For some writers, the word “outline” is akin to a four-letter word. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Yes, there are successful authors—and I do mean best-selling authors—whose practice is to let their fingers fly and write by the seat of their pants (known as pantsers), but they are few in number.

These authors may seem like they’re winging it. They aren’t. They have years (or decades) of practice built upon a foundation of knowledge about technical and creative principles of the writing craft. The majority of best-selling authors spend time on their outlines, even a few months, including doing needed research, which is at times extensive, before the first word of the initial draft is written.

This preparation process includes sometimes significantly changing or tossing the outline and starting over. Albert Zuckerman demonstrates this brilliantly in his book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by showing you iterations of best-selling novelist Ken Follett’s outline for his novel, The Man from St. Petersburg. It’s a terrific opportunity to see how a successful author (Follett) works his craft and crafts his work. Additionally, K. M. Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel, provides guidance so you don’t feel like you’re back in high school doing a dreaded outline, as does best-selling author of the Lynley novels, Elizabeth George, in her book, Write Away.

One of my clients wrote her memoir without creating an outline first. The result was the timeline was all over the place. Among my editing notes was the recommendation that she restructure the entire manuscript. It took time but she did it, and her story became fluid and logical for readers.

Another client wrote his debut novel without an official outline, but he had an organized mental outline going on, even though he didn’t realize it (it happens, just not as often as we might like). However, during our time working together, he did James Patterson’s online writing course, and saw first-hand how creating an outline would save time during the draft-writing stage, which he did for his sequel.

Anyone who uses outlines will tell you that just because you wrote the outline down, this doesn’t mean it’s etched in stone. For example, the client asked me to review his outline before he started the draft. Several ideas came forward for both of us, especially about how to create the desired big twist that alters the protagonist in a monumental way, which is a shift the author was looking for. Additional beneficial adjustments to the plot emerged as the story progressed. When such inspiration happens, just change the outline and keep writing.

More unfinished manuscript drafts written by pantsers sit in drawers than do manuscripts created by outliners who had spurts of pantsing while writing. When you don’t know where you’re going, you tend to go nowhere. A novel or non-fiction book written by an author writing with wild abandon can cause a story or book to go out of control. The task of getting it back on track is like trying to herd cats. That’s more than a little frustrating, and easy to avoid.

Writing is an adventure, from first word to product. Make it the best experience you can.

[Excerpted in part from the e-book, Easy, Basic Tips for New Writers: Things Every New Writer, Especially First-Time Novelists, Need to Know. Now available at]

Author's Bio: 

Joyce L. Shafer provides services for writers, with a special focus on assisting new and indie authors. Services include Basic and Comprehensive Manuscript Evaluation/Critique and Basic and Comprehensive Developmental Editing, with an option for Ghost Rewriting/Writing services. Learn more about how to make your book one readers rave about at