Guest Post: Outlining a Novel is Like Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip

Since my friend Erin is a little preoccupied with writing for NaNoWriMo right now, and since my own blog ( is aimed more at readers of Inspirational Fiction than at writers, and since I’ve had this idea for an article burning a hole in my brain (no, not literally) for a while now, I thought this would be a great opportunity for a guest post here.  Boy that was a long sentence.  Let’s catch our collective breaths a moment, and I’ll try not to do that to you again.

While I’m no expert on outlining a novel, I have done it and found that it helped me immensely with the writing, so this post is meant to share my perspective on outlining.  I’m not aiming to convert any die-hard pantsers out there.  Only to share why I think outlining has benefited my own writing, and if this post helps someone out there who may be struggling, awesome.  I’d love to hear from you.  If not, at least I’ve had a chance to douse that metaphorical fire in my brain.

Outlining a Novel is Like Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip.

Yes, there are people who get in the car, gas up and go, with little more plan than a compass direction.  Much as I admire your free spirit and envy your lack of time constraints, that approach would never work for me.  Here’s why.

I want to know my end goal.  What city am I going to wind up in when I arrive?  I want to know at least a few of the main attractions I’ll be hitting along the way, so I don’t drive right past someplace I’ve always wanted to visit without recognizing the turn off when I get there, and wind up having to lose time retracing my steps.  I want to know the main highways I’ll be taking that will get me from Point A to Point B, so I can be sure I’m on track to hit my intended destination eventually, and not just wandering in circles.  Much as I like driving, adding extra hours at the wheel without any extra payoff in terms of sights seen or places visited is not on my agenda for a long road trip.  I know my back will be aching badly enough by the time I get there without putting in all those unnecessary hours along the way.  In short, I’d rather spend a little extra time up front thinking about where I’m going from the comfort of my own home than put in those extra hours lost on the side of the road.

So I’ll map out my route on Google Maps or Mapquest or even on a paper atlas or collection of road maps, and I’ll print my route out or write it all down.  I find that getting it down on paper is important for me, because it frees up my brain from having to remember those big details.  Instead, I can refer to my written plan only when needed.  That helps me turn my attention to the smaller details, and focus on where I am at any stage of the trip, more fully enjoying the sights, the sounds, and the crazy characters I meet along the way.
Once my plan is in place, I know that if I see a billboard along my route advertising an attraction that I’d love to see, I can consider it in the context of my written plan.  I’ll check my map to see whether a given detour would take me so far out of my way that it might not be worth stopping, or whether it represents an equally effective yet more interesting route to my next intended plot point, er, attraction.  Then I can decide whether to adjust my route accordingly.

To those who say “Outlining squelches creativity,” I would say, “Not if you’re doing it right.”  My route is not written in stone.  It’s written on paper, and for crying out loud, I do have a GPS in my car to fall back on if my original route turns out to have too many construction road blocks along the way or is otherwise not all that I’d hoped it would be.  At several points during the writing of my current novel, I stopped to reevaluate and rewrite my outline, when I discovered that the detours I wanted to take just didn’t match up with the original route any more.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  The important point is, I stopped for further planning when I needed to instead of trying to adjust on the fly, or worse, continuing on a route that just wasn’t working.

So how do I outline?  Sequential bullet points in a word processing document, with as little or as much detail at each bullet point as I want, and as many or as few bullet points as I think I need to get where I’m going.  Outlining can be as simple as that.  The outline exists to serve my needs, not the other way around.  Yes, there are lots of theories on the best way to outline, and exactly what your outline should include.  You can get as crafty as you want with index cards, bulletin boards, software based storyboards, snowflakes, etc.  And if it’s working for you, great.  Go with it.  Personally, I don’t feel like I need or have the time for all the bells and whistles, so I put some ideas on paper, pack my bags, and head out on the road.  And yes, I’m very much enjoying my journey, and rapidly approaching my destination.  And hopefully, by planning ahead I’ve saved myself some headaches and cramped muscles along the way.

Wishing all you writers out there a happy road trip, whether it’s carefully plotted or by the seat of your pants.  I’d love to hear about other writers’ travels.  To what extent do you (or do you not) outline, and why?  Is it working for you?  Please comment below.



About Karen Collier

I'm a writer and reviewer of Christian fiction. A librarian too. Basically the type to keep an ebook and audiobook handy at all times. Full bio & social links on my blog at
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2 Responses to Guest Post: Outlining a Novel is Like Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip

  1. Pingback: Outlining a Novel is Like Planning a Cross-Country Road Trip | Karen Collier

  2. Thanks, Karen! This is a great post and timely for Nano-ers and anyone interested in getting some perspective on a facet of the writing journey. We love hearing how another author finds her way and keeps the keyboard pointing true north. You are welcome to bring us some more travel tips anytime. 🙂

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