain points and ideas down (a sort-of outline), but in a very non-cohesive way.
  •  Build upon and flesh out pre-draft.
  •  Tweak pre-draft, focusing on minor details = official first draft.   
  •  Polish.
  •  Edit.

As you can see, while I would reach the same end goal, this was probably not the best or most efficient method, and to be honest, until our discussion, I hadn’t ever broken down my own process to realize how inefficient it really was (because what I was doing was working, just not efficiently). So now I’m on a mission to test out different outlining strategies to find the most efficient process for my organizational strengths and personality.

What works best for me, may not work best for you, so it’s important to experiment to discover what the best strategy is for you. Even if what you’re doing is “working,” you might be surprised at what you discover about yourself and your ability when you try a different method or strategy.

MY OUTLINING EXPERIMENT

My first experiment included a very simple outline. I wrote down the setting, the characters, the purpose, and then listed the main events that needed to happen in the scene. Under each, I listed important details that served to enhance the scene. I was careful to write down everything—every little detail (not just a few notes like I used to). I think that was key, because it allowed me to work things out on paper and discover potential issues early on.

Once I had a basic outline I was happy with, I sat down and wrote a first draft. And, to my surprise, I was very pleased with it.  The entire process took a few hours versus the usual few days. Now that’s success in my mind!

IN SUMMARY

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with different strategies. Even if something is working for you, you may be surprised at what you discover about yourself and your ability.
  • Outlining is simply a tool, one way to process and clarify information. It doesn’t inhibit the organic progression of the story, and in fact, will probably enhance it.

It’s important to remember that every word on the page matters. Every single one. And having an outline is just another tool to help you write better, stronger scenes.

What does your outlining process look like? Share in the comments below.