A man is riding a bike on a hill.
Close this search box.
A watercolor illustration of a typewriter with a note on it.

The Truth About Outlining Revealed

by Kellyn Roth |
June 7, 2017

Today we’re going to be talking about outlining. ‘Cause we all know it’s not truly what we think it is. *wiggles eyebrows*

People nowadays pass outlining off as something any author can do in excess without losing their souls. But is it?

This greatly-debated question is the subject of our post today. Though this is a brief little discussion, I hope it will inform you as to the dangers of over-outlining.

Outlining is the formation of novel ideas pre-writing to maximize your chances of success during the first draft. This may come in many forms – the bullet points, the summary, etc.

Outlining can be a very good thing. In fact, I think it’s one of the best things someone can do pre-writing if they want to have a functional first draft. But there is such thing as over-outlining.

What is over-outlining? This is something that happens when an author delays writing too long, obsessed with coming up with the perfect outline, with summarizing every scene.

But the truth is, some scenes need to be written through. Not all scenes can be perfectly summarized pre-writing. Heck, not all plot points can be perfectly summarized pre-writing!

Common symptoms of extreme outlining in authors include, but are not limited to,

  • Extreme organizing. They do this with things not related to writing, too. Essentially, outlining gives them a bad case of OCD.
  • Paper-spreading. Papers begin to spread wherever extreme outliners go. Trust me.
  • Buying binders and/or expensive writing programs. And before you know it, they’re dead broke, poor things!
  • Obsessively repeating a phrase or sentence. Such as, “There’s got to be a way I can save her!” or “PARKER GET YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW!”
  • Chanting “I: a, b, c,” “II: a, b, c,” “III: a, b, c,” and so on. True story.

Some of these symptoms may appear in authors whether or not they are victims of excessive outlining. However, it’s wise to be wary.

What can you do if your friend can’t stop outlining?

  • Just give up. They’re probably gonna die.
  • But if you want to save them, convince them to write.

Writing is the one and only cure for excessive outlining.

So find a pencil. And write.

Remember, in small doses, outlining is healthy and helpful – even extremely helpful. However, in larger doses, and combined with the author’s natural obsession with creating the perfect book, it can be lethal.

Be wise in your dosages.

~Kellyn Roth~


Have you ever been infected with obsessive outlining? How did you escape? Or do you have the opposite problem – pansteritis? This can also be quite dangerous. #balancedisbest

Also, this post was mostly sarcastic. I mean, sure, you can outline too much, and many writers forget that. Though outlining is good, overthinking your book before you write it is bad. However, it’s not lethal, and I have the greatest respect for excessive, obsessive outliners.

What do you think of my thoughts?

40 Responses

  1. I write extremely detailed, scene by scene outlines. However, I would not call myself an obsessive outliner because I need detailed outlines to keep me from getting stuck. I think that, for the most part, obsessive outlining to the point of delaying starting the actual story is something mostly faced by people who haven’t written a lot of first drafts.
    At this point, I’ve written around 4-6 novel length first drafts (Yes, I’ve lost track). I would not call myself an expert by any means, but I’ve written enough that I feel confident that I will finish my first drafts. The more first drafts I’ve written, the more detailed my outlines have grown.
    I would not go around recommending people who have never finished a first draft before write scene-by-scene outlines like I do because, as you say, it would likely be a form of procrastination. I’ve just learned through trial and error that scene-by-scene outlines are what work best for me.
    Anyway, thanks for the thought provoking post!

    1. I write scene by scene outlines, and I am an obsessive outliner. XD I think it has more to do with the fact that once I start writing, then I actually have to write, whereas outlining is just … creating plot and characters. Which is honestly one of my favorite parts! But, for me at least, it’s better than just starting writing, because if I just start writing, the book ends up going nowhere. 😛

      1. I can see how that could be a problem. Oh, my early works without outlines went somewhere, but there were a whole lot of scenes that wonder and don’t build onto the whole.
        I think what keeps me from being an obsessive outliner is that I don’t outline much after I start writing. At least, not until I’ve gotten through the whole of part 1. After that I usually have to revise the outline.

        1. My books were practically all over the place before I started outlining … you must be specially talented. 🙂 But really, they were quite crazy … I threw in random plotlines willy nilly!
          I don’t usually outline after I start writing, either. Especially if I get into the writing zone … then nothing’s going to stop me! 😉

          1. Thanks, but I don’t know if I’d go that far. conflict hasn’t been something my stories often lack, but there are other weaknesses. My early works were quite bad, just in other ways.
            Yes, the feeling of continuously writing once I’ve caught the flow of things is great!

  2. “Just give up. They’re probably gonna die.” Oh, goodness! xD
    I tend to be somewhere in the middle. I’ll outline some, and write down a page or two of dates and research stuff, just so I know what days things can happen on. (So that Rafe doesn’t go inland *before* the battle of Midway. ;P)
    But for character growth, I tend to just have a goal in mind, and then write toward that goal. Because if I planned all that out, I’m afraid my poor characters wouldn’t like it. And they’d come off something like “Elsie Dinsmore” characters. xP
    I think it’s definitely something that can depend on the writer. I have friends who hardly do any outlining, and some who have a whole binder filled with notes and sketches. *shrugs*
    So many decisions to make when you’re a writer!

    1. Yes, I can be the same way about character growth! I’m like, “How can I outline a person’s life …?” 😛
      For me, loooots of outlining works, but there are definitely a lot of people out there who can’t make it work for them. I am prone to extreme outlining, though … XD

  3. Darn it Kellyn I was hoping for something HELPFUL about outlining since I’m starting it next month. JUST KIDDDDDDDING. I really like how your post led to one thing: Don’t overthink it. Just write. Because it’s true! Sometimes we writers worry so much about all that we’ve planned and prepared, and we procrastinate what writing actually is: WRITING.

