I Ditched the Outline…Don’t Tell My Teacher.

When I was in elementary school and learning about the writing process, I remember three distinct things:

  1. Have a beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Have a thesis statement in the beginning (if you really want to get an A on that report!)
  3. Create an outline of your writing project before writing the actual content.

Simple enough, I thought.  I did all three and got an A- on my biography of Neil Armstrong, my first big report. I continued the routine into high school and college, and aside from a few poor reports (darn that comparison essay on the Roaring Twenties in history class!), those three little points I learned as a kid helped me learn the formula of successful writing in school.

So when I sought to write a fiction novel, I thought I’d follow the same formula.  After all, you had to have the three points to write, right?

And so I went through my steps.  The story would eventually have a beginning, middle, and end, so that was all set.  Fiction books typically didn’t have thesis statements-it was more drawn out into the plot of the story.  So…I guessed that would eventually work itself out.  And the outline?

It was the first thing I wrote.

And so my novel was planned.  Every detail, every plot point, every character entrance.  The outline was a novel in itself after I was through with it.

So when I started with my novel, I began at Part 1 and planned to write the chapters as I came to them chronologically.  It was how I did every paper before.  I mean, it got me an A- on my Neil Armstrong biography!  That’s the best success any 10 year old could ask for. If it worked for a school report, it would work for a novel.

The first few chapters were written within a few weeks.  So far, success!  But then something happened in the middle of writing.

I got an idea-a side story, a new character-and it didn’t fit until later on in the chapter.

I tried to go back to the outline.  I had to stay on task.  I couldn’t have a bunch of chapters lying around, not connected!  But more ideas came, and they were sporadic.  I had the ending written before the book was a quarter of the way finished.   Pretty soon, the outline became just another stack of notes.  I had abandoned it all together.

By the time the first draft of the novel was complete, it was different.  What was written on the outline was like another story all together.

Had I done that on my previous school reports, I would have mortified some of my teachers.  The outline was supposed to match (or at least be somewhat close) to the final product.  Or at least that’s what I thought.  But then I realized I missed the purpose of outlines and the story writing process in general.

I’m starting to think there isn’t one right way to write a story.  For some, the outline is a necessity.  It’s what helps them stay organized and helps them connect the intricacies of a plot and character together.  For me, it was helpful in the beginning as it helped me plan my first story, but then it later lost its purpose for me.  I found I wrote better on whim and inspiration, as sporadic and disorganized as it was.

The point is that a lot of us first learned about writing in a set of rules like the three points I described earlier.  Are they a bad thing?  Of course not.  They help us learn what good writing is in an academic setting.  But creative writing is different.  It’s allowed to be creative- it doesn’t always have to follow the “rules” of writing.  You can write a poem or song without a thesis statement.  You can write a novel without following an outline to the letter.

Are there rules of commonality within writing?  Of course.   Grammar is a good thing, people.  Punctuation in the correct places of a paragraph can make the words in a story sound so much better when read.

But my mistake was that I limited writing.  I thought I was supposed to write a novel like I wrote my school report of Neil Armstrong.  Three points.  An outline needed to be followed.

But after a few weeks I didn’t need it anymore.  It was my personal preference as a creative writer.

And so I ditched the outline.

(Just don’t tell my teachers.)