You Should Outline At Some Point! Why and How to Outline Effectively

Many of the manuscripts I see as an editor need a lot of tidying up—and no, I’m not talking about misplaced commas. While there are certainly plenty of those as well, today I want to focus on macro-level messiness: pieces that don’t fit together and loops that remain unclosed. When I talk to those writers, most of them share the common trait of hating to outline.

There’s a lot of talk online about plotting versus pantsing, and I want to be clear that both are entirely valid options for a first draft. You know best how to get those initial words on the page. (And if you don’t, experiment with different methods to see how to make the words flow faster.) But I do believe that at some point, it’s helpful to create an outline of what you’ve written to give you a different perspective on your work and allow you to see things you might miss when you’re immersed in it line-by-line.

 To further illustrate, here are a few things outlining can help you discover:

1. Dangling Plot Threads

Writers generally see the primary plot all the way through, but often subplots get left behind. Readers can easily become invested in minor characters, and you don’t what to undercut your happy ending by leaving the reader wondering what happened to your main character’s sister after she had that big fight with her husband.

 2. Character-Driven Narrative Arcs

Successful stories are more than just a succession of events; they’re comprised of events that build in intensity to a climax, and these events are driven by your main character’s actions. (For more on active characters, check out this previous post.) When you list the main action in your book, it’s easier to see how each incident is leading to the next.

3. Disconnected Subplots

Even if you’ve tied together all the threads of your subplots, those plots may not be well connected enough to your main plot. If you’re trying to outline and can’t figure out how the subplot fits in, that’s a sign that it’s too tangential.

4. Timing Issues

Timing is tricky for so many writers. You’re already juggling all these characters and plot threads, and now you have to worry about a calendar? But nailing the timing—both providing logic for the internal story events and marking external events like holidays or school breaks—can really help with your book’s pacing.


So how do you outline to avoid these problems? If you’ve only ever outlined for an academic paper, you may be imagining a sheet of paper with roman numeral headings—you’ll probably be pleased to know that’s not really the most effective method for novels. Here are a few ways to outline, before or after you’ve written your first draft.

1. Diagram

 If you read my previous post on plot, you know I’m a fan of the good old-fashioned plot pyramid. To take that a step further, I really love this resource on the three-act structure. Put that diagram on a page and then place the events of your novel along it. If you prefer to come at your novel from the character angle instead of plot, the same principles apply; it’s just a slight shift in your mindset to think in terms of how your character changes. You might also write the events on notecards or post-its if you sense some things need to be shifted around.

2. Beat Sheets

Another way to break down the three-act structure is to create a spreadsheet of the events in your novel, called a beat sheet. This post is a good overview of what that might look like. I highly recommend Googling more if this seems like a useful tool for you; there are a lot of resources out there. One popular version of this is Save the Cat!, which released a book about their method geared toward novelists.

3. Calendar

If your novel depends heavily on timing, print out a calendar and put the events on it. Mark holidays, your character’s birthday, etc. This is the perfect way to make sure you’re accurately accounting for the passage of time.

4. The Snowflake Method

This method is pretty involved and comes at your work from more of a narrative angle, helping you build from one sentence into a one-page overview into character charts into a massive scene breakdown. It can be a little overwhelming, but several of my clients really love it. You can read more about it here.


I’ll be discussing one final method that I successfully used with a client in my newsletter next week, so be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. And if you have any favorite outlining methods, please share in the comments!

HYPHEN Around the Web

Apologies for a light blogging month! Part of it is due to a busier-than-expected January—New Year's resolutions perhaps? I'm not sure, but I'm currently booking edits for delivery in late March. If you're nearing the end of revisions and would like a quick turnaround, get in touch today to book a spot. (Shorter projects, like query critiques, currently have a two week turnaround.)

But I actually have written two pieces on writing this month for other publications, so I wanted to make sure you saw them. 

On The Debutante Ball, there's "7 Tips for Writing the (Neglected, Dreaded, Necessary) Synopsis." As both an agent and editor, I've seen writers struggle with synopses, and I know they aren't your favorite. But they are necessary if you're querying, so I hope this advice helps you get the job done.

And in the second issue of Backlog magazine, I have "The Four Types of Editing." There are many different tasks under the editing umbrella, and this piece demystifies what those are, when they should happen, and who will perform them. 

I'll have more tips on the blog in February, but in the meantime, I hope you find these guest posts helpful! Both sites have piles of useful articles; check them out if you haven't yet. 

The Four Types of Editing