I get it. Since about 6th grade, people have been telling you to write down your ideas, in order, before you actually start writing a draft. This advice applies for any kind of writing: essays, articles, blogs (ahem, perhaps why mine wander a little - busted!), books....you name it, you can (and should) probably outline it.
When I taught middle school, my students would ask me this a lot. "Why does it matter" is a refrain teachers and parents alike are probably intimately familiar with. As adults, we ask the same thing, and often take shortcuts unless we really understand why a certain action or process is important. So I ask you to give me two minutes - suspend your disbelief and bear with me as I try to sell you on outlining.
First, it helps you figure out your idea. How many times have you gotten part of the way through writing something (an email, an essay, an entire book), and realized that what you originally thought was the point is not actually the point anymore? This happens to me on basically a daily basis, and is a huge waste of time. Wouldn't it be nice to know what you want to say before you actually say it?
Second, it makes actually writing a lot easier. Imagine sitting down to write a blog post, a Facebook post, or an Instagram caption and knowing exactly what you were going to say. I personally spend way too much time on these activities - I'll stare at my blog post for 15 minutes trying to figure out the next sentence (that definitely didn't just happen). If you outline, the ideas will flow much more freely.
Third, you'll sound smart. Like, really smart. We've all read something - a book, a play, a newspaper article - where you get part of the way through and are stunned by how clever the author was. Whether it's all the intricate details hidden in the Harry Potter series or a sneaky plot twist that catches you off guard, outlining makes those moments possible. Why? 'Cause you know where you're going, so you can sprinkle breadcrumbs for the attentive audience member.
Sold? I hope so.
Okay, So You're Bothering
Alright, now that you've decided that you want to outline every single thing in your entire life forever in perpetuity, let's get to brass tacks. How do you actually make an outline? What are the important pieces? (Note: I'm kidding about outlining everything. I don't outline everything - this blog post would probably be better if I did. You have a new superpower, use it wisely)
A good outline will have some common basic components which can be applied to pretty much any type of writing. I'm specifically going to talk about how to outline a book or creative work, since that's what my expertise is in. However, you can just as easily apply the same principles to another type of writing.
Common Elements in Outlining
Example: Outlining Summer Twilight
When I sat down to write Summer Twilight (the first time) it was a very different book. Originally, all I knew was the climax of the series, something that we don't even get to in the final copy (it will take us more like 3-4 books). I had two characters with a story to tell.
I tried writing the once scene I had, this climactic moment. It was fun to write, but as I was putting it together I realized just how much information I still needed. I didn't have a good reason yet to care about these characters, or any of the world they lived in.
So I took a break, and spent time worldbuilding. Over the course of about a year and a half, I made maps and wrote out details of organizations in the world (The Blades! The Freelarks! The Imperial Authority!). I figured out who ruled each province, and what the geopolitics of the world was. I spent a lot of time looking at concept art.
When I finished, I had a really cool world....and still no actual book. So I made my first outline. I knew that I wanted my book to have several "mini" climaxes before we got to the big reveal, so I centered my book in "parts", each with their own mini climax, and all building towards the larger plot.
I like using spreadsheets to outline, and my outlines have 9 columns:
Once I'd outlined, I sat down to write. I got about 1/2 way through the original Summer Twilight, and was sitting pretty about 120k words. This is problematic: most books, especially for newer authors, sit between 50k and 100k. It's long enough to tell a story, but short enough that your audience stays engaged.
I did some soul searching, and realized my story was too big to tell in just one book. Luckily, I'd already set myself up for success. Remember how I mentioned "mini" climaxes? There was nothing stopping those moments from being the climax of their own book - I just needed to slow the narrative down.
And so I sat down and rewrote my outline. My book became infinitely better as a result. Let me say it again for the people in the back: Summer Twilight is successful because I outlined. And, because I already had an outline to work with, it was a lot easier to re-write. I literally inserted rows in my spreadsheet, and slowed the story down.
My final manuscript is about 85k words in 34 chapters. In it, you have a chance to get to know each individual character, discover what they want, and explore the world. There's building tension, but also time to breathe and enjoy a complex setting, to laugh and experience magic. It's not a sprint from beginning to end.
When I finished Summer Twilight and submitted my manuscript for final review, what was the next thing I did? I started outlining book 2 that same weekend.
So That's It? What If I Don't Know What to Write?
First of all, valid! Second of all, fear not, for that is a planned topic for a future blog post. I've already got some ideas you can check out here, and there will be more for you soon. Give yourself space to think, talk to a friend, or switch projects. Whenever you're ready, outlining will be waiting.
Bridget is the author of Summer Twilight, available for purchase now!