Is Outlining the Last Refuge of a Bad Writer?

    outlining- human brain

    Do you really need outlining?

    In his book ‘On Writing,’ Stephen King claims ‘outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers.’ King suggests they limit inspiration and the joy of creativity.

    “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.”

    ~ Stephen King

    Jack Kerouac likely agreed about outlining, writing novels such as ‘On The Road’ in a stream-of-conscious style on a long roll of paper.

    Other writers tend to do extensive preparatory work, including scene breakdowns, character studies, world building, internet research, and theme development.

    “Prose is architecture. It’s not interior design.”

    ~ Ernest Hemingway

    Examples of writers who fall into this camp are Ken Follett, who outlines extensively, and Norman Mailer, who used a detailed character timeline for books like ‘Harlot’s Ghost.’

    So, again, does a writer really need outlining? In my own writing, I am willing to try anything in the hope it might work. I think the most important thing is to never get rigid, to experiment, to play—in a way that is invigorating and pleasing to yourself—the writer—particularly in the first draft (after you can go back and revise). 

    I have noticed that the longer and more complex a work the more likely I am to need an outline. In these cases, structure can keep you on track. It can also ensure you hit key dramatic moments. Then, too, it can make the writing process seem more finite and controlled, which can help you finish a work more expeditiously.

    “‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said, gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end; then stop.’”

    ~ Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

    Still, on some level, though, I agree with King, that outlining, more often than not, stifles creativity. It is perhaps for this reason that I am strongly attracted to short form writing—poems, stories, brief humor pieces—since they require less preparatory work—and leave more room for the imagination. 

    The fun part of writing is discovering the story—an alchemic process that generally defies logic. It is for this reason that many writers first produce an exploratory draft. They trust in the unconscious—in the way a surrealist painter might—and hope that what is dredged up will be more revelatory than anything they might have pre-planned.

    “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”

    ~Ray Bradbury

    There is a scene in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ where Alex, the leader of a vicious gang of droogs, notices his followers are plotting their own escapades rather methodically. Before attacking them, he states in V.O. ‘that the only ones use like inspiration and what bog sends.’ 

    Yes, Alex is a vicious criminal—and not exactly a role model. But there is something to the idea that to be truly creative you need to wing it….to engage in a kind of symbolic dance. This feels like jumping off a cliff without a parachute. But often excellent work comes from taking just this type of risk.

    This process of taking chances informs my poetry in particular—where, at times, I try to hear the poem, follow it if you will—finding the structure or style through the writing process rather than going in with a preconceived notion. I like to experiment, to wander, to try things that take me in strange directions. Instead of getting ideas, then, I let them get me—a kind of zen-like process that often makes writing more dynamic.

    “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

    ~ Douglas Adams

    To a certain extent this process can work for a novel too. There is an energy and power that comes from trusting your unconscious. Ironically enough, in doing so, the work just might seem as neatly planned and organized as if you had worked on an outline for months. As E.L. Doctorow once wrote: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

    What’s your take on outlining?

    About the author

      Matt Nagin

      Matt Nagin’s fiction has been published in ‘Beautiful Losers,’ ‘In Recovery Magazine’ and ‘Void Magazine’ among others. His debut poetry collection, ‘Butterflies Lost Within The Crooked Moonlight’ (2017) has garnered very strong reviews, and his poem ‘If We Are Doomed’ won The 2018 Spirit First Editor's Choice Poetry Award. He is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter. More info at

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      • Matt says:

        Hi. Marble Kristy. Thanks so much for this feedback. I’m glad it could be of some help to you. Yes. I just tried to show both sides of this frequently contested issue and offer up my own experience in the matter. As mentioned, I write poems without an outline or even an idea of what I will be writing–in most cases. My new poetry book, “Feast of Sapphires,” was written this way. Would I have been better off outlining? Not sure. I’d love for you to check it out and let me know what you think? If not, no worries, your feedback was enormously helpful regardless. …..

    • beautiful article touched heart seriously

      • Matt Nagin says:

        Awesome. Really glad you found it meaningful! Thanks so much for letting me know!

    • Marek says:

      I’m just starting to write the first blog posts and I have a much bigger problem with that than I expected. Thanks for this post and for the previous with advices on how to correct texts

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      • Matt Nagin says:

        Awesome. Glad I could be of help. Check out my website,, for more info about me and more articles on a wide range of subjects.

    • Luke Dawn says:

      Thanks for sharing this informational post

      • Matt Nagin says:

        Thanks for the feedback. Hope the article was helpful!

