They say the best way to get from where you are to where you want to go is to map it out. For authors, this means outlining a book before you start writing it. But what happens when you do start writing and realize you’re not following the outline? Or that you are, but the content isn’t coming together the way you thought it would?
Outlines are funny things. On the one hand, it’s important to think through your ideas and how to best structure that conversation before you start writing. On the other hand, once you get into the writing process, you’ll find new ideas popping up, new connections arising that you hadn’t previously considered, and other changes happening organically. When this happens, you might feel like your outline is broken. But that isn’t necessarily so—so how can you tell when to make yourself stick to the plan and when to adjust the plan itself?
First Identify the Real Problem
Outlining a book is a skill that becomes easier and more efficient as you practice it. But in general, the best place to be in is where the main thrust of each chapter remains the same as you outlined, and the majority of your key points/subsections remain but are flexible in terms of the order. If you find that you’re basically rewriting the outline for each chapter with totally new subsections or ideas, that can indicate a deeper problem.
Now, it may simply be that you didn’t take enough time to think through things at the outset. Or it may be that your ideas were not yet fully developed—sometimes it’s the writing itself that becomes a process of solidifying your ideas, arguments, or storylines. The latter is a particularly common problem among nonfiction authors who start writing a book too soon, when they haven’t yet done enough testing of their systems or programs in the field with real clients and customers. But both abovementioned issues can be mitigated by outlining a book after the draft is written. When you create a map of what you’ve written, you can better spot the problem areas—topics that aren’t connected closely enough to your main subject, for example, or failures to place instruction and information in a logical order—and then re-plot your map before diving into revisions.
But constant departures from your outline may also mean that you’re letting things get away from you. That can lead to a disorderly draft. And this will, in turn, lead to a lot more headaches in the revision period, because you’ll have to play archaeologist to uncover the logical flow that you originally set out to establish.
When Your Outline Fails You, Do This
When you find yourself throwing your outline out the window, don’t just give it up as a failed exercise. Instead, try this:
- Take a solid writing day to just work with your outline again.
- Use post-its or index cards to capture key points or stories. One idea/point per card.
- Arrange them according to your outline.
- Imagine explaining your concept from start to finish to your ideal client or student. You could even talk out loud as if you were having a conversation or teaching a class. When you hit road bumps, when you realize things need to shift, move those cards around.
- When your new structure feels solid and the flow tightly directed to support your reader’s journey, get back to writing.
I really love Scrivener for this kind of work, but there are also other tools that’ll help you organize your ideas just fine, including a big blank wall. The key is to be able to look at the “big picture.” You want to see how all your various pieces are working together.
Outlining a Book Isn’t Necessarily Ironclad
Many proud “pantsers” eschew outlines, usually because they prefer a more spontaneous creative process. This approach is most common, and IMNSHO works best, for novelists. “Planners,” on the other hand, prefer outlining a book because doing so facilitates the process of thinking through one’s ideas. A good outline will also help keep your writing on track. So which is better?
Though I firmly believe all authors (especially for your first few books when you’re still learning) benefit immensely from the process of outlining a book, it’s really a toss-up. You either put more time into outlining a book and thus begin with a more advanced draft, or you dive right in and invest more time in shaping the raw material later. Ultimately, it comes down to what works best for you.
But I do want to correct one misconception: The purpose of outlining a book isn’t necessarily to produce an ironclad roadmap. The thing is, no matter how much time you spend thinking through your outline, you’ll probably still depart from it as you write. You’ll notice places where things may need to shift for better impact or to make the progression of ideas clearer. You may decide to give an idea its own section where it didn’t have one before. That’s okay. An outline isn’t meant to be so rigid. But the exercise of writing one, and trying to stick to it, will still make your life easier and your initial drafts stronger. Especially when writing a nonfiction book.
What outlining tips and tricks are your favorites? Let us know in the Comments below!
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.