The Journal: Why I Don’t Recommend Outlining…

In today’s Journal

* Topic: Why I Don’t Recommend Outlining…
* Of Interest

Topic: Why I Don’t Recommend Outlining…

A few days ago I discontinued my mentorships. This topic sprang from one part of my former Becoming A Writer mentorship. I hope it helps.

Actually, this could be titled “Why I Don’t Recommend Outlining and Other Prewriting Structures” like separate world-building, character sketches, etc. But that title is far too long. Oh, and while I’m at it, I’ll also discuss briefly why I don’t recommend rewriting.

So why don’t I recommend outlining and the rest? The short answer is “Because you’ll sabotage yourself at every turn.”

The much longer answer is this: You can only outline (world-build, sketch characters and rewrite) from the conscious, critical mind.

It’s impossible to create an outline or any other prewriting structure without conscious planning and manipulation.

In a character sketch you might consider each character’s hair and eye color, height and other physical attributes or peculiarities, attitude, clothing, education, status, habits, hobbies, etc. ad nauseam.

In world building (meaning the story world, not the planet world), you might consider the general climate and landscape, whether society is developed or under developed and what that means, and a hundred other things.

And in outlining, you must consider what happens next in the story. That is a plaintive illustration that every outline—in fact, the very act itself of outlining—is based on fear and self-doubt.

Worst of all, outlining sends a blatant signal to your creative subconscious that you don’t trust the characters who reside there to tell the story that they, not you, are living.

What!? How pretentious is that? That is a horrible start to what might otherwise have been a long, enjoyable and even profitable relationship with your characters.

Just for a moment, imagine your neighbors have asked you to drop into their lives for a week or a month to write their story. They’ve read some of your work and they think it would be fun to be characters in your next novel. They say, “You don’t even have to embellish. Just use your skills to write what happens in our life and how we react—what we say and do.”

Would you draw up character sketches?

Well, of course not. You only have to write your neighbors as they are.

What about world building? Necessary?

Well, no. The world they live in is slightly different from yours (different house, cars, habits, events, etc.) but it already exists. You only have to write the truth as you witness it.

And of course you would never even think about outlining the events of the next week or month and then forcing your neighbors to follow the outline as they attempt to live their story. Would you?

Nah, of course not. That would just be silly. Besides, if you even suggested they follow an outline instead of simply living their life and letting you write it down, they’d probably look at you as if you have two heads, cancel the deal, and order you off their property.

So you go along. There are some things you do get to decide, like maybe the point of view. You can dine with them, or you can watch secretly as they eat. You can bunk with them, snore with them, and roll out with them the next morning, or you can simply tuck them in, tiptoe out, and check back tomorrow. Or later in the night if something happens.

But beyond that, you have no power. Remember, it’s THEIR story you’re telling, not yours. In your story you’re eyeballing your neighbors and writing down their story.

So let me ask you: Are your neighbors “real people”?

Of course they are. They exist when you’re looking in on them and they still exist when you aren’t aware of them at all. Likewise, their story is ongoing even when you aren’t looking in on them, laptop at the ready.

Okay then, why don’t they write their own stupid story?

Because they don’t have the skills.

Your fictional characters are just like your neighbors. They exist when you’re looking in on them and they still exist when you aren’t aware of them at all. They are living their lives even when you aren’t looking in on them, and those lives are compilations of their stories.

But your characters don’t write their own stories for the same reason your neighbors don’t write theirs: because they don’t have the skills. They depend on you for that. It’s why they attracted your attention in the first place.

Writing the stories your characters are living is exactly the same as writing the stories your neighbors are living. You don’t have to outline or character sketch or world-build, whether your characters live across town or across the galaxy.

Just drop in on them—again, laptop at the ready—and write down what happens and how they react: what they say and do.

Write what your POV character notices: sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels physically. Add to the mix whatever the POV characters feels emotionally or senses mentally.

Trust your characters to tell the story that they, not you, are living. When you feel “stuck,” display that trust to them by forging ahead. Just write the next sentence they give you, then the next and the next, and soon the story will be flowing again.

As a personal aside, I consider my characters acquaintances and friends who exist in another dimension. I also consider myself fortunate that I’m allowed a glimpse into that dimension on occasion. Just as, on occasion, I’m allowed a glimpse into my neighbors’ lives.

Obviously, this interdimensional glimpse isn’t something that can be proven or disproven, and proof doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is that I believe it, and that I respect my characters as much as I respect my neighbors. It’s why we have such a strong relationship.

Finally, a word on rewriting—As I wrote at the outset, outlining in advance is based on fear and self-doubt, and it sends a negative signal that you mistrust your creative subconscious. Rewriting sends exactly the same signal, but after the fact.

