Writers are generally divided into two categories: those who outline and those who do not. I fondly call non-outliners "SOP" writers: we write from the seat of our pants. We usually have no plan, unless it's in our head. There are also outliners, however: those who use outlines to structure their stories.
Each type of writer often looks upon the other with suspicion. Old and grizzled outlining veterans sometimes claim that outlining is the better way. Equally grizzled SOP writers claim the opposite. Truth is, they're both a valid way of writing a novel. Different people prefer different things.
This post is something of an analysis of both, with my own opinions shamelessly inserted.
First off, outlining.
What makes it preferable to non-outlining?
First, it gives you a direction. Many SOP writers (myself included) can write themselves into a corner and have no idea where to go next. Outlining makes it so that you always know where you're going. This doesn't make you immune to the common writer's vices, such as procrastination and "writer's block", but it helps.
Outlining also gives you clarity. It's easier to make it clear to the reader where the story is going if you actually know where it's going.
It's also a huge help with foreshadowing. This is probably the greatest use of outlining for me. With outlining, you can foreshadow things that are going to happen later in the book because you actually know what's going to happen. SOP writers like me (that plan vaguely in their heads) can do this to a lesser extent, but for intricate detail work and shocking twists, outlining has no equal.
Outlining can help you with your speed. If you know where the story is going, it's possible to write faster. There are exceptions to this, of course. I did NaNoWriMo 2011 with no outline at all, and wrote over 45,000 words in nineteen days. (Needless to say, I think I burned myself out...) However, when writing by the seat of your pants, speed can sacrifice quality. There's quite a bit of plot revision I need to do on The Prophecy of Einarr, for instance.
This method also eliminates excess prose. Outlining often helps your story to get where it's supposed to go without wandering around too much. Some SOP writers struggle with thousands of words that don't need to be there. An example of this would be Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle. As much as some people love his books, the plot is almost nonexistent in some places.
All right, so those are the perks of outlining. How does SOP writing compare?
First, SOP writing provides a certain amount of freedom. SOP writers who try outlines often complain about how it "restricts" their writing. Restriction isn't bad, but many writers prefer freer prose. Anything can happen. Tolkien famously wrote, for instance, that he was as surprised as Frodo when Gandalf didn't return to the Shire.
SOP writing also can have unpredictable plot. Christopher Hopper, author of the White Lion Chronicles, writes that "if I don't know where things are heading, I'm confident that my readers won't either." This lends a certain amount of superiority over outlining, since it's easy to make an outlined novel predictable. You have to go back and foreshadow the plot twists, of course, but it is nonetheless a good way to keep things unpredictable.
In some ways, this kind of writing can also help keep things realistic. The plot of a novel is one big chain reaction. Everything happens because of something else that happened. Sticking to an outline can sometimes cause plot problems when the outline backfires. Something may happen in the outline that should cause something else, but doesn't.
At first glance, it looks as if outlining is far superior to SOP writing. After all, outlining gives you direction, clarity, speed, good foreshadowing, and keeps you from writing useless prose, while SOP writing keeps things unpredictable and is rather fun to write. The pros of outlining outnumber the pros of non-outlining.
However, here is where my analysis stops and my own opinion begins. Here's why I am a SOP writer:
I usually don't have to worry about clarity. I know where I'm going in my plot. I don't know it as good as an outliner, of course, but I know it well enough to write it. I also don't have to worry about excess prose. I naturally write straight-and-to-the-point prose that doesn't wander around...too much. I've already proven that even SOP writers can write with speed just as well as outliners.
That strikes out three of the pros of outlining. Now SOP writing and outlining are evenly matched: SOP writing provides unpredictability and freedom, while outlining provides direction and a chance to foreshadow things before you write them.
Here's what makes me a SOP writer, though. When I write outlines, I generally have to work very hard on them in order to make it so that it's not boring.
Those who read The War Horn may say otherwise, but The War Horn took an enormous amount of work to make it as good as it is today. (The War Horn is my only novel so far that was fully outlined.) By far, it was the hardest novel I had ever written, partially since it was a historical fiction story. With outlines, then, I lose unpredictability and I have to work harder. (Hard work isn't a bad thing, though. The War Horn did turn out pretty good!)
That makes SOP writing verrrrrry tempting. Not only is it easier (and rather fun for a character such as me), it provides a balance to my tendency to creating boring plot. That makes SOP writing a better option for me, as a writer. I can write more and write better if I write with no plan.
So that's why I'm a SOP writer.
And as a side note, there's a weird hybrid method that I used on The Book of Shaldu, which I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2010. I wrote the outline of the next chapter or two, and then wrote those chapters. It was like shining a flashlight down a twisting tunnel: I couldn't see the end, but I could see my next few steps. I never fully outlined to the end, actually. Most of the way through, I tossed out the outline and just wrote from the seat of my pants again.
That method allowed me to do NaNo at a speed that I can't achieve now: over 2,000 words an hour. I got the benefits of outlining—direction and speed—with the benefits of SOP writing: unpredictability and balance. You might try it sometime. I prefer the pure method of non-outlining now, but it might work for you!
In summary, outlining offers guidance, foreshadowing, and direction. If you can write up a good plot but you have a tendency to go on rabbit trails, outlining is the thing for you. On the other hand, you have fingers. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) On the other hand, seat of the pants writing offers unpredictability and balance to the novelist who has trouble coming up with great plots.
Of course, there are other reasons you might choose one or the other. Can you think of any?
So what about you all? What do you think? To outline, or not to outline, and why?
Join the discussion!