Tips from a Writing Pro

Should you plan your book and use an outline?

Jonathan Baldie

Jonathan Baldie

Jan 25, 2020 — 3 mins read
Photo by <a href="" target="_blank">Alvaro Reyes</a> on <a href="" target="_blank">Unsplash</a>

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

A common debating point in the writing community is whether to plan your writing, or to deliberately not plan your writing. Both approaches appear to have worked for different authors, and so the debate is never likely to end soon.

But in this post, I'll argue that planning your writing has many great effects, all of which will make your job as a writer easier in the long run, producing work that is more sensible, resonant, and enjoyable for the reader - all priceless benefits.

That's obviously not to say that good writing hasn't been produced by "Pantsing". Stephen King famously does this. I just think that most new writers would benefit by defaulting to a plan-based approach with deadlines, for their sanity at least.

What do I mean by that? I mean that most new authors, if they have not been given any good advice, will just start writing without a plan, get lost in a dilemma or false thread, making themselves liable to give up on the project entirely.

On the other hand, when a new writer is advised to plan their writing properly, they will spend weeks forming an outline, and then confidently embarking on a project that is much more likely to get finished and published - that's the goal.

Regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction, taking time to think deeply about your book idea gives you the energy and material to produce something truly meaningful and coherent. That, to me, seems like plain common sense.

If you charge into a half-baked story idea without a plan, then I think it's more likely that you'll quickly grow tired of it, losing the excitement and tension you had at the start of the project. You'll face writer's block and creative resistance.

If you plan, on the other hand, and hold yourself back from writing as long as possible, you can force yourself to make an outline document, adding to it over several weeks. Then you'll have a better idea of whether it's worth pursuing.

In addition, you'll have built up a huge amount of tension and excitement in this time, so that when you begin drafting, you're much likely to carry the project through to the end. Think of this like an elastic band stretched taut.

Sun-Tzu called this potential energy Shih, a kind of hidden force that builds up as we prepare and build up a strong idea in our outlines, and in our heads. When the time is right, and we're at peak preparedness, we burst out with amazing force.

Before writing my second book Social Intelligence, I spent months doing research, reading over 100 books in a year and finding appropriate historical examples. When I finally started drafting I wrote 8,000 words in a weekend, and loved it.

Having thought about your project in outline form for so long, you'll also have gained much more clarity about the book's subject matter (or the story, if it's a novel). You'll be in a much better place to attack any roadblocks or plot holes.

To me, the arguments for planning and outlining a book are obvious. Even if you are a diehard Pantser, I challenge you to not find even a small benefit from doing some planning work before your next project. Give it a try, and let me know.

So the answer in nearly all cases is yes, you need to plan and outline your books. For more on this, I recommend the brilliant book Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, and my own book on writing strategies, The 24 Laws of Storytelling.

outlining drafting writing planning

Please check out The 24 Laws of Storytelling, my book that explores the principles that make some books and movies great and explains why others fail. By reading my book, you’ll gain the same strategies used by master storytellers such as Stephen King, Christopher Nolan, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many more. Pick up your copy today.

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