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December 16, 2018
By Betty Kelly Sargent
Editor Betty Kelly Sargent answers writing questions submitted by readers. This month, she considers the pros and cons of outlining a novel.

Dear Editor: Should I outline my novel or just write and see where the story takes me? —John T.

For most authors, writing a novel without an outline would be like trying to drive from Chicago to Tucson without a map. You might get there eventually but at what cost?

In Write Away, Elizabeth George writes, “I create a step outline [a series of scene descriptions]. I then expand it to a running plot outline... a present tense stream-of-conscious affair... just firing away at computer keys, writing down what I see happening in each scene on my step outline.”

John Searles, author of Strange but True, says he works from a loose outline. “It’s always a very fluid process as I discover what works and what doesn’t in crafting the story. So the outline changes many times as I move forward with the writing.”

Not all writers rely on an outline. In The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, Ann Patchett writes, “During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together I don’t take notes or make outlines.... I get everything set in my head and then I go.”

Each writer is different, and it is up to you. Most of the successful novelists I have worked with over the years have used fairly detailed outlines. They were in a hurry to get to Tucson.

If you have a question for the editor, please email Betty Sargent.

Betty Kelly Sargent is the founder and CEO of BookWorks.