The Advantages of Writing The Bare Minimum Outline

There seem to be two accepted processes when writing a long(er) manuscript of 50-150,000 words (fiction or non-).
If we use the metaphor of a map and a quest, we can say that one approach is to go without a map and discover your meaning, story, plot and characters as you proceed.
The other is to take a map with you, usually in the form of some kind of outline, to return to for guidance, and to see where to go next.

Neither approach is ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ since each comes with negatives and positives. Further, how tight (planned in great detail) or loose (providing only the bare outline of an outline, if you will) your outline “has to be” to be truly useful is a matter for a great deal of discussion, not to mention emotion.

Look at a game board some time and you'll see that it's also a map of a story, telling you what happens along the way. The little images are symbols for

Look at a game board some time and you’ll see that it’s also a map of a story, indicating what might happen along the way. The little images are symbols for “here are the major plot points,” but you can fill in what happens to the characters/playing pieces along the way.

This decision isn’t a matter of ‘throwing out the rules’ if you decide not to use an outline, so don’t think you’re being a rebel, because there are no rules we have to worry about breaking.

We’re long past high school; no one’s coming to snick you on the knuckles with a ruler.

Instead, whether or not one uses an outline has more to do with practicality and need or desire for organization, as well as control over outcome.

If you’re working with a lot of characters and you’ve got a dense plot, at some point, you will find the benefits of making some kind of outline, no matter how rudimentary, outweigh the sense that you’ve somehow been absorbed into the Borg.

Borg-writing means you fear you’ll lose your individual voice, your identity, your very soul, if you give in to the dictates of the outline. Nothing is more dispiriting for the budding writer than to be told she’s going to, at some point, have to have an outline for that project idea she’s kicking around.

I worked briefly with a woman who was having a hard time finding her subject, coming up with a goal, and declaring intention to follow through to the end. When I told her an outline could help her organize her thoughts, she bolted. I think what she possibly heard was “outline equals immediate loss of freedom.” What you can’t hear when you’re afraid is that you actually do have options; that there is freedom within structure, that something as seemingly grim as an outline serves you; you do not serve it.

Outlines Are Threatening

This is going to be you when your story gets away from you and you have no idea what happens next.

This is going to be you when your story gets away from you and you have no idea what happens next.

Outlines seem threatening to those who see them as unwanted fences built to control the wild mustangs of their thoughts.

Other writers are bothered by the unnaturalness of the outline, the pernickety sense that each ‘i’ must be dotted, each ‘t’ crossed.

If the word ‘outline’ equals ‘stupid rules that make no sense’ in your mind, believe me, I get it.

I don’t always outline, but then, I don’t often tackle multiple story lines and characters, nor do I often feel like my story is either out of control or has gotten away from me (but when I have felt that way, it’s because I didn’t outline sufficiently, so I have been hoist upon my own petard more than once as a writer).

Outlines seem forced, non-organic, emotionally false. It is a kind of pre-writing one has learned, all too often, to associate with high school English classes you hated; a torturous endeavor forced upon you by a cruel teacher with ugly glasses and bad hair. Outlines seem largely unnecessary, particularly for the writer who is possessed of a vision, who is mentally following his or her characters into their personal abyss.

Mostly, I suspect, writing an outline seems far too unromantic, making writing more like work, less like a spontaneous act of inspired creativity.

There are uncontrollable, passionate moments spent writing, moments when you teeter on the edge of Indiana Jones’ rollercoaster ride through the mines, just barely holding on, not knowing how it will end or what will come of your intrepid heroes.

“How can an outline, so restrictive, so horribly predetermined, ever hope to contain those emotions?” one mutters derisively, ruminating (during a particularly powerful and largely unconscious writing session) how empty your scenes of passion would feel if written out in excruciating (not to mention mind-numbing) detail ahead of time. 

Here’s one way to look at this choice: Certain kinds of writing and certain times one writes can be used as the marker to determine which approach you’re going to use.

