Outlines are Ew

I’ve held a true distaste for outlines since being introduced to them in middle school. I remember sitting over a stack of index cards and feeling utter frustration over having to break down my ideas on writing a simple two page paper.

When I started writing fan fiction at the age of sixteen, I fought every recommendation to outline my work, insisting that my ideas changed so often that limiting them in an outline would destroy the integrity and creativity of my work. Maybe I wasn’t so eloquent when I argued my point. I believe it was something more along the lines of, “Ugh, outlines are ick.”

Kind of like how, according to Jimmy Fallon, H’s are “ew.” Given the age I was at when I started taking fan fiction seriously, I probably sounded like that too. I was, by no stretch of the term, a valley girl. But I was a sixteen year old girl. The similarities outnumber the differences.

As I grew older, I realized that the reason I disliked outlines so much is because they didn’t work for me. The structure and detailed breakdown drove me crazy and pushed adamantly against my creative nature, trying to chain it down and tame it.

I understand that the point of an outline is not to drive the writer crazy, but to help the writer create. How I learned to make them, however, was not helpful to me in the slightest. It did drive me crazy. So, I had to figure out a way to make the outline work for me.

The general idea of an outline is just to give you a basic idea of what you’re trying to accomplish with no details. Not…how I learned to make them. If I can pry into the part of my brain that gaped out every lesson on creating outlines, I think I can vaguely recall a requirement of one to three sentences on each bullet point of the outline.

Guess what? You don’t need that much to make an outline work for you.

I was speaking with a good friend of mine today who was trying to piece together a podcast on body positivity. With it being a podcast in which she opened herself up and presented a vulnerable side of her she wasn’t altogether comfortable sharing, she was having difficulty recording her thoughts.

And what did I do? I recommended that she outline her thoughts.

Over the years, I’ve accepted that maybe I shouldn’t be so hateful of outlines. It started by researching different ways to make outlines because there just had to be a way to do it that wouldn’t make me want to scream. Lucky me, there is!

The one that I found mentioned most was a planning web. This is essentially a brainstorming approach where you pick a character/word/emotion that drives your story and then branch off with details about the character, about the word or emotion. One big circle is the center of your web and you branch out from there. For example, say your character is a woman named Cecelia. You start with her name and branch out with details on Cecelia. What is she like? What does she do for a living? Does she have children? Past trauma? Anything to help build your character and prompt your imagination. Or at least that’s my non-professional take on it.

There was also a method mentioned at a writers conference that I went to where you use post-it’s and write your story in scenes. Each post-it is a scene. I find this method extremely helpful as I’m always changing my mind on where I want my story to go. The Post-it’s offer you a chance to remove ideas you don’t like and replace them with other ideas. It also gives you an opportunity to add scenes. The appeal to me is that it can be a little disorganized without losing the ability to help build the story.

I use basic outlines as well. Never hurts to stick with what works as long as you’re making it work for you.

I have to remind myself that I’m not writing a term paper for college. I’m writing a novel. My outline isn’t being graded. It’s helping me stay focused on what I’m trying to accomplish. So when I set up an outline, I start out with one sentence that delivers the basic idea of the chapter and the bullet points are events that happen within the chapter. Nothing insanely detailed – just little bits that help me remember what I’m trying to do without saying, “Ew.”

The point is that outlines…they’re not terrible. I may not have given them a fair chance because what I was creating at the time was just work to get a grade. If they frustrate you, find a way to do it that works for you. Do a little research, revamp your research, make your outline something that doesn’t make you hate it.

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