Outlining for Dummies, or Why an Outline Is Not for Me

Throughout my life I have been presented with the daunting task of creating an outline. High school English teachers treated them like they were the be all and end all of papers. No good paper could be written without a clear outline in place.

That was problematic for me. My brain doesn’t function from an outline. How do I know what’s going into that paragraph until I’ve already written it? As I write, I discover that the point I wanted to make actually belongs four paragraphs down. Which, I’m sure my teachers would insist would present itself as I outlined.

It doesn’t. Not for me.

Some of the best papers I’ve written for college had several paragraphs where I rambled about the topic until I hit on something I could write about. And then I wrote the paper and went back and deleted my musings on how I thought the topic was pointless and a waste of my time.

I don’t think I ever outlined a single college paper. And I wrote a lot of papers in college. (It happens when you’re an English major with a history concentration).

In high school, I had teachers who expected us to turn in an outline a week before the rough draft of the paper was due. This provided me with two options: I could write an outline that I would completely ignore when I wrote the paper or I could write the paper and create an outline from that. It made more sense to write an outline from a completed paper.

This inability to successfully create an outline translates over to my fiction writing. The best I can do for outlining is to create something akin to a timeline. This event happens and then at some point this event happens and then everything wraps up. But if I’m going to do that, it makes more sense to me to write the scenes and then write my way toward them.

I still struggle with creating outlines. I know this because earlier this month, I attempted to outline the novel I wrote in 2011. I also say outline pretty loosely.

I didn’t end up with the neat outline with bullet points that my high school instructors demanded I use. I ended up with a couple of sentences snarkily summarizing what happened in each chapter.

My attempts at modifying the outline into what I want my novel to end up looking like meant moving some chapter summaries around. Rewriting sections of summary, with more or less snark depending on the section, and occasionally including the comment of “make this suck less. Like. Seriously.”

I’ve had people give me varying suggestions on how to outline something, but to me nothing makes sense. Maybe as I get more experience I’ll be able to figure this outlining thing out. I can see how it could be useful, especially when it comes time to edit. Or maybe I’ll just keep making snarky chapter summaries.


At the age of six, Eliza was certain of two things. The first was that she had stories to tell. The second was that she had no talent for illustrating them herself. Talent or no, she still wrote and illustrated her first book, one that should be located and locked away if only to prevent her parents from embarrassing her terribly by showing it off alongside baby pictures. Now she spends her days writing stories that she isn't embarrassed to show off after a little bit of polishing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.