What should determine whether or not you rely on an outline (checking your map as you go) is the type of goal you intend to reach. If you’re serious about getting published (by a print publisher, as in, holding a finished product in your hands with pages you can turn and a marketing/sales budget and maybe even an advance), you’re undermining your potential for success if you don’t create some form of an outline. (I will explain why further on, since I didn’t outline this article, and now you’re paying the price for my telling you this without any real plan in mind about where this would go or how I would get there.) 

You create the map and have complete control over where it takes you.

You create the map and have complete control over where it takes you.

Why You Might Want An Outline, At Least Sometimes

If your project is less formal, or you’re writing exclusively for self-discovery, an outline can definitely feel like it will get in your way. What would be the point of working on something so intrusive? If you don’t have a beginning, middle, or end already in mind, and particularly if you’re not writing a genre piece that relies on structure, you really don’t need an outline, although you might want one anyway at some point, depending on the circumstances.

If you’re new to the genre or type of writing you’re attempting, you might want to try an outline. Alternatively, I usually advocate the map-less approach for absolute beginners who are on a search for their subject, or themselves.

As an educator, I will tell you that self-reflexivity, searching for meaning, as well as increasing consciousness and awareness of your purpose and goals, are all enormously important reasons people should write. The mere speculation about ‘who we are’ is often enough to fuel novels, plays, and self-help books. It could be argued that every single word written about the human race (other than writing you find in technical manuals) is an effort to know one’s self, and by extension, the world, better.

E. M. Forster's plots usually took place while on a journey outside of his native England. The journey from one place to another is, on its own, an important stimulus to writing, as well as a useful metaphor.

E. M. Forster’s plots usually took place while on a journey outside of his native England. The journey from one place to another is, on its own, an important stimulus to writing, as well as a useful metaphor.

Speaking of understanding the world better, one of my favorite writers is E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India. During an interview with The Paris Review in 1952, E. M. Forster responded to a question about “technical clevernesses” (what we think of nowadays as the mechanics or craft of writing) like this:


How far aware are you of your own technical clevernesses in general?


We keep coming back to that. People will not realize how little conscious one is of these things; how one flounders about. They want us to be so much better informed than we are. If critics could only have a course on writers’ not thinking things out—a course of lectures . . . .

Forster liked surprises and surprising his reader; he liked finding something out as he went, and so, in the same interview, when asked if all of the ‘important steps’ of a novel should be present in its original conception, Forster replied, “Certainly not all the steps. But there must be something, some major object towards which one is to approach.”

Referring to the plot of A Passage To India, Forster clarified: “When I began A Passage to India I knew that something important happened in the Marabar Caves, and that it would have a central place in the novel—but I didn’t know what it would be.”

I think this sums up the feeling most writers who approach writing ‘romantically’ have; they want the thrill of discovery. They don’t want to know too much ahead of time, for their major happiness comes in the moments of discovery. As with explorers and inventors of yore, discovery is its own reward, and there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a great feeling to discover a character or plot point you hadn’t anticipated, to make it up as you go along. 

Finding yourself, finding hidden gems you didn’t know existed, is crucial in the philosophical quest to know and understand yourself, and it’s one I support. Alternately, this process, of writing to know one’s self, seems like a luxury to many writers who tell me they just want to get on with it. They don’t have time to wander about, searching for something they may never find, let alone something that won’t sell, and they’re not going to take the risk that time spent ‘finding’ an interesting character is time wasted; they don’t have that kind of time. 

Although I understand what they mean, I don’t always agree with this perspective, largely because I’m not as interested in selling a product as I am in helping the writer understand him- or herself better (because society already puts us in boxes, restricting our creativity).

Here’s another Paris Review interview with a famous writer, Ray Bradbury, who wouldn’t be tied to an outline:


Do you write outlines?


No, never. You can’t do that. It’s just like you can’t plot tomorrow or next year or ten years from now. When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.

Don't worry; you won't lose yourself in the map. Rather, you will often find yourself and your purpose, if you chart your destination ahead of time in broad strokes.

