This is no way is my own original advice. I’ve heard it from various writers–it seems I’ve heard it somewhat frequently over the past year or so. But I’ve begun to consider my initial outline my first draft as well–and I’ve come to think it’s some of the most powerful advice anyone can get regarding drafting a new book.

Even if you think you’re a pantser, I’d encourage you to outline. Here’s the thing: THE OUTLINE DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THE FIRST THING YOU DO.

Seriously. It doesn’t. If you need to write some scenes to get a feel for the piece, do it. If you want to write character sketches and brainstorm and play, do it. If you want to put on a pot of coffee and disconnect from the Internet and plow through 10K words, do it.

But after you get a feel, after you’ve “pantsed” a bit, outline the book as a whole.

Here’s another thing: OUTLINES DO NOT HAVE TO BE, WELL, OUTLINES. Write in paragraphs. Write in lists. Whatever works. This is a tool for YOU, after all, not for anyone else.

However: AN OUTLINE IS NOT A ROUGH IDEA. It is specific. It’s detailed. If you don’t know in detail what happens in every single chapter in your book and why, you are not done with your outline yet.


I’m going to use the word “you” here in order to state my points, but really, I’m talking about my own experiences:

*Because it’s waaaaay faster than writing a full first draft, which is inevitably a mess. NaNoWriMo participants strive to write 50K new words in a month, and it is HARD. In order to achieve word count goals, you often just start throwing junk down. Writing an outline can be done in far less time and sweating far less blood. Think of how much detail you could put into an outline if you gave it your full attention to it for two weeks!

*Because you’re throwing waaaaay less into the trash. I used to speed-draft through my first drafts. I was all about 5K-word days. And frankly, I wound up ditching more than half of what I wrote. I’m not quite sure what the point is anymore. Why wear yourself out writing a draft your not going to use for the most post?

*Because if you throw out 50%+ of a manuscript, you still haven’t nailed down what it’s about. So you’ve spent at least a month–probably more like two or three–working on a project you don’t understand yet. Outlining, in my experience, is a far better method for “finding” the heart of your novel.

*Because it’s also waaaaay easier to get feedback on an outline. No reader wants to try to make sense of your mess of a sloppily written first draft. It’s much easier for them to wrap their minds around an outline. Better yet, put your outline in front of you and TELL your “reader” the story. Get their ideas and impressions about the storyline before you sit down to write draft #2.

One more thing: OUTLINES ARE MEANT TO BE ADJUSTED. Of course, as you head into the second draft of a book, you’ll come up with new ideas, new insights, etc. At this point, you need to stop what you’re doing and come back to your outline, tweaking here and there accordingly.

Treating an outline as a draft has helped me immensely–I hope it works for you, too!