I say pros because there are zero cons to using an outline when writing. Even if it’s a short story, an outline can’t possibly hurt you. I don’t mean those strict, roman numeral followed by a certain number of spaces outlines that your fifth grade English teacher made you use. I’m talking about your own personal outline that fits your personal writing style.
“Pantsters” (those who write without the use of notes) must be cut from a different cloth than myself. They somehow manage to write an entire novel without using an outline or having a firm conclusion in mind. Some of them, I’m sure, manage to succeed. However, I have read novels that were all over the place and repeated themselves, and I wonder if the author might have benefited from using an outline. I’m not saying pantsters write poorly. For some, perhaps it is possible to write a novel that way. I have no way of knowing how an author goes about building her book unless she chooses to share that information with me. Even with an outline, I’m sure it’s still possible to write a bad book. I just want to make it clear that I, myself, am not a pantster.
I, like many authors, depend heavily upon an outline. That being said, I do not chisel my outline into a stone tablet before I begin writing. I actually start with a huge pile of jumbled notes which I’ve jotted down over the years in an attempt to weasel out a story. Eventually, I have enough notes to begin building an outline.
My outline eventually grows to encompass every single chapter in my book (or each scene of a short story). There are several reasons I do this. Mapping out each chapter lets me know what I have and haven’t written. That means I won’t leave anything out, and I won’t repeat myself and have to fix that in the editing stage. Instead of writing 50k words and then going back over everything to discover I’ve erred, I can read through my outline and decide if my story makes sense. I can already tell if the story flows well or if I need to add or remove a chapter.
Outlines are the only way to read your own book before it’s written. I can refer back to my notes and make sure every aspect I wanted to include is present somewhere in the outline. That prevents me from leaving out a key element that I really wanted to include. After years of jotting down notes, believe me, it’s very easy to forget a scene that you could visualize clearly in your head when you wrote the notes. Imagine getting all the way to your proofing stage before you double check your notes and see you completely left out a character. An outline that is written using your notes will prevent that.
Outlines are subject to change. While you’re writing, one of your characters may begin to take on new characteristics or you may re-imagine some aspect of your world. No problem! Just edit your outline to include the change. Then, go over your outline again and be sure the story still flows and reflects the change properly. If your character loses an arm in chapter 12, you don’t want to forget about that in chapter 23. Make sure the change will work throughout your story by re-reading your outline.
I cannot stress enough that there are no cons to writing an outline. Some of you may feel like that makes writing “work”. Well, sorry to disappoint you, but it is a lot of work. Even if you write your entire novel in a day or two, you still have to sit down and type it. Afterwards, you have to find an editor, proofreader, cover designer, and then market it. There’s lots of work involved, and I truly believe that an outline will save you headaches at the editing stage.
I use my outline religiously. It changes and grows as I go along, but it is always right there alongside me. It helps me focus my random thoughts into a logical progression of events and reminds me where each character is throughout the story. Keeping characters and events under control is what it’s all about. With an outline, the structure of your story is complete before you write the first chapter. Your readers will thank you when your story flows nicely, and they can easily follow what you’ve written.