Don’t worry; you won’t lose yourself in the map. Rather, you will often find yourself and your purpose, if you chart your destination in broad strokes.

Given that, however, I will tell you that there are many books and/or stories that will flounder and die if you have literally no idea what they’re about, where they’re going, or how they’re going to get there. Although quantification of one’s goals might not seem a compelling priority for the writer on a quest for self-discovery, once you’ve discovered what’s there to be discovered, if you want to finally get this journey down on paper, process it and get it out the door to an agent, an editor, a publisher, you need to know what it’s about.

You need to have a goal, a point on the map that you intend to reach within a certain amount of time, if you’re going to be taken seriously. This will require more than rummaging around in the carpetbag of your mind; it will require form, structure, and organization.

To backtrack just a bit, I must take a moment to say, you can’t get to this point until you know quite a few things about your project. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, though, there are three things all written works have in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Fiction has plot points, while non-fiction usually relies on a kind of enlarged flow-chart made up of bullet points one elaborates on. In each case, a bare-minimum outline will help immeasurably to get from point A to point B and so on, till you reach the end (your goal or conclusion).

The Bare Minimum Outline Looks Like Anything You Want It To, Within Reason

I discovered what I call the bare minimum outline many years ago, when I read a book about how Alfred Hitchcock used storyboards to construct the action in his movies. A movie storyboard transforms the primary action of the scene into an image, but I also noticed that beneath each drawing was a brief summary of what had to happen to make the scene work, to get the story to the next place.

I translated this idea to writing the outline, and found this approach to be the most simple and sensible (not to mention quick) that also leaves space for you to change things as you go. At the bare minimum level, you do, at some point, need to know what happens next. This could be as simple as making a list of events you know have to happen to make your beginning shift to the middle and on to the end. No chapters need be involved; you can decide what to call each section or how to number them later.

What action begins the story? That’s number 1. What has to come next? That’s number 2. Don’t agonize over this; it’s just a list, as though you were planning your day as sensibly as possible to use the least amount of gas to get from one store to the next. If possible, see the actions each character has to enact in your head, like a little movie, then write down an abbreviated version.

You’re taking notes of what you’ve already got going on in your head, but most importantly, you’re giving what’s going on in your head some shape, plus the space to challenge yourself if one piece doesn’t fit into the overall design. This is all done before you commit yourself to the time needed to write formally, literarily, technically; whatever your style, however your voice sounds on paper, with this kind of bare minimum outline, you’ve planned your time at the computer/screen/paper a little bit. Not too much; just enough to get started and know what to expect, like going to the grocery store with a list you might follow, you might not. 

Writing the bare minimum outline is easy if you think of it as a summation of who each character is, and what each scene requires to get to the next place in the story. It’s helpful (but not crucial) if you know your beginning, middle, and end ahead of time. If you don’t know details, you can fill them in as you write. But here’s the thing: if a kid can write a summary of a book, broken down by characters and chapters, so can you. It’s not that hard, which is why it’s good.

Eat Your Peas, They’re Good For You

A bare minimum outline has certain virtues. One, it helps a lot to get your thoughts about each character and scene down where you can see them and wrestle with them a bit. Two, it helps a lot to wrestle with them because maybe that character has no purpose in this particular story, and if you know that ahead of time, you won’t waste valuable space and time writing her if you know ahead of time she makes no sense to this plot, nor does she help any of your other characters—in fact, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Three, you can very easily write yourself into a corner you have no way out of without some kind of outline.

The corner you have no way out of emerges from lack of thinking this plot through. How does your villain fit into the 2nd half of the story now that you’ve got him receiving a coded message from the enemy? If you don’t know what happens next, you might easily get stuck or blocked because you haven’t really thought this through. With the bare minimum outline, however, whether you’ve created a list, a grid, a database, or whatever form you decide to use, remember that you can either cut and paste, or erase and go back at any point along the way. There is nothing that says you cannot modify your notes about each character or each plot point as you go.

