Why Outlining Doesn’t Stop at Your First Draft
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of outlining my novels.
An outline is one of the best tools in your writing arsenal, both when creating your story and for your productivity as a writer. Outlining your novel helps you work through all of the difficult parts of your story upfront, saving you time and stress when you sit down to write later on.
However, outlining shouldn’t end when you begin writing your first draft. An outline is a living document, something that continues to grow and evolve as you delve deeper into your story. In fact, there are five ways you can benefit from creating an outline, even once you’ve started writing your novel.
The Benefits of Outlining Your Novel
If you’re not familiar with outlining, here’s a basic rundown of what an outline is and why they’re so useful.
In its simplest form, an outline is just a list of information about your story. It’ll have a variety of sections, covering everything from characters, to scenes, world-building, and story structure. On the surface, this might make outlines look fairly basic.
However, there are many important roles an outline can fulfill for your novel:
- Your outline organizes your ideas.
- It makes it easy to reference critical information about your story.
- It gives you space to brainstorm before committing new ideas to your manuscript.
- And it provides a framework for creating a cohesive story.
These are what make outlining such a critical part of any writer’s prewriting routine. A well-built outline gives you the flexibility to experiment with interesting, unique ideas before writing thousands of words based on them. You’re able to take these risks, because you know you won’t have to rewrite whole sections of your novel when an idea doesn’t work out—it’s confined to your outline, and therefore easy to change if needed.
The result is a deeper and more compelling story. Through your outline you’ve had the opportunity to explore all of your ideas and work through any issues upfront. It’s easy to see how an outline like this makes your whole writing process much smoother.
Of course, creating an outline that works is a task in and of itself.
If you haven’t started outlining your novel, check out this article where I go over the ten steps for building an outline, or check out the book that post is based on if you want to really master outlining a novel.
How to Use Your Outline as You Write
Once you’ve created an outline, you’re ready to begin writing the first draft of your novel.
However, your outline shouldn’t get pushed to the side when you begin writing. Instead, it should become an integrated part of your writing process, serving five distinct roles…
As a Map of Your Story:
By far the most obvious role your outline should play is that of a map—it organizes and records all of the major characters, plot lines, scenes, and events in your novel, making it the perfect point of reference.
So, instead of setting your outline aside after you create it, pull it out regularly while writing your first draft.
Whenever you sit down to start a new writing session, take a quick look through your outline to reorient yourself with where you are in your story. You can also turn to your outline if you get stuck trying to write a character or forget how the big reveal in your Climax goes—really any time you need a refresher on the specifics of your novel.
As a Record of Your Changes:
If you’ve gone through all the trouble to create a thorough, well-built outline, you may be tempted to call it done once you begin writing your first draft. However, an outline is a living document, one that should keep evolving as you work on your novel.
One of the best things you can do with your outline is to keep a running record of any changes you make to your story as you write. I personally go so far as to label my major plot points with the page they occur on in my draft, but even jotting down notes in the margins will make editing your story that much easier later on.
Think about it—when it’s time to edit your manuscript, instead of flipping through hundreds of pages looking for that one scene you changed (that subsequently threw your entire story out of whack), you can just glance through your outline and find it immediately.
While the added work may seem annoying when you’re in the creative throes of writing, know that it’s well worth those extra few minutes to record your changes at the end of each writing session!
As a Tool for Troubleshooting:
Similar to what we discussed above, your outline is a great tool for troubleshooting a problematic story. It’s not uncommon to hit a snag while writing your first draft and the usual solution is to derail your progress while you sift through your entire manuscript in search of the problem.
An outline, however, streamlines this process.
Not only is it easier to quickly find the scene or character that’s not working with the rest of your story, but it’s easier to fix them too. You can simply move them around or rewrite sections as needed until everything fits together again. Then you can go back through your draft and correct the areas that need work, before easily picking back up right where you left off.
This is even more painless if you kept a record of your changes like I mentioned above. This way, there’s far less searching required to find the parts of your story you’re looking for.
As a Yardstick for Your Progress:
When writing a novel, it can feel like the work ahead of you is endless. If you don’t have a clear idea of where your story will end and what needs to happen to get there, you have no way to know how much progress you’re making.
Outlining your novel solves this issue.
With a thorough outline, you should know all of your major plot points and the vast majority of your scenes. This way, after writing your Midpoint, you know you’re halfway done with your draft. Likewise, if you hammer out four scenes in a writing session, you can feel proud that you’ve made a ton of progress. You can even use your outline as a countdown, slowly watching the number of scenes you have left to write drop lower and lower as you get closer to finishing.
This is also a great way to set goals and make your writing more productive. If your story has forty two scenes and you want to finish your first draft in a year, then you know you need to write one scene per week to reach that goal, rather than trying to stick to vague word counts when you’re unsure how long your novel will end up being to begin with.
As a Reminder to Trust Yourself:
Finally (and perhaps most importantly) your outline is a constant reminder to trust your story.
It’s easy to get caught up in writer’s block and self-doubt when writing a novel. It’s a huge task after all, one often faced in isolation. Far too many writers give up because of this self-doubt, and many, many novels never see the light of day as a result.
While an outline will never get rid of your writer’s block entirely, it can make a huge difference in your confidence.
A well-built outline lets you know before you even start your first draft that the story you’re setting out to create works. It proves to you that your scenes and characters come together into something satisfying and meaningful, and that you have all the pieces you need to pull your story off.
Even when you feel unsure along the way, you can turn to your outline and trust that you’re on the right path. 🙂