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Outlining your novel: Boon or Bane?

Outlining your novel: Boon or Bane?

The answer to the question posed in the title is a qualified “Yes”.  There is no universally applicable answer to that question.  It can be either, neither, or both.

Strict Explicit Style

Some authors are very assiduous with their outlining; detailing the characteristics of every actor—following every thread of the plot to its logical conclusion—tracking plot-thread collisions so intensively that, by the time they’ve finished, the outline is the complete novel.

Relaxed Developmental Style

Others prefer to have a “Beginning, Middle, and End” in mind, and perhaps some notions about how events are connected.  This primitive model gives them a lot of latitude to explore ideas, but little in the way of milestones and a timetable.

You might think that those two scenarios represent opposite ends of the spectrum…but you would be wrong.  The relaxed scenario is actually closer to the average technique.

Diametrically Opposed

When discussing science fiction it’s wise to refer to the genre’s greats when looking for wisdom on the subject.  Many of the best science fiction authors are/were real scientists, such as Isaac Asimov, a noteworthy biochemist, who brought real science to science fiction.

Asimov had been making a successful career out of writing SF for several years before he obtained his Ph.D. in biochemistry.  So much so that he was afraid he had lost the ability to write badly enough to create a dissertation and subsequently gain a Ph.D.

He set out to practice by writing a pseudo-dissertation called The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline, which you can enjoy at that link.  It reads just like a genuine Scientific Paper, complete with diagrams and fake references until you realise that everything about it is impossible.  In the ensuing years, people not recognising it as fiction have been plaguing librarians for the references he used in order to learn more.

Do Outlines Organise or Bind?

Apparently he had the required skills because he did indeed obtain his Ph.D. a few months later.  However, he started questioning his writing technique when he learned about outlining.  The last piece of fiction he’d written was 70,000 words long and he had just sat himself down at the typewriter and composed it without any preparation (aside from his extensive reading and prodigious memory).

He decided to try writing an outline for his next work.  He was very disappointed with the results.  He found that the outline forced him to ignore interesting little scientific side trips that occurred to him.

More importantly, his characters wouldn’t obey him!  At every turn they seemed to start off in an unexpected direction and he had to mentally pull them back into the plot (as described in the outline).  At the conclusion of the project he resolved to never use an outline again… and he never did.

The Purpose Of Outlines

  • It may keep you focused;
  • It may speed up the writing process;
  • It can help keep your characters consistent;
  • It ties your ideas together; and
  • It provides the timeline for events to transpire.


For technical writing, particularly in academia, it is pretty well taken for granted that one will use an outline; there are even “required” forms that must be used in some instances.

This style is functional writing designed to convey facts, and there is very little creativity involved (or tolerated).  It is stuffy, turgid, dull, and boring because it has a particular form, conveying information in an orderly fashion, moving logically from point to point.

P. G. Wodehouse, one of the greatest humorists of the 20th century, spent more time on his outlines than he did on the actual book.  No one argues with his success using this method.


Some people use GPS navigation to go and visit a neighbour; others will drive great distances to a friend’s Schloß without once referring to any sort of navigational aid.  In the same way, some writers require a detailed roadmap to move from chapter to chapter, while others have an idea of where they’re headed, but are not particular about the route they take to get there.  If you find yourself going too far afield, try an outline—it might help you stay on track.

Not Required or Desired

Gestalt or Synergism-based writing, on the other hand, will struggle in the chains of an outline.  Even though he forswore outlines, Asimov has this advice to offer:

If you are a structured and rigid person who likes everything under control, you will be uneasy without an outline.  On the other hand, if you are an undisciplined person with a tendency to wander all over the landscape, you will be better off with an outline, even if you feel you wouldn’t like one.

On the third hand, if you are quick-thinking and ingenious, but with a strong sense of the whole, you will be better off without an outline.

How do you decide which you are?  Well, try an outline, or try writing without one, and find out for yourself—Isaac Asimov—Revisions

The Takeaway

The best advice for writing Science Fiction is to stop looking for rules to follow.  Anyone that provides hard-and-fast rules is not working in your best interest.

Instead, seek out guidelines and “alternate theories” that you can test.  See if they work in your situation, and if they don’t, feel free to toss them aside and try something else.

We’re all individuals and what works for me might not work for you, or for anyone else.  Share your strategies, and try out something new, even if it feels a bit weird.  Eventually you will find something that works for you.

Remember: The Meek shall inherit the Earth.  The Rest of us are going to the Stars