Maybe you cannot, for the life of you, think of a way to connect the villain’s actions with your other characters (I have this problem right now, and I outlined him a fair amount ahead of time, but still do not know certain details of his plot). Either leave him for now (choice #1 in my case, which means he’s annoying me in the background of my mind), or write a new piece in your outline to account for the villain’s new actions (too tedious, not going to do it until I’ve sketched other things in). Either way, you are doing your wrestling with a list or grid, rather than with your writing, and that makes a lot of sense to me.

If your time is limited, as it is for most people who are not professional writers who do not also have the entire story mapped out in their heads in some kind of linear flow, the time you spend writing the story, in my opinion, should not be the time you have to wrestle with what happens next. That’s what thinking about the story separate from writing it ‘for real’ is for. Writing the story means when you get into your flow, you get to wax lyrical and use your literary skills to get this said in as powerful a voice as you can, without worrying about details of plot, structure, or does this action make sense for this character, etc.

Remember, though, there are no rigid ‘rules’ you have to follow, and that means there are no rules you have to rebel against. There are common sense procedures that will make your life easier as a writer, though. You’ll know you ‘should have’ made some kind of outline when a character you hadn’t planned on comes out of nowhere and has nothing whatsoever to do with this particular story. You’ll know you need an outline when you have no idea what comes next, because you haven’t thought this through properly—that could have been worked out with an outline. 

Think of an outline as an oasis you can return to whenever you run out of ideas, need to find new purpose, or must remember what your characters' names are and what they're there for.

Think of an outline as an oasis you can return to whenever you run out of ideas, need to find new purpose, or must remember what your characters’ names are and what they’re there for.

What You Really Want An Outline For Is Invention

Remember: You never have to use the kind of outline you were probably taught in school. If you’re writing because you’re searching for something, you might not know what it is you’re searching for until you find it. This process of discovery can be the most fruitful way to find a gem in the middle of what appears to be an utter wasteland, so don’t give up looking for your oasis in the midst of the desert writing sometimes feels like.

My caveat is that if you think of writing as a linear process, which it’s not, ‘discovery’ comes before ‘planning’. This mistake, either in how you were taught, or in how you now think about writing, works against you, often stopping you from writing at all, since we get caught up in worrying about “what should go where when,” rather than writing whatever comes to mind and shaping it when it’s ready.

What you sacrifice is the entire process of Invention, which is elastic enough in modern writing process theory to include outlining (but you’ll have to forget the rigid, five-part outline we use to teach argumentation—if you confuse the two, you’ll be miserable).

The word ‘invention’ comes from an older word borrowed from the Classical Rhetoric term, Inventio, and it has a specific use: to help you find your argument and determine the best structure for an argument. Extrapolating to other forms of writing, invention, a very liberating place to be, is where you’re at whenever you do something (take notes, make a list, answer questions about your characters) that indirectly aids in getting your piece written and helps you figure new things out; brainstorm ideas; renew inspiration.

Further, in Classical Rhetoric, Dispositio is where you shape your argument; it’s where the use of a formal outline comes in, and this is why you a) hate the idea of an outline and b) misunderstand the need for an outline because c) of what you were taught to think is true about outlines. I completely empathize, as someone who has both taught formal Rhetoric and written fiction, but even so, I can promise you that the real problem is that if you never got a chance to outline informally, you won’t know how liberating an informal outline can be.

Creating, sculpting, forming, and shaping seems like you’re “in the planning phase” (a thought I want you to erase from conscious operating memory). Instead, realize that writing a loosely structured outline aids invention, since the fact that you’re asking yourself questions during this process forces you to think, and plot, and plan. Don’t underestimate how important it is to find out what you’re writing about—what your subject is, why your characters are there, what your ultimate purpose in writing the piece is. Don’t assume you’re not finding your subject by writing an outline, because you are.

Are you ‘planning’, ‘discovering’ or ‘inventing’ when you’re writing some form of an outline? You’re doing all of these at the same time. This is why linear models of writing don’t work, and must ultimately be abandoned; they’re limiting, creating false constructs we can’t use because they’re so misleading, not to mention self-destructive.

