To outline, or not to outline, that is the question

Manifest Mondays are where I chat exclusively about writing and the writing life.

Talk to a writer. Any writer at any point in their career: fledgling, published, J.K. Rowling. Each and every one of us will tell you a different thing about the writing process. One stickler that jumps out to me is to create an outline.

I’m chewing on Dani Shapiro’s “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life” and what stuck out to me is that she offers a solid argument against outlines. In her “Structure” mini-chapter, she says that:

Outlines offer us an illusion that we are in control, that we know where we’re going. And while this may be comforting, it is also antithetical to the process of making work that lives and breathes.

There are so many arguments FOR outlines that reading her advocating AGAINST them was refreshing. Other writers insist that any writer worth their salt MUST always have an outline. They tell you to use index cards, post-it notes, smoke signals. Use whatever you can, but write that outline!

I have found that outlines work against me. I use them, though sparingly. They’re not something I depend on as part of my writing process. As of this post, I have 11 outlines.

I’m not big on traditional outlines, with bullet points, Roman numerals and all that shit. I write it like a screenplay pitch. I paint enough of a picture so that my future self knows what I was thinking about doing in the first place. They’re not very long, maybe one or two pages. My longest pitch was for a trilogy of novellas at a whopping 4 pages.

I put enough words on the page to trigger memories of what inspired me to believe it would be a good story. I include barebones character descriptions, like names, ages, gender, relationships to the other characters, and their initial role in the story. I give myself a beginning, middle, and end to work towards, with plenty of room to veer off course as necessary.

I have yet to begin any of these 11 stories. I have no urgency to write them. An outline to me is something to be studied and built on, but not right now. Procrastination is strong in me, as you can tell.

I like staring at a blank page and going completely nuts on it from beginning to the end. I’m confident enough in my abilities that writing this way works best for me. Is that first draft good? Hell no. First drafts are crap, everybody knows that. Fix it in post, as they say in the movies. Revision gives me life.

Hearing that another writer does it this way too made me feel less alone. Whenever my professors in my writing program gently insisted that we should write outlines because they do help, I shrank into a dark corner, thinking I was weird. I’m having a hell of a time incorporating what I learned there into my writing life. Yes, I’ve been out of my program for four months, and I’m STILL trying to sort my brain out when it comes to the process! I came out of the program with so many new, inventive ways to burn the toast that every writer before me has perfected in their own way that it’s these small reassurances that tell me I’m on the right path.

My win for this week is submitting “Planned Obsolescence” to a writing contest. I really love that story and want to share it with the world. It was borne out of a very real place. I’ve submitted it a few times to other places but it’s been rejected. I’m sure it’s because it’s because of my cinematic absurdism. The world isn’t ready for it. I’ll find the right outlet for it someday. Maybe it’ll be this one?

Studio audience: do you have any joys to share with the rest of the class? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!


  1. I have been trying and failing at writing recently… yes procrastination did make things difficult… i would love to feel that flow of words on seeing a blank page.. that must be an awesome liberating feeling…

    • Pratikshya, it’s absolutely liberating! I think I depend too much on procrastination as an excuse though. It does work against me. One more load of laundry and I’ll get started on that story that’s been sitting in my notes for a few months… But sometimes the story will burn in my brain so brightly that I can’t type or write fast enough for it to come out. Some of my favorite pieces have started that way. I wish I could write like that all the time!