    1. Yes, definitely! I think that was the main reason behind this post …? *shrugs* *has no clue about anything*
      YES SCRIVENER! I want it sooo bad. *sobs*

  4. My outlining/plotting notebook is insane. 😛 And not entirely neat. But who cares, I get it. 😉 But seriously: outlining changes for everyone, but MOST IMPORTANTLY YOU GOTTA WRITE!!!! WRITE.

    1. Mine, too! I don’t think anyone can read my handwriting, either … I can barely decipher it.
      YES!!! THOU MUST WRITE!!! It’s basically a commandment, only it’s not. At all. Because if I said it was, it would be a little to irreverent, even for me. 😉

  5. Ummmm I have never outlined in my life??? I really like being spontaneous and usually I just sit down and knock out chapters instinctively. That being said I’m going to try to write an outline soon and I’ll keep these things in mind 😉

    1. I’ve noticed most people don’t outline … well, at least half of them anyway. *shrugs* Outlines just happen to work for me, but I’ve noticed they don’t work for most people.

  6. I love your posts like this… the sarcastic but almost truthful ones as well… 😀
    I definitely have pansteritis. Although not as much as I used to, I think. But I still always end up with a sagging middle in my books because I’m not really sure I know how to outline. I like to organize…creatively. 😛 Since I’m starting a new (kind of new, I guess) novel, I have to figure stuff out, and…it’s not working. It’s mainly world building. But hey, I’m just a girl! You expect me to just…to just make up an entire world at the snap (or type) of my fingers?
    …yup. So how is your writing going?

    1. I’m glad you liked it! I think I was mostly just fooling around, but yeah, it did take a more serious turn …
      I honestly wish I could be a punster. It seems so simple and beautiful … but I don’t know. Maybe that’s just ’cause the grass is greener on the other side of the … author … writing … thing. XD
      *snaps fingers* *creates a world* *nods knowingly* Lol, yeah, I’d have to do crazy worldbuilding and stuff if I even wanted to write in a different world than our own …
      It’s going good! I mean, I’m not writing at the moment … well, I’ve been writing random snippets of various books that I’m not supposed to be working on, but yeah, other than that I’ve mostly been editing IvIn and stuff. And procrastinating. And ignoring my responsibilities. And wasting time. And not getting anything done … Quite honestly, I’m a liiitttllleee stressed – and it doesn’t help that we’re going on vacation for like half a week this Saturday ………. do you want to trade lives? 😉
      How’s your writing going?

        Alright, I’m sorry, but the typo “punster” is actually awesome! It’s like being a pun master, while kind of being a punk… *nods dramatically*
        Haha, I don’t know if pantsing is beautiful…but I’m pretty sure it’s only simple for the first draft. Then you have to figure out how to make it actually make sense. So you basically have to outline, you just have source material to do it with, I guess?
        Heh, I probably skim over worldbuilding way too much, but it’s fun to try to figure it out. 🙂
        Hmm, I’d consider it, but we’re going on vacation on Monday, so I don’t think that would help you much… Oh, I was going to ask you, do you still want me to do stuff on IvIn? I mean, it’s past May, but I’m a horrible procrastinator…I’m sorry.
        It’s coming along fairly well! I’m working on getting Battle Song ready to restart…I think I’ve figured out most of the problems I had originally, but I need to do a basic outline thing and then actually start. And I think I’m actually going to start at the end rather than the beginning and write the last 10k or so, since I think having an end in mind will help me to direct my writing toward that. We’ll see if it works!

          Punster may be my raw genius leaving the head without me knowing it … XD But yes. Pantser. Pantser. Pantser.
          Maybe you could outline after the first draft. That might be cool …
          Nah, you don’t have to. And it’s really no problem … I got NOWHERE with Enhanced. I am so awful … XD
          Ooh, sounds hard! I hope it works out. I had rewriting, but then, it’s also kind of, you know … important. XD I need to start writing AFOP (At Her Fingertips) soon … so yep.

          1. *screams and runs away in terror*
            Definitely raw genius. *will call you the Punster from now on*
            Yep…that’s what I tried to do with Enhanced. And then I was like, “Never mind, I’ll just change everything and basically write another first draft, and THEN we can try to outline!” See how great I am at procrastinating? 😛 (Okay, I shouldn’t be proud of that…)
            Thanks! (Though to be honest, I can’t remember what we were talking about…oops.) YAS AFOP. YOU MUST USE IT FOREVER. What are you planning on doing first with it?

            1. Kell the Punster. It’s sort of like May the Mango Queen. Now you need one … 😉 But I think they have to show up randomly …
              Yes, we are all quite amazing at procrastination, and you definitely steal the prize. 😉 Just kidding, I don’t think you procrastinate at everything … and I definitely procrastinate whenever I’m able to … So YAY FOR PROCRASTINATION!
              Ooh, now I want to write a satirical blog post about procrastination … XD (Yes, this is usually how I come up with ideas for blog posts …)
              (I can’t remember either, so … yay for not remembering, I guess?) AFOP rocks. It’s got to be the most genius acronym ever … XD

  7. Finding the middle ground between over-outlining and under-outlining can be sooo hard. ‘Cause I’ve found that if there’s /no/ outline/story direction at all, then the story has no clear end point and you end up with this massive rewrite (totally not speaking from experience :P), but then there’s all the problems that come with excessive outlining and yeah.

What do you think of my thoughts?

Follow my blog

Want to receive notifications of new posts? Let\'s make this happen!

Join 1,619 other subscribers