Do you need to know every facet or detail of your project before you sit down to write? No. You do not. But if you never know any of this at any point—never become aware of what you’re doing or why—we’ll end up discussing you in writing classes some day, and we’ll use the word ‘unconscious’ and the phrase ‘unaware of his own process’ a lot, and we’ll be sad.

A conscious writer has greater control over his or her writing, and can replicate the process again and again, which is a powerful feeling that will ultimately make it easier to get paid or in some way rewarded by the outside world, if that’s your goal.

Nothing wrong with being lost.

Nothing wrong with being lost.


When I think about the discovery/invention part of the writing process, though, a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings comes to mind:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost.

In other words, the ‘perfect’ outline isn’t necessarily the answer to your problem, since writing and self-discovery is its own reward, and those who don’t know what the hell they’re doing are not necessarily wasting their time.

Writing the outline is part of the plot line of how you will write your piece. If I ever create a game that encapsulates the writing process (which I might; just wait) writing an outline will be an event of its own, something you should do for the experience of using it to work out your ideas, to fight with your characters over their inherent purpose, and to create some kind of order to your plan. Whether you want to or not, consciously or not, you’re even now planning your piece somewhere in your mind, and transferring that plan to the ‘written page’ can be extremely useful.

There’s nothing wrong with organization, when it comes at the right moment in your writing process. It’s my experience that you will be happier if you write some kind of outline at some point in your process. Think of it as the oasis you can go on the map of your story to rework your ideas, re-imagine plot points, find out which characters fit and which don’t; find renewed inspiration for a scene or chapter you were going to give up on; and come to know, without a lot of doubt, what happens next.

How to Avoid Writing (Almost) Your Entire Life

Florence Ma. The Writer's Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Florence Ma. The Writer’s Cage. Grade 12, Age 17. 2012 Gold Medal, Drawing

Michael Gruber says that if writing taught him anything, it was how to get used to failure.

The first book this writer published under his own name was at the age of 61. He says he avoided writing due to “a simple lack of confidence.” In the following interview (see below), Gruber explains his personal background and the forces that shaped him as a novelist. The key is that he didn’t identify himself as a writer, nor did he believe he was capable of being a “real” writer.

In other words, this man speaks to everything I’ve been studying for the hundred or so years I’ve worked on the underlying reasons for profound writer’s block, the kind that prevents you from writing for more than 45 years. I know from experience that this man’s perceptions and feelings are not unique, having listened to this story from writers at every step of the process. That’s why I so fervently believe these fears can be overcome, with the right kind of help, because why would you want to struggle with this alone? 

This interview comes via Author magazine, a publication of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (of which I am a member).

When You Can’t Think of Something to Write

One of the most challenging things we do as writers is attempt to have a new thought.

When you can’t think of anything to write, what do you do? I’ve always found the easiest way to get people writing is to discuss something, anything, they disagree with.

river-clip-art-11In an educational setting, giving someone something to write about is called a writing prompt. From my experience as a teacher, though, it’s clear that some writing prompts are better than others.

The way you measure ‘better,’ when you teach writing, is to see how much writing emerges; an effective writing prompt stimulates a lot of thinking and responding.

Let’s say you’re one of those writers who prefers to sit down at your computer, typewriter (do people still use typewriters?) or pad of paper, with an entirely cold brain. If you’re the type of writer who gets up in the morning, looking at the blank page, waiting for inspiration to strike, my challenge to you, especially if you find your thoughts are as blank as the screen, is to think about something you particularly disagree with.

Your disagreement might be anything from very small to very large. You disagree with your child’s choice of music. You disagree with the government (that’s very easy to do, it seems to me). You disagree with the way world hunger problems or blue whales are dealt with.

At every step of the way, we think barely-articulated thoughts that we never write down. Instead, we attempt to live around them. The thoughts end up being big black rocks in the flow of information streaming, like a river, through our days.