    • Susan says:

      It’s great to hear this, Matt. Thank you!
      Yes, I suppose outlining has its place, but I don’t prefer it. My current (and first) novel wasn’t planned at all. I had “setting,” for the beginning, and a character too. But I’ve never used that character.
      As I wrote, in this as-yet undefined genre, but mostly paranormal, mystery, and ?, every answer that was best for the small resolutions along the way appeared to me. People in my private (meaning fee-paying, non-public) writing group, insisted I must’ve had an outline.
      Not only did I have no outline, I had only vague ideas of where I was going with this. There were a few elements I (not knowing exactly why) introduced early on that became the main themes and focus of the novel.
      The biggest fun was uncovering these mysteries and then there answers, as I went.
      The group I’ve been in is comprised mostly of strong proponents of outlining…and more. Super-outlining. It’s all more work, some very mathematical, if you begin grafting it, as many outlining “gurus” teach. Bah!
      It’s not a bad novel. On the contrary…I’ll revise soon. Thanks again. I need to hear both sides.

      • Matt Nagin says:

        Susan, thanks for this feedback. It seems your experiences writing are similar to my own. Most experienced writers heavily favor the use of outlining. I have taught writing, at times, and have reviewed structure and outlining techniques. At the same time, my own writing, very often, is best when I avoid outlines. This is maybe because it leaves me no choice but to rely upon inspiration. It also puts the emphasis on the joy of discovery. Only without an outline, I guess, can you, the writer, be truly stunned by an occurrence as the reader will be hopefully stunned; or have an emotional revelation that, again, will hopefully translate to the reader. This is why I’m a big believer in the discovery draft. Anyway, there are definitely two sides to this debate, and there are advantages to outlining as well, but it is good to hear from someone who has a similar approach to writing. Thanks!

    • It really depends on what you are writing. In the world of historical fiction, you need to outline in order to make sure you get the history right. And I would bet that Stephen King had some form of outline to get 11/22/63 written, to keep fact and fiction straight. He probably just didn’t call it an “outline.” And mystery writers likely need one of some sort to keep who knows what and when straight. But an outline doesn’t have to stifle creativity. My outlines are the bare bones, mostly the hard facts and actions that have to take place at certain times. The path of the general action intermingled with the hard facts. But the stuff in between is often very fluid and may even shift the outline in dramatic ways once the butt is in the chair and the writing begins. It’s also the #1 way to fix a murky middle. I find that authors often know the beginning and the end, but how to get there is super tricky. Trying to outline it can actually help get the creative juices flowing when there might not have been any before. Figuring out what happens next for that outline is still creativity.

      Also, there are times when you might not have the whole book written, but need a summary of the entire story for an agent to pitch to editors (this is generally after an author has had a book or two under their belt and is working with traditional publishers), and that pretty much requires some outline work to complete.

      • Matt Nagin says:

        Hi Crystal. Thanks for your feedback. I agree with everything you said pretty much, although I still favor less outlining in my work. But definitely certain genres, in particular, like historical fiction and mystery, almost certainly require a degree of outlining. I agree, too, sometimes more structure can actually increase creativity and spark the imagination, so that is a good element to mention (that I didn’t emphasize in my post). Thanks again for this feedback. Great to hear other perspectives on this hotly debated topic.

    • Outlining or not depends to a great extent on how good you are at managing a complex narrative flow in your head. Until my latest, I saw no need for an outline, but the one I’m working on now would have benefitted from starting with an outline.

      I need to blend a set of principles describing how doctors and nurses can reduce their stress with incidents from my own experiences and those of others. That complicated bleeding of two differing flows (one with ideas and the other with experiences) is proving difficult to manage. An outline from Day One would have helped.

      The same is true with fiction. If you only have one or two main characters and the flow is chronological, then an outline may not help much. But if you have numerous main characters and flashbacks, an outline (or a time-flow tools like Aeon) can be a great help.

      As for outlines blocking creativity, I say “Bosh!” Ideas often come unbidden and at awkward times. An outline gives you a place to stash those ideas until you can flesh out the details. It aids rather than hinders creativity. And if you’ve got a great scene but are unsure where to place it, an outline allows you to experiment.

      • Matt Nagin says:

        These are some great points Michael. Thanks for sharing. Appreciate this feedback. Definitely an outline can, in certain instances, magnify creativity. That said, my own experience dictates, that more of then than not, this is not the case. There are exceptions though–it has depended on the project–so thanks for this feedback. The point about narrative flow makes a great deal of sense as well and is a terrific element to consider. Thanks again!

    • Nancy Larson says:

      Hi Matt,

      I used to just let the words flow. Unfortunately, at about the 30-35K mark, my novel would die. The words stopped coming. I would blather on, but thousands of words after that point got tossed. This is even worse when you’re trying to write a mystery and need to plant clues. I also use outlining for nonfiction pieces to stay on track. And, when I say outline, it’s a scribbled bullet point list to keep me going. Like a recipe, it’s tweaked and modified until I’m happy. No Roman numerals and letters here!

      Nancy Larson

      • Matt Nagin says:

        Hi Nancy. Thanks for the feedback. I agree, an outline becomes more necessary, the longer and more complex a work. A novel, for example, could often profit from an outline. I have had a similar experience of running out of steam or losing focus on a novel, although I attribute that, at least in part, to not having a full grasp of story structure and not understanding how to shape a narrative (mostly from lack of experience). But good to hear this feedback and I agree–for many–an outline is essential.Thanks again!

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