About the Importance of Planning [a Novel]

Another post on writing, or my opinions thereof. As I get ready for school in a few weeks maybe I’ll write about education week. Let me know if that sounds interesting.

In terms of writing, and I suppose more generally life, there seem to be two schools of thought. One favors spontaneity and diving in head first while the other favors thinking and looking before taking the leap.

I’m talking, of course, about whether or not to outline a story.

Honestly, I’m not sure why there’s even a debate about this. My first attempt at a novel I wrote with unfortunately limited forethought. It was 130,000 words of absolute train wreck. On the upside I still take it out and read bits of it when I’m feeling down to remind myself that I used to be much, much worse. So at least I got something out of the process (aside from the experience).

Part of the reason I think it was so bad (sadly neither the fact that I was in college at the time or that most of it was written at three in the morning count as decent excuses) is that I didn’t take the time to plan it out properly.

Planning a novel, or even a short story, is the only consistent way to end up with a good product. At least in my experience. There are, of course, flukes and exceptions, but then someone has to win the lottery every once in a while. But more to the point, after I took the time to think about it, it’s the only way to write that actually makes sense to me.

Think about it. You don’t take a trip across the world without first booking yourself a place to stay. Painters don’t immediately put their brushes to the canvas but sketch out their vision in pencil. Architects make blueprints and models long before they break ground. That’s because all of these things—trips, paintings, buildings, and even novels—all represent huge investments of time and resources.

There are bound to be flaws in everything we do at first. As Hemmingway once said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He’s right, and not just about writing. When we first conceive of something, it’s riddled with holes and inconsistencies, parts that are hazy and parts that are just bad and we don’t have the perspective yet to notice.

Often, writing a full draft on that first hazy idea is like building a model around a broken skeleton. Don’t be surprised when it can’t stand on its own.

Rather than that doomed draft, write an outline. That way, you’ll be able to see which parts aren’t working without investing the months (or, more realistically for a novel, years) it takes to write something only to find out it’s crap. It’s a sketching and diagnostic process where you enhance the parts that work well and cut out the parts that are dragging you down, just as an artist perfects his vision in malleable pencil before moving to paint and the architect first works with models before building the real thing.

You could argue that writing is far less permanent than a building, or even a painting, and you would be right. We can always go back and fix our mistakes (at least until it gets picked up and published, but that’s a different story), but do we really want to spend that time? Isn’t the whole point of the first draft to just get it on paper, even if it all ends up being unusable gibberish? Well, yeah, but it doesn’t have to be. It seems like a shame to waste that much time, especially important if you have to support yourself with something other than writing. For most of us, time to write can be hard to come by. I personally don’t want to waste it running in circles chasing my tail.

That said, the main argument against planning and outlining is that such forethought becomes constraining, inhibiting the naturally creative process of writing. If you ever find this to be true, then you’re not using your outline properly.

An outline should never constrict you. You’re the boss, you make the decisions. If you come up with a better idea while writing, then by all means go for it. It’s a guide, not a cast-iron contract. You’re always allowed to branch off, the outline is just there to keep you focused and heading in the right direction. You should never let any part of your writing control you, and that includes your outline.

Outlining novels has worked well for me since I started doing it, cutting down the number and severity of re-writes I’ve had to do and making the writing itself go quicker. I’d definitely recommend everyone at least try it. If it’s not for you then that’s fine. But I’ve found the process has helped me in more than just my writing—I plan weekly lessons and monthly units for my classes the exact same way I plot a novel. And now, I can’t really imagine doing it any other way.


A little planning could keep this from happening to you.

What do you think? How do you prepare before you write? What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?

13 comments on “About the Importance of Planning [a Novel]

  1. Good advice. I think having a exploratory, discovery period is ideal, but it would be best to follow it with an outline. What’s the harm, right? You can always change it! Congratulations on your Freshly Pressed.

  2. beckony says:

    I like to have an idea in my head for a very long time before it goes on paper. That way I have almost all of the major points already “written” in my mind. For a novel, the idea has usually been kicking around for a year or more. Occasionally I’ll outline a specific scene or sequence, or just write bits longhand first to work out kinks, but in general I prefer not to put down a paper outline (I think I just have the “if its on paper that’s how it HAS to go” neurosis”).

  3. Rachel says:

    Totally agree. It’s important to know where your characters are going and the steps they’re going to take to get there. Sometimes things change along the way, but I’ve found outlines to be invaluable for keeping myself on track and helping me to work through days when I’m feeling less than inspired.

  4. Rabab Maher (^_^) رباب ماهر says:

    I strongly recommend writers and readers to read the following four books regarding (fiction) writing as they’re truly edifying, laudable with enlightening insights and works of sheer genius – in my humble opinion (*^_^*) – by prolific writers:

    Ayn Rand – ‘The Art of Fiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers’

    George Orwell – ‘Why I Write’

    Milan Kundera – ‘The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts’

    Stephen King – ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’


  5. Mat says:

    I haven’t been writing seriously for long, but honestly I couldn’t imagine writing without an outline. Not because I’m afraid I’m going to go off track, although I do, and the outline helps with that, but for me just starting from the beginning takes to long. I love to be able to quickly jump from the beginning to the middle to the end, and see all the cool places I’m going before I get there. An outline allows me to see the story as a whole, and then get to the down and dirty.

  6. Fu Manchu says:

    a master painter in the oriental tradition
    has learned his craft
    needs no planning or direction when he raises his brush
    Keroac writes on a long roll
    the best saxophonist
    plays jazz
    and does not plan his next step
    but goes with it
    like a surfer
    on an unfolding wave

  7. wordzly says:

    I think at least a basic outline is beneficial. It keeps the writing focused and on track. I also think it makes the writing as a whole more cohesive if you have some idea of the bigger picture. I don’t think it’s constrictive either. Writing is a creative process and however rigid the outline is, you always discover new things while writing you would never have thought of when outlining.

  8. Great post!! I agree with what you say: “the main argument against planning and outlining is that such forethought becomes constraining, inhibiting the naturally creative process of writing…”
    But the fun in the creative process lies in branching away from your plot outlines!!

  9. selfbeside says:

    I’m not a writer but I like to write, and making a blueprint is a really good idea, always work for me

  10. I haven’t written a novel yet. I find it very difficult to keep my style go for longer than a few pages. However I have written hundreds of short stories and I never plan them on paper. I usually get the inspiration; work on the idea in my mind and then let it sit for a while. The story itself evolves and I finally pour everything on my keyboard on less than 1 hour. My philosophy is never retouch, never rewrite but I don’t really write to be published.

  11. fushite says:

    I can’t even write without an outline. It ends up being nonsensical, if I just write here and now. I’ve never felt restricted when using an outline. I’ll break it every now and then, and end up with awesome at-the-moment ideas, but if I just used all at-the-moment ideas, it would end up a mess.

  12. I hate outlines but I agree that some sort of outline is important. Instead of a traditional outline, I make notes and jot ideas down for characters and chapters. As I’m writing, new ideas and characters always show themselves and that’s the exciting part of writing for me 🙂

  13. i always plan before I write, the one time I didn’t was a disaster and I eventually just had to leave it alone to collect dust before I went crazy. I do an outline and do basic character profiles, leave it a few days and go back over it and so on until I’m happy.

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