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Should You Prepare and Use an Outline in Writing Your First Book/Novel?

Updated on April 30, 2020
drmiddlebrook profile image

Former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.

Now that you’re absolutely sure you want to write a book, and now that you know—without a doubt, you’re determined to see your book in print (or in digital format), it’s time to begin thinking more about how you will approach your writing project. It’s time to start thinking about whether or not you will prepare and use an outline to create the first draft of your book.

Many writers use an outline, and many do not. For those who do, the purpose of an outline is to organize ideas in a way that will make the writing process easier. With this in mind, I feel it’s important to point out that different writers approach the outlining process differently. Some prefer to write down every major point they plan to cover in the novel, while others will make very broad statements covering only the major events of the novel. Those preferring the former approach will write down, point by point, every major and minor point or topic they plan to present. It can be compared to being the director of a play or a movie. You need to know or to understand the story and why it is being told in order to decide what main points you want to make and/or when you want to reveal these points to your readers/audience.

Do You Have To Create An Outline to Write a Book or Novel?

Many writers of non-fiction wouldn't think of writing a book without first preparing an outline, and for good reason. They want to make sure that every major point they want to make with regard to their topic will make its way into the book.

But, other non-fiction writers choose not to use an outline. For instance, someone who is writing an autobiography might feel he/she knows the subject matter well enough not to need a formal outline. So, instead of committing an outline to paper, he/she might choose to jot down notes or to make an informal, “mental” outline.

However, there are many other writers of fiction and non-fiction, who feel that while an outline is an important part of the writing process, they still prefer a less formal approach to writing. And, there are pros and cons for using and for not using an outline. At the end of the day, it depends on the writer's preferences, but I think you should give outlining a chance so you'll know whether you prefer it. Or not.

Will You Be an Outliner, or a Pantser?

Remember, you don't have to use an outline. You might work best as a pantser—a writer who flies by the seat of his or her pants. However, if you decide to outline your new novel, after planning out small segments of the book—say one chapter at a time, you can delve right into writing the novel using notes you jotted down, or that are only in your head. Once you complete one segment, you can then move on and create notes for the next segment—which may be the next section of a chapter, or the next chapter of your novel. If you’re someone who prefers this method, you can use the “outline-as-you-go” process until the first draft of your book is completed.

When I’m writing, I usually use a combination of the formal and informal approaches. For example, I’m now writing the sixth book in my "Color of Love" series/collection. As with every book project, I started writing Book Six with a project concept. I imagined what I want the finished book description to sound like—you know, what I would say to a friend who asked me what the book is about. After that, with my summary in mind, I wrote down what I wanted to write about, and why I felt the book needs to be written. After doing that—and it was a lengthy process of several pages—I then jotted down a chapter-by-chapter outline for the first three chapters, leaving out the finer details of the book. When writing fiction, I’ve found I prefer a more “free-flowing” style of writing where I allow situations or what is going on with my characters to guide me toward what will be the finer details of scenes and chapters.

It's different, however, when I’m writing non-fiction. When I'm writing an article for Hub Pages, for example, after completing any necessary research, I find it easier to commit to a more detailed outline, than when I am preparing to write fiction.

How to Create an Outline For a Book or Novel

For many new writers, the idea of having to produce an outline of the whole book before writing even one word can seem like an impossible task. For this reason, I always advise new writers to break the project down into smaller segments. That is, instead of attempting to outline the whole book, outline one chapter at a time. Trust me, the benefits and rewards of preparing an outline will be well worth the time and effort it takes to produce it. For one thing, the outline may later serve as the basis of chapters titles for your book.

And another important thing about the outline, at least for me, is that it can serve as a guidepost, a placeholder, and a reason to write. It provides me with a “writing prompt,” something that helps me out when my muses decide to go on strike. Having an outline might help those who sometimes run into something called "writer's block," because knowing what comes next can serve as grist for all kinds of ideas. Following are a few of my basic pointers for creating the outline.

Beginning the Outline. Ask yourself what will be the main points you want to make in the first chapter. It might help to think of the central idea of the first chapter. Then, after coming up with the central idea, what points will you make in support of, or to clarify and/or discuss the central idea?

Topics and Subtopics. As I stated earlier, the purpose of the outline is to organize your ideas in a way that will make the writing process easier. After thinking about what you want to include in a chapter, begin your outline by placing the main points you plan to make in the chapter in the order you think you will discuss them. Now is the time to let the ideas flow at will—write down every main point you think you want to talk about. Later, you can go back over the outline to decide what information is relevant to your story, and what you might want to discard. It’s helpful at this point to remember that an outline is something you can always make changes to, as needed.

Revising the outline. Once you have your initial thoughts on paper, it’s time to review and revise. Looking back over the points you wrote down; decide if all the topics and subtopics you’ve created are logically related to the central idea of the chapter. Are you’re trying to put too much information into one chapter? Are there are topics or subtopics that might need to be further developed?

Book writing software is available to help those who might want or need a little (or a lot of) help in creating the outline. I have used software designed for novel writing, including Storybook (open source), New Novelist, and Write it Now, and Scrivener (which I own and still use), to name a few. When I was writing my first novel, I found this kind of software to be invaluable. There is also software devoted primarily to brainstorming and the outlining process, such as mind mapping software, but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you think software is the way for you to go. It might help you to check out the websites of software vendors, test their products, and then make your decision.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Glad you found this article helpful, mdscoggins. Wishing you the best of luck with your planning, and with your book!

    • mdscoggins profile image

      Michelle Scoggins 

      6 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Thank you for the helpful information. I am seriously thinking about starting my first book within the next year and I am starting the planning process. This certainly helps.

      Voted up!

    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks Povmang. I appreciate your comments, glad you found the article helpful. I'll be writing a lot more on aspects of writing, since that's all I've ever done for a living--writing and teaching about writing. Thanks again.

    • povmang profile image


      8 years ago from phnom penh

      Really good lesson to learn from you. I am waiting to read your writing.

      voted up!

    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks Leni. I'm happiest when I'm writing, and thanks for the encouragement. Always good to get. Thanks so much!

    • drmiddlebrook profile imageAUTHOR

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 

      8 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks so much, Leni, for the compliment and the encouragement. It's always a pleasure to hear from another writer, and I wish you the best, and self-publishing success!

    • leni sands profile image

      Leni Sands 

      8 years ago from UK

      Another useful and informative hub. Keep up the good work. Voted up, book marked, useful and interesting.


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