It’s easy for me to imagine a group of characters gathered at the front of your subconscious watching you rewrite what they’ve so graciously given you.

One might say to another, “Hey, get a load of this guy, would’ya?”

The other might respond, “What is he? The general manager of the freakin’ universe?”

More and more gather as others arrive to see what’s going on. They’re all scowling, their arms are crossed, an one foot is tapping angrily.

And maybe one spokesperson, in a quiet little nagging voice, warns you against changing the story. S/he might even send that little feeling of semi-nausea to tug at your stomach in an effort to make you realize how badly you’re screwing up.

Or they might just shake their heads, their arms still crossed, and turn and walk away, mumbling that they no longer trust you and it will be a cold day in a bad place before they’ll give you another story. Why should they if you’re only going to change it?

One mumbles, “Maybe he should write his own stupid stories and see how far that gets him. Hard to imagine what you don’t live through.”

The others assent with knowing nods as they fade into the recesses of the subconscious.

Don’t outline, folks. Don’t do character sketches and world building and all the rest. And for goodness’ sake don’t rewrite. Don’t telegraph to your creative subconscious that you don’t trust your characters to tell the stories that they, not you, are living.

Is this a leap?

Maybe. But it shouldn’t be. Despite the beads of fear-sweat that will break out on your forehead, writing into the dark won’t harm you. At all. In any way.

If you try it and stick it out, you’ll never look back. And if you do buckle, well, you can always go back to outlining and character sketches and world building and rewriting. You will have lost nothing.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Story Salvage: Finding the Opportunity in Failure” at

See “Owning the Stage” at

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.

7 thoughts on “The Journal: Why I Don’t Recommend Outlining…”

  1. Good afternoon Mr. Harvey.

    I have two questions to ask about outlining. Lately, I’ve been struggling with my critical voice. I know it will pass because every time I learn something- Significantly fundamental, it tends to go over and over in my mind until I feel satisfied that I can stand on my own.

    Issue 1: Can I create Character sketches as my characters reveal themselves to me? I’ve noticed that certain characters have words they like to use and certain habits e.g Melvin likes to spit when he is irritated (I never planned this and I don’t even know why he spits instead of doing other things like clenching his hand and frowning)

    Issue 2: Sometimes, I’m working on a story and I go away to work, chores other things or even while I’m writing, mid-scene, an idea for something that happens later in the story comes and I can’t write the full scene there so I have to write the idea down. Like a description of the scene. Is that considered outlining. Most times I never get to write the scene which could be a third issue of why I think outlining is a total waste of time…

    because my mind almost always does the exact opposite of what I outline. I like the new end result anyway. But I agree that I wouldn’t do character sketches for my neighbours. Who has the time?

    • Hi Tari, For Issue 1, “I agree that I wouldn’t do character sketches for my neighbours. Who has the time?”

      My point was exactly that: you wouldn’t do character sketches for your neighbors because they’re “real” people, meaning you take them as you find them. So why wouldn’t you also afford your characters the same respect? Or as you put it, “Who has the time?” Just write the story and let the characters reveal themselves as they will.

      As for remembering things about your characters (physical characteristics, repeated mannerisms, etc., you can keep track of that with a reverse outline. A reverse outline isn’t something you follow. It’s something you compile as you finish each major scene or chapter. Go to the site at In the search bar at the left, key in “Reverse Outline,” then read the first five posts that pop up. I think that will help.

      And for Issue 2, sure, nothing wrong with jotting a note on where you think the scene will go next as long as you don’t force it. You could even skip ahead, write the “later” scene, then come back and write the original scene you were on. The reader must read from A to Z, but as the writer you are unstuck in time. You can write any part of the story at any time. Then again, if you just keep writing the current scene the characters will lead you through that scene and the subsequent ones.

  2. Following on Tari’s comment, last night, I sat down at the keyboard to write and my subconscious said, “Nope – how do you expect me to let the words flow when not six feet away, your hubby is playing *Back 4 Blood* and shouting instructions to his friends?”

    So I left the office and sat down with a pen and paper notebook…and promptly got the bare bones of the next scene jotted down – i.e., dialogue, a few emotional prompts, a note or two about the surroundings.

    Tonight (hopefully!), when I sit down to write again, I’ll flesh that out and that will be the (rest of the) scene I’m currently on.

    I don’t consider that outlining any more than I consider writing notes for a scene *mumble* pages ahead outlining. It’s the Muse (Story, subconscious, what have you) saying, “Here! Play with this for a while!”

  3. I bookmarked this because it’s the best description of trusting the creative voice I’ve seen. Thank you for sharing how you think about your characters!

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