When I hear the word “outline,” I shudder. It is by far the easiest way to strike fear into the heart of me, a habitual procrastinator and ~creative~.
Writers and non-writers alike often live by outlines. They provide organization and peace of mind when tackling a complicated topic or large project. In school, they are also highly regarded as the best way to take notes, and a good way to catch structural errors before most of the work gets done.
And I’ve always hated them.
Maybe it’s because I never learned how to do them effectively, or maybe it’s because messy is just my organizational style, but outlining has never come easy to me. In grade school and undergrad, I’d complete outlines as required for graded class notes or pre-writing exercises, but they’d be a formality. I would never work off them in the long run.
When I entered the workforce, I abandoned outlines altogether. The finished product was all that mattered, and if I could deliver on that, why would I even need to waste my time on bullet points?
Then I started my screenwriting education, and my nightmare became reality.
At UCLA, they are very focused on preparing us and exposing us to the industry. Almost all of my instructors have either worked or are working in television and film. All of them stress not only the creative importance of an outline, but the professional importance of one.
You see, before a movie or television show gets made, it goes through copious amounts of notes and adjustments by the head writers, directors, producers, studios, networks — you name it. So, before a script is even given the go-ahead, an outline must be approved.
No outline = no money.
And because I hate outlines so much, I needed to write out exactly why.
There’s this messy categorization out there that classifies those who use outlines as “plotters” and those who don’t as “pantsers,” meaning they “fly by the seat of their pants” with every piece of writing they produce. But not only is that a hurtful and negative classification for many writers who don’t use outlines, it’s also wrong.
We’ve spoken about the writer’s flow state before, and how it can come and go without rhyme or reason. In many cases, an outline makes that flow state fly out the door with not even a wave goodbye.
As your mind crafts words and sentences and ideas for whatever you are writing, you make discoveries and sometimes must follow your pen where it wants to take you. If you are beholden to an outline, the act of “sticking to it” takes you out of that flow state and puts you alone in a room with a mean old director who yells at you every time you go off script. If you were constantly being yelled at by that director, would you do your best work? Wouldn’t you freeze up?
Not only can the presence of an outline disrupt your flow state, it can make it harder to start writing altogether. When I was tasked with outlining my first script in the program, I was expected to know every scene from start to finish, with every character’s journey, and every twist and turn — both plot-based and emotional. And I was expected to know it in about a week.
And so the writer’s block set in. Well, it wasn’t writer’s block per se; it was an overwhelming feeling of stress at having to know the entirety (in detail) of what I was going to write before actually writing it. It was all the action without the dialogue, and it was supposed to be approximately 12 pages long.
So, instead of writing the first act of my teleplay, I spent two weeks agonizing over nine pages of outline (yes, I fell short of 12 pages), which I knew would be useless once I started actually having the characters communicate.
Waste of time? Seemed like it.
I was also able to observe my peers in their outline and writing process, and they too experienced issues. Some actually became too attached to their outlines. In 10 weeks, a couple of peers didn’t even get to write any pages of script because they struggled so much to perfect their outline. Some who did get to pages had trouble making it feel natural. Instead of letting their innate creativity take over, they let their outlines dictate the final product, and it suffered because of it.
We all learned a lot about outlines.
Because in screenwriting, no outline = no money, I knew I had to adapt my writing process if I wanted to succeed. So, I was forced to find the good in outlines, and luckily it wasn’t actually that hard.
Because I resisted producing good outlines at the beginning, my first few scripts had to be completely rewritten once they were done. When I finally sat down and took time to work with an outline, I found the number of revisions and rewrites I had to do went down significantly.
This is because, with outlines, you get to establish a strong backbone to your piece of writing. Whether it’s an article, a script, or a story. If you can see the structure of your story laid out as a whole, you can also see lapses in logic, pacing, and major plot holes that might cause a later rewrite if not taken care of earlier on in the process.
For instance, once I turned in an outline for what would have become a 60-page script and was told the contents of that outline should only take 15 pages. Imagine wasting 45 pages (and many hours) of writing because you didn’t catch the pacing problem earlier.
I also found that, once I got the hang of writing strong outlines, my confidence improved. I no longer feared the empty white page or the blinking cursor. Instead, I blew through pages faster than I ever had, because I already knew exactly where I wanted to go with them. And the best part? I was still able to make discoveries along the way without deviating from the structure — which is exactly how it should be.
So are outlines the worst, or are they the best?
I’ve experienced both the bad and the good of outlining, but I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. Can we stop classifying writers like that? There is no set process that leads to success, there’s no perfect formula, and there is no perfect writer. I think that’s pretty clear.
If I need to outline, I can, and if I don’t need to, I don’t. And you don’t have to either. Or do, I don’t care; it’s your choice!
But sometimes you might not know when you should or shouldn’t — whether it’s better to let your creative spirit figure things out freely or give it guidance.
For that, I have some advice.
