To outline or not to outline?
Let's look at two authors, one who finds devising an outline for his novels before writing useful, and one with a more haphazard and organic way of forming a story.
A.J. Jacobs is the author of such nonfiction as The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. He turns his life into immersion experiments and then writes about his experiences and conclusions. Nonfiction likely lends itself better to the outline approach of writing, but still there are fiction writers who do the same.
In a 2103 interview with The Daily Beast, Jacobs had this to say about how he goes about his writing:
What’s your morning routine like?
My kids wake me
up. I have coffee (overall a healthy beverage, by the way; delays
Alzheimer’s and lowers risk of certain cancers). I make my kids
breakfast, take them to school, then come home and try to write. I fail
at that until I force myself to turn off my Internet access so I can get
a little shelter from the information storm.
Describe your writing routine.
I am a big fan of
outlining. I write an outline. Then a slightly more detailed outline.
Then another with even more detail. Sentences form, punctuation is
added, and eventually it all turns into a book.
Do you have any unusual rituals associated with the writing process?
used to drink a lot of Diet Coke to keep me wired. But when writing a
book about health, it’s hard to justify three Diet Cokes a day, so I had
to quit. I still miss it.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?
I write while walking on a treadmill. I’m doing it right now. I started this practice when I was working on Drop Dead Healthy,
and read all these studies about the dangers of the sedentary life.
Sitting is alarmingly bad for you. One doctor told me that “sitting is
the new smoking.” So I bought a treadmill and put my computer on top of
it. It took me about 1,200 miles to write my book. I kind of love it—it
keeps me awake, for one thing.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
yourself to generate dozens of ideas. A lot of those ideas will be
terrible. Most of them, in fact. But there will be some sparkling gems
in there too. Try to set aside 20 minutes a day just for brainstorming.
On the other end of the spectrum are authors like Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner and other novels
Describe your morning routine.
I get up and work out.
Get home in time to get the kids off to school (on my days—my wife and I
trade off), eat, read the paper, front page first, check all news on
Afghanistan. Flip to sports page, check for any San Francisco 49ers
news. Then I write, typically from about 8:30 to 2 p.m., at which time I
go to pick up my kids from school.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I can’t watch TV without eating peanuts. Can’t be done.
How do you conceive of a book?
don’t outline at all, I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way
it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of
letting the story find its own way. For this reason, I find that writing
a first draft is very difficult and laborious. It is also often quite
disappointing. It hardly ever turns out to be what I thought it was, and
it usually falls quite short of the ideal I held in my mind when I
began writing it. I love to rewrite, however. A first draft is really
just a sketch on which I add layer and dimension and shade and nuance
and color. Writing for me is largely about rewriting. It is during this
process that I discover hidden meanings, connections, and possibilities
that I missed the first time around. In rewriting, I hope to see the
story getting closer to what my original hopes for it were.
Do you have any unusual rituals in your writing process?
write while my kids are at school and the house is quiet. I sequester
myself in my office with mug of coffee and computer. I can't listen to
music when I write, though I have tried. I pace a lot. Keep the shades
drawn. I take brief breaks from writing, 2-3 minutes, by strumming badly
on a guitar. I try to get 2–3 pages in per day. I write until about 2
p.m. when I go to get my kids, then I switch to Dad mode.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
least three good sentences. And an idea of what I will write the next
day. Cannot go in blank the next day, the seed has to be planted today.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
met so many people who say they've got a book in them, but they've
never written a word. To be a writer—this may seem trite, I realize—you
have to actually write. You have to write every day, and you have to
write whether you feel like it or not. Perhaps most importantly, write
for an audience of one—yourself. Write the story you need to tell and
want to read. It’s impossible to know what others want so don’t waste
time trying to guess. Just write about the things that get under your
skin and keep you up at night. You also have to read a lot—and pay
attention. Read the kinds of things you want to write, read the kinds of
things you would never write. Learn something from every writer you
Personally, I am a fan of outlining. I start with a general outline for the book, and as I write and other bits and pieces of the story come to me and I see the way things are supposed to go, I add in more and more detail to the original outline.
I would be very curious to learn how you other writers out there feel about the topic. Outlines - yay or nay?