Outlining v Winging it

July 27, 2009 at 8:32 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Outlining. Outlining is something everyone does differently and which most writers have a strong opinion on. Some people insist that winging it is the only way to go unless you want to stifle your plot irreparably, and others say that unless you know exactly what’s going to happen then your WIP will be a higgledy-piggledy mess of tangents and confusion.

Of course, there’s always the middle ground, whether that involves having a rough idea of where you want to go but not planning how to get there or outlining the main plot in detail but leaving room for new scenes, new character developments and subplots.

I think that whether you outline or not is quite a personal decision, maybe even one which reflects the order (or lack of order) in your life and the way you prefer to go about things. Everyone has a way which suits them and which works best for them: just because one person prefers a certain way, it doesn’t mean that everyone does. There are lots of ways of getting to say, London, but all of them get there eventually. Does it really matter what the process is when you will all end up with the same product?

Personally, I’ve actually tried winging it, outlining and the middle road. With my first, uncompleted trunk novel, I had no outline at all. I didn’t even know where I was going and I world-built as a went along, leading to many inconsistencies. That novel was a pile of mismatched, random scenes with no connection, no direction, and no plot. Every time I sat down to write, I spent at least half of the time I had set aside for writing thinking what could possibly come next.

My second, also uncompleted, also trunked novel, I made a list of every scene I wanted to include and wrote a paragraph about what I wanted to happen in it. I found that marginally better than my previous method, but it was too confining and gave my characters no room for growth and my subplots no chance.

With my latest two novels, one completed and one about to be completed, I found my perfect method. I knew my plot, the summary, but I left myself room to evolve and change within those loose borders. I wasn’t stifled, and I wasn’t cut adrift.

So I think what I’m trying to say is that everyone should just try and find what is right for them. It might take a while, but everyone’s different and there’s no other way of knowing except for trying things and seeing if they work.

So what do you do, and why do you do it?



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  1. Great post Meta! I’ve always been more of a fan of winging it, which is strange because in my life I like to have a plan for everything. I had surprises and not knowing what to expect.

    But maybe I’m more of a half and half since I do have paragraphs for scenes that I want to include, but have room to grow in between where I am and where I plan to go.

  2. I’m a total winger. I never really have any plans at all and I make it up as I go along. Once I’ve done the first draft, I rewrite and rewrite again to link the scenes and improve them.
    Great post!

  3. I started using an outline just because during the school year I would totally forget what the next chapter would need to cover, and messing up in my book will mess up the ending X) So to remember what I needed to do, I started to outline it, and ended up outlining the rest of the book so I wouldn’t forget. And then I later took each chapter and put them on a calender because I wanted to see how much time had passed over the course of the novel. Also, I had a lot of days where the characters were out of school and then I looked on a calender and found out that it was a school day, so I had to pretend like it was a teacher inservice day :P

    All in all, outlining just helps me remember things better and helps plotting it out better. It helps me see what I need and don’t need easier, too.

  4. Like you, I’m a middle-of-the-roader. When you said this: “I knew my plot, the summary, but I left myself room to evolve and change within those loose borders.”, I thought, “that’s totally me”. But I’m currently writing a 6-book YA series, so I may have to do a little outlining just to keep everything straight. Okay, maybe more of a LIST than an outline. I think the word “outline” sounds too much like “rules”, which is why I tend to balk at doing one. Good post.

  5. Great post! Thanks so much for writing this. Almost every where else people are practically screaming at you to do it this way or that way, but it’s never that simple. I mean, these are books we’re writing and how we write them is going to be just as different as the books themselves. (Did that make sense? O.o If not I’ll come back later haha)

    Personally I have an idea of my story but I don’t outline. I write and if I get a really good idea for a scene or a new character I’ll write it down in a notebook along with where I think it should go or anything else about it. So I guess I lean towards winging it but I’m pretty much in the middle.

  6. Outline, definitely! I don’t exactly write an outline bullet by bullet. That gets boring and stifling fast. But before I start a book or a story, I think about it A LOT – developing the characters, forming the plot, forming each scene, like a big mass in my head. I love that stage – nothing’s concrete, nothing’s written, anything can be changed at anytime… yet it’s all there. It’s so fluid. :)

  7. I’m definitley a middle-roader – I tried winging it, and I ended up wandering off in all directions! Great post!

  8. Great post, Meta! :D

    I’m somewhere between the middle road and winging it, I think. Short-term planning, I can do. But I never know how I’m going to end the book. It can cause problems, but if I plan too far ahead I just end up deviating from the plan completely. :P

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