Six impossible things

Outlines and Revising Them

There are two sorts of outlines that writers do: submission outlines and planning outlines. A submission outline is my term for the one you send to the agent or publisher in hopes of selling the book. A planning outline, on the other hand, is a writing tool. Consequently, it is protean; it changes and morphs and adapts depending on exactly what the writer needs it for and how the particular writer’s brain works. There is no standard format, no universally required content, and no set methodology. And not everyone uses them.

Planning outlines are optional. Also, writers who can only tell a story once should be very cautious about using outlines; I know people who have given themselves really bad cases of writer’s block because writing the outline felt like telling the story, and once they’d done it, they were done.

Outlines, like stories, are subject to revision. Outlines tend to get revised at three points in the writing process:  1) Before the first draft of the story is begun; 2) During the process of writing the first draft; 3) After the final draft is done.

Yes, that sounds terribly obvious. Looking more closely:

1) Revising the outline before the writer starts writing the story.

Not all writers use outlines. If you don’t write an outline before you start writing the story, you obviously won’t be revising it. (See “no set methodology” and “optional”, above.) If your writing process does involve writing an outline, it’s very likely to change a lot, multiple times, before it’s in suitable shape to start writing the story.

One common method of producing an outline is to begin with a short-short synopsis, maybe a sentence or a paragraph, and then expand it by filling in details and elaborating events. “A tornado picks up Dorothy’s house and drops it in Oz” becomes “Dorothy lives in Kansas with her aunt and uncle. During a storm, she fails to reach the storm cellar in time and a tornado picks up the house with her and her dog, Toto. Hours later, the house lands in Oz, killing the Wicked Witch of the West.” Then that gets revised and expanded to a full page by adding description, some backstory about Dorothy’s relationship with her aunt and uncle, some key details about Munchkinland and Oz, and the immediate fallout from killing the witch, however accidentally.

This process can be repeated as long as the writer finds it useful; some, in fact, keep expanding until the outline becomes the first draft.

2) Revising the outline during the process of writing the first draft.

Some writers don’t do a preliminary outline; they do a progressive one as they work, summarizing what actually happened in the chapter they’ve just written and maybe planning a chapter or two ahead. This helps keep the story consistent, and it also produces something that can be edited down into a submission outline when the book is finished.

Others of us frequently find that as we write, unexpected events crop up. The bartender who was supposed to be a walk-on character turns out to be a retired sorcerer who has key information that lets the characters skip over the next two paragraphs of the existing outline, for instance. Or a key character suddenly sacrifices her life unexpectedly.

When something like this happens, the writer can do one of two things: pitch the existing outline and write by the seat of their pants for the rest of the story, adapting events to the change as they go, or pause and rewrite the outline, replanning the events that will be affected by the bartender’s involvement or the death of the character. (OK, technically, the writer could do three things: pants the rest of the story, rewrite the outline, or pitch the scene and force it to go the way the original outline said it should…but I don’t know anybody who does that last one, because when somebody dies or shows up like that, it’s usually because the story needs it.)

Sometimes, looking at the existing outline reveals that the changes that roll forward won’t affect the story’s direction much – the group will get to the same place through a slightly different set of events, but that’s all. Other times, the only thing that can be done is to scrap the outline from this point forward and completely rewrite the upcoming part, the same way you would have if you’d thought of this when you were first writing the outline, back before you started on the draft.

How much outline revising is actually necessary during the process of writing a first draft depends on why the writer needs/wants to have an outline, how the writer uses it, and where in the draft the writer is. If there are only two chapters left in the story, there’s probably no reason to revise the outline even if half the characters have unexpectedly died; on the other hand, if the writer was only halfway through Chapter Two, and is terrified of pantsing for the next 80,000 words, revising the outline is definitely indicated.

Unless you’re obsessive about having a perfectly correct outline at all times, there’s really not much point in revising the parts of a planning outline that have already been turned into a draft, at least until the whole draft is finished (see below).

3) Revise the outline after the draft is finished.

The only reason to do this is if you need a submission outline and the planning one isn’t suitable. Once the first draft is done, you aren’t planning from an outline any more; if major changes need to be made to the first draft, you might as well treat the first draft as a planning document and make notes in it about what needs to be revised.

7 Comments
  1. Thank you.

    I’m trying to determine what amount of before-the-first-draft outlining is best for me. I know that I need at least a minimal outline before I start, and also that I usually do a whole lot of outlining in the middle. I’m hoping to speed up my overall process (which is very slow) by doing more of the outlining up front.

  2. It was the Witch of the East got squashed, not West. And while I’m being picky, “methodology” is not a fancy substitute for “method”; the former is the theoretical analysis of the latter.

    • Obviously a switch in which witch got squashed happened as the outline was revised. Obviously. :o)

      • LOL Deep. Love it.

      • OK, I’d been meaning to come back and edit the post to fix that (I should know better than to write blog posts after midnight), but that is such a perfect response that I think I will just leave it as-is.

  3. I’m just going to copy this in from Merriam-Webster. Because as someone who researches and writes briefs for government all day, I have to be accurate! 🙂

    Definition of methodology (plural ‘methodologies’)
    1 :a body of methods, rules, and postulates employed by a discipline :a particular procedure or set of procedures

    2 :the analysis of the principles or procedures of inquiry in a particular field

    • Oh, and Pat, thank you. I’ve struggled with the outline-prior-to-starting thing for some time, mainly because everyone I knew was an outliner (usually with index cards, or in more recent times, Scrivener). I write better in small chunks, with no outline and subconscious processing breaks in between.I really like the progressive outline idea, which will work well with that. Tip of the hat to you, ma’am.

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