Outlining: Do I Need To?

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Many authors who are starting out are very curious about the writing process. Of course part of that is (generally) outlining, and many authors have created articles about their outlining methods. In fact, many authors claim that you must outline a story or a novel. For many people does outlining provide structure that allows them to write more easily, but for others outlines can be stifling.

Some writers lose their inspiration if they outline too heavily, feeling like the story is too planned out to be fun to write. Others have a hard time planning that far ahead and can only start figuring things out once they are in the thick of the story. If this sounds like you, then don’t worry, I’m here to tell you that you don’t necessarily need to outline. In fact there are several famous authors who don’t.

George R.R. Martin may be one of the more famous non-outlining authors. He describes authors as generally falling into one of two camps (which Brandon Sanderson does a good job of summarizing in the attached video): architects or gardeners. Architects plan things ahead of time, while gardeners try to cultivate characters and ideas and see where they lead. Martin even says in an interview that he didn’t initially world build Game of Thrones, just wrote the opening scenes that came to him before working out more of the details.

Gardeners are more often called “discovery writers”, for discovering the story as they write, or sometimes “pantsers”, for their approach of writing the story by the seat of their pants. While a first draft for an architect (or outliner) often just involves getting words onto the page, the first draft for a gardener is a pseudo-outline, since they discover what the story’s about as they write it. Order is imposed later on during the revision process. At that point it might make more sense to write an outline, but the material will also already be there ready to be organized.

It should also be noted that, as both Martin and Sanderson state, authors often fall in the middle of the spectrum and aren’t purely an architect or a gardener. So if you’ve been trying to plan out every aspect of your novel and you’re only getting frustrated, try loosening up on certain parts of it. Maybe forgo those detailed character backgrounds and just learn about your characters once you start writing them. Or don’t outline exactly what happens in a scene and just see how it plays out. Having space to be more free form and creative in certain areas of your story might make it more fun to write.

If you find yourself struggling with outlining or feel that it hasn’t helped your work, then maybe discovery writing is right for you. I certainly encourage trying it out if you haven’t already. You may find that this method clicks with your style or mentality.


If you want to check out other instructional videos by Brandon Sanderson, you can view some of his recorded classes at the Write About Dragons YouTube channel.


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