In the film and television industry, outlines are essential. In most writing fields, outlines are also standard for proof of concept.
If you’re pitching or submitting to a publication, especially online, many prefer outlines before the article gets written. It helps them avoid wasting their time on a concept they don’t connect with, and wasting your time if the pitch doesn’t get you published. While some actually do require an article to be submitted before deciding whether to publish you, it’s best to always be prepared to show an outline.
If outlines are also part of the process for your job or for educational purposes, you better learn how to do a good outline. If I told my producer or director, “Yeah, outlines really aren’t my ‘thing,’ can you just wait for a complete script?” They’d laugh in my face and hire someone else.
Outlines aren’t that hard, so it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker for you wanting a certain job or to be featured in a publication.
Even if an outline isn’t required, they can still come in handy based on the kind of writing you’re doing. If the piece requires organization over creative fluidity, then an outline can streamline your writing process while also making sure the final product is organized enough for minimal structural changes after the fact.
Especially if you know you have to hit certain points or details in your writing, it’s best to create a rough outline that you can write around, and that will remind you, “Hey, you haven’t mentioned this yet.” I used an outline for this article, because there were certain points I knew I wanted to address. I’m doing pretty well so far, aren’t I?
Finally, if your work is just generally better when you use an outline, then definitely use one! If you like using outlines, then use outlines. Just because one might not be necessary, it doesn’t mean you should be lazy or ignore part of the process that helps you thrive. It’s your choice!
Because I don’t have a perfect relationship with outlines, there are times when I don’t have to choose not to make one before writing. I’ve already mentioned not doing an outline when I want to make significant discoveries as I’m writing. If I believe I’ll find plot or structural answers as I write through the piece, I will skip the outline and go right into a first draft.
If I’m on a significant time crunch to complete a draft, I also skip outlining. Sometimes it’s better to just get it written than to get it right. And, if you have the luxury of editors, you really don’t have to get it right the first time (though they’ll like you more the less they have to dig in on edits).
Plus, there are certain writing projects that I’ve done enough not to need an outline. Usually, I don’t outline my CYC articles because I’ve got the structure and style down, and if I’m writing a school paper that’s less than five pages, I don’t waste my time. Usually, once you’ve had enough practice, the theoretical outline is already in your head.
However, when I don’t outline but still need to focus on structure, I use alternatives that help me organize in a less organized way.
This is a common step in the screenwriting process, but I’ve also found it super helpful in other aspects of my writing career. A beat sheet is a document in which you write out the major “beats” of a scene or script. A beat is a major moment, be it a character’s introduction, an action scene, the turning point, or the final scene.
A beat sheet is generally organized into bullet points only (no sub-point or explanations) and can cover a 60-page script in two pages. It’s very short and covers only important points. I’ve even done an informal beat sheet that took up half a page.
With a beat sheet, you can still put a general structure in writing and keep yourself accountable for your writing organization, but you don’t have the pressure of writing out a detailed outline.
If you have absolutely nothing before you start writing, then try free writing with a pen and paper to get some ideas on the page. This isn’t a first draft, it’s simply a document to get all the words swirling around in your head out on paper so that you can create some sort of product out of it.
After you word vomit all over the page, use those words to create a mind map. I’m hesitant to recommend mind mapping completely though, as it seems there is a general guideline for mind mapping that resembles outlining.
If you don’t want to use a standard mind map, you can take a highlighter or marker and circle the words or phrases you find useful in your free write, and use those golden nuggets of info to start your first draft.
Sometimes my writing is meant to answer questions, whether posed outright or inferred. So, to organize my draft prior to writing it, I like to ask myself questions with the goal of answering them in my piece.
I will write some down initially, then take breaks as I’m writing to check off the ones I’ve answered, focus on the ones I haven’t, and add any new questions that have arisen since starting to write.
Posing questions about my topic can help me stay authentic while writing about it, and also keep the organization in check. If, two pages in, I haven’t answered any of the questions I posed, I’m probably on a tangent.
As you develop your writing process, keep in mind that what works for some might not work for others. Outlining is something I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with, and will probably continue to have for the rest of my career. But, knowing when I need to outline versus when I don’t has helped me become more realistic about my abilities as a writer, and more comfortable in my different processes.
This strategy doesn’t just have to be used with outlining, either! If there is a part of the writing process that you don’t particularly like, try taking a moment to examine the good and the bad of that particular part, and whether it’s something you always need to do or something you can skip from time to time.
You may learn something about yourself in the process, or maybe just cut down on some of the work.
Just remember, if there are master writers who do it, there must be a reason.
Erika Rasso graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.A. in English and marketing and the University of California, Los Angeles with an MFA in Screenwriting. She has worked as a writing consultant, an editor for literary and academic journals, and as an assistant to film and TV producers. In her free time, Erika enjoys playing games and writing screenplays (though mostly she just watches WAY too many shows on Netflix). She is the Director of Production for Craft Your Content.