5 Common Mistakes Authors Make When Outlining Novels
I’m sure you’ll enjoy this guest post on outlining from Rose Atkinson-Carter, a writer with Reedsy.
It’s one of the greatest debates in the #amwriting world: should you outline your novel before writing it, or should you pants it?
At the end of the day, the answer is simple: you should do whatever works best for you. That said, if you decide to give outlining a book a shot, stay alert. Outlining isn’t as clear-cut as copyrighting a book — there are many ways to go about it. And while it’s a process that works magic for many authors, there are still a number of pitfalls that you can fall into along the way.
So without further ado, here are the top five common mistakes that you should watch out for while outlining your own book.
1. Sticking too much to the outline
Many authors make the mistake of outlining their story, then thinking to themselves, “Well, now I have to follow this word-for-word for the rest of time.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth! As Captain Barbarossa in Pirates of the Caribbean says, “The outline is more like guidelines than actual rules.”
Which is to say, an outline exists to guide you to the end of your story — not to restrict you as you’re writing it. Things are always going to be different when you start writing. Scenes might be longer than you expect. Characters might be the complete opposite of what you expected. Writing is always an act of discovery, and sticking too much to an outline kills that creative process. Let your story breathe when it needs to.
2. Trying only one kind of outline
Like Jolly Ranchers, there are many flavors of outlines in the world — and any one of them could work for you, depending on what kind of a writing mood you’re in. For instance:
Do you have a jumbled mess of ideas in your head that might just come out to a story? You might want to try to mind map it first to organize all of your thoughts.
Do you already have a vague idea of your plot in mind, but don’t know how to flesh that out further? Then a beat sheet might be best for you.
Do you have a few key scenes in mind already? Then you might want to outline your story’s broad sequences —perhaps mapping it on the Three-Act structure — to get a sense of the overall arc of the story.
Trust me: there’s an outline for each writer out there. Just compare J.K. Rowling’s outlines to Joseph Heller’s! Their respective niches might have something to do with it: Harry Potter was, of course, published by YA publishers, meant to be read by a YA audience. As such, it was quite plot-oriented, which her outline reflects.
On the other hand, Joseph Heller’s outline for his literary fiction novel is much more character-focused. So don’t be afraid to branch out, depending on your genre. The most important thing is to keep experimenting to figure out which type of outline best suits your needs.
3. Neglecting the “big picture”
It’s easy to look at a completed outline and think that you have your entire story figured out. After all, you’ve got all of your scenes down on the page in front of you, haven’t you? Does that not a story make?
An outline might give you the skeleton of your book, easily affording you a bird’s eye view of all of your scenes at once. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve unlocked your themes yet—which is the heart of every story.
Themes and motifs most often emerge while you’re actually writing your book — that’s when you’ll start noticing patterns in the symbolism that you’re using and the messages that you’re conveying. Time and again, an author will only figure out what they’re trying to say only once they’ve finished the first draft. But if you’re outlining, never fear. As long as you keep this “big picture” top of mind while you’re constructing your scenes and sequences, then you’re already off to a running start.
4. Thinking of the outline as an extra step
If you ever find yourself thinking about your outline as a chore to get over with, or start to drag your feet whenever you return to your outline, stop. Drop your pencil. Turn to a blank page in your notebook. And just start writing your book.
You should think of the outline as the first step of your book, but the fun part is that it’s over whenever you want it to be over. You don’t necessarily need to plot out your entire story in order to have “officially” finished outlining. Even a broad sketch of your book’s arc is good enough to be your story’s guideposts in the future! After all, nobody’s grading your outline: it’s just a tool for you, so go along with it only as far as you need to.
So don’t feel compelled to outline every single nitty-gritty detail of your story. When you begin to see the outline as an extra step — not just the first — then that’s probably a sign that you’re ready to move on and start writing your book.
5. Spending too much time outlining
Last but not least, remember that an outline is not your be-all-end-all goal. It’s not the pot of gold at the rainbow. That should be your book. Not to mention that a first draft will always be subject to some rewriting anyway!
So don’t make the mistake that many authors make: spending so much time obsessing over their outline that they never get around to writing the actual book. There’s a point when outlining actually becomes counterproductive to your purposes because it’s stalling you from plunging ahead with your book.
Some authors find it difficult to move on from outlining because their outline has become too much of a safety net. Stepping out from that comfort zone to actually confront that blank page might be one scary leap, but take that leap with faith. Who knows? At the end of it, you might just emerge with a fully-formed book that’s ready to submit to publishers in the UK and all over the world — made all the better for the effort that you put into outlining it.
About the Author
Rose Atkinson-Carter is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best self-publishing resources and professionals like editors, designers, and ghostwriters. She lives in London.
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