Throwback Thursday: Should You Write a Fancy Outline for Your Novel?


Throwback Thursday is a series where we take a look back at some of AWP’s most popular posts. Enjoy!

by Jean M. Cogdell


Maybe- Maybe not.

It’s your book, you make the rules.

Different strokes for different folks. Me, I’m trying to be more organized in my writing this year. Only time will tell if I’m successful. LOL

However, I find outlining is a bit of a mystery.

Outlining an unwritten book is weird because you don’t know what will happen. It’s not the same as outlining a book read for a class assignment. No the formal process of outlining a book idea is as foreign to me as Spanish or French. I know just enough to embarrass myself.

Last week I announced to my friend, with much excitement,  I’d finished outlining my first novel. I was stumped for a second when she asked me how many levels I used. Huh? Levels? Like in… I, A, 1, a, ii….

None. Nada, zip. I didn’t use any. Instead, I let the story unfold in my head and then put it to paper one scene at a time. 1-30.

Late at night, I lay in bed and the characters drove me nuts until I added another scene to the list. That’s how I outlined. Nothing fancy. Just one paragraph at a time. Also known as the headlight method.

Today, outlines are much more fluid than the rigid things we studied  in school many moons ago. In fact, if you Google how to outline a novel you’ll find just about as many ideas on outlines as stories on the latest TV personality.

“Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way. “

E.L. Doctrow

Take your pick. Old school (traditional), Synopsis, Scrivener, Snowflake, Headlight method (yeah some weird names), Mind mapping, Sticky notes, Scratch pads, 3 acts, and the list goes on. Don’t let the idea of making an outline intimidate you. If you want to try just pick what works for you and run with it.

However if you just want a guideline to keep you from driving off in a ditch you might try my idea.

  • First: Open up your program, whichever you choose to use. Scrivener or Word, list your chapters, and then let the story begin to play in your head.
  • Next: Begin to write brief notes about what will happen.
  • Then: Step through each numbered chapter until you reach the end.
  • Now you’re ready to let your freak fly!
  • Go to the beginning and start writing. Use the numbered paragraphs as a map for when you get lost or veer too far off the path.




Original article here.

Guest post contributed by Jean M. Cogdell. Jean grew up in a small SC town, near the Great Smoky Mountains. Her stories and essays are available in Fiction Southeast, Anthology Once Upon A Time, Flash Fiction World II, Scissors & Spackle, Squawk Back, WTD, YAREAH, and Angie’s Diary Online Magazine.


7 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: Should You Write a Fancy Outline for Your Novel?”

  1. I’m not great out outlining… mainly because whenever I start to right it out I don’t end up following it at all. For NaNo what I’m doing is writing for the day and deciding on a basic outline after I’m done for the next day so I can look at it and know kind of where to start up again without having to re-read anything.


  2. I’m so confused when it comes to outlining. I’m so out of practice with the traditional format, and I have no idea about how to outline using those other methods like the snowflake. I just write out key points in scenes throughout the story. That’s the process that works best, especially when I write short stories. I try to leave some room in the event my story goes on a tangent I didn’t anticipate. As such, I’ll revise the outline accordingly.


  3. I’m not even going to pretend I know what’s going on. 😳 But I’m officially terrified. I have a story that requires an appendix and a table of contents, now I have to do what? Yikes! I am the worst synopsis writer ever allowed to live on the planet. I get a rash thinking about it. this post, though. ☺️


  4. Reblogged this on adaratrosclair and commented:
    REBLOGGED! #Throwback Thursday from It’s that time of year again. #NaNoWriMo is here and I have a lot of writing to do, but most likely not enough time to make that and the rest of my life happen. 😦


  5. I personally love outlining! What it really helps me with is that I usually have the whole story (or most of it) kicking around in my head. If I don’t write it down one way or another, the end bits are going to be bugging me while I’m still writing the early bits. By writing everything down as an outline, it’s as if I’m pulling the ideas out of my head and relocating them so I can focus on the matter at hand. Can’t say I’m too familiar with all the fancy names though; mine are pretty traditional


  6. I’ve been more or less a pantser in the past. Like you though, I want to be more organized so I don’t lose my motivation. I’ve tried several outline methods, feeling as if I’m just spinning my wheels in grainy sand. I like this idea of the headlight method. I’m going to try it out.


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