Each rock represents a thought that is potentially interfering with your flow.

However, these big ‘rocks’ are there, sticking up out of your flow of thoughts, waiting to be noticed. These rocks represent something that bothers you.

Sometimes, what bothers you needs to be articulated, but perhaps you haven’t given yourself permission to talk about this big, black idea.

My suggestion is that, at least once, try to articulate something you disagree with. The primary reason you should try this is because the words really flow; upset, disagreement, anger, irritation—these are negative spaces that often prevent us from writing at all, and the energy we’re using to suppress them is what’s preventing us from writing.

An important reason to release negativity is to locate our personal values; we find out what’s important to us—who we really are—when we let ourselves disagree with something or someone.

Another reason to release thoughts of negativity is that we are blocking our real writing—the writing that’s waiting to come out, that lies just underneath the surface—and this is a useful way to gain access to what we need to say.

Once these states of irksome angst are recognized, we find that we’ve released a lot of other emotions we were holding back. Once we allow ourselves to express negativity, lethargy and depression also float away on the stream of words. Often, what remains is our true subject, the thing we’ve been waiting to write about, and that’s a precious thing to finally find.

Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines

I’m responding to a Daily Writing Prompt which, interestingly, resonates with a blog entry I wrote two years ago. The idea is to show some sort of homage, which I did, once; I could only show homage to Hemingway, because his simple, but profound, suggestions to writers formed a neural network in my brain that hasn’t been erased by time or experience. 

Writing For Non-Writers

I did something while in Paris last month that I actively rail against, and ordinarily deplore: I worshipped at two of the shrines associated with Ernest Hemingway. I struggle with the why of this, since it goes against everything I preach to beginning writers. My only excuse is that I was an English major three times over, and Hemingway said some very important things about writing, and so homage was due.

I deplore the worship of ‘the capital A’ author. I wish we didn’t put these people (usually, but not always, men) up on pedestals, then compare ourselves to them, telling ourselves their creativity is a unique act of divine inspiration we’re too ordinary to match, that The Author was stroked on the forehead at birth by a muse that will never visit us.

In other words, we take mere mortals and turn them into statues, dipped in the…

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Believing In Myself as a Writer

IMG_0206 2This has proved to be the hardest part; this belief in one’s self as a writer. I once started a journal with: “I don’t know what to write.” The rest of the journal remained blank. I don’t journal well. 

I fight with myself as a writer every single day. I reject this self-imposed isolation. I hate it. I don’t want to do it. I don’t know how not to.

It doesn’t help that my insecurities are fueled by difficulties getting published. Every time I receive a rejection, it sets me back, and I have to begin all over again, Sisyphus rolling this rock back up the hill. I am getting older, waiting to get that rock up that hill.

I’ve learned too, through the years, that the quiet writers need has a dark side; we also need responses, we need to know others read our writing. The answer is, we need readers who feel engaged with our material, but the challenge is, how to inspire and motivate the reader (without using extrinsic motivation, like schoolmasters of yore used a cane to beat recalcitrant writers?).

The blogosphere-world has exploded, and it’s literally impossible to read and respond to everything you see. I know that when I read something someone has put time and effort into, I can’t always be counted on to respond with the truth—to say, wow, no one will read this, you’ve found yourself a subject that’s bound to turn others off! Or to find time to compliment the writer who has managed to come up with a compelling subject, who I want to read over and over again.

I’ve had to force myself, in the past year or so, to be sure to comment on people’s blogs. This is why I limit how many blogs I read, and I don’t follow many. The greatest irony for me—someone who wants more than anything to encourage writers—is that it isn’t possible to encourage every writer I see (and then sit and wonder why no one is encouraging me!). It feels overwhelming to use each blog experience as a “teaching moment,” to tell them, the way I tell myself, alright, too much detail, excessive vocabulary, you’re losing your audience… etc. All the things that go wrong, go wrong in my head before they go wrong in the writing. 

I rationalize: I shouldn’t need encouragement, should I?

Oh, but I do.

All writers do.