Outlining vs. Writing

This outlining thing, you guys. It’s interesting. You’ll remember (or maybe you won’t, whatever, NOT LIKE I CARE) that I’ve been meeting with two other writers in an effort to get “unstuck” in my current book. They strongly encouraged me to take a step back and focus on the outline. Now, I’ve never done a full outline before. Ever, for any piece I’ve written. I knew it would be hard work — I didn’t know what different work it would be.

Outlining with Scrivener - Laura Dedon Oxford at Buffalo Writes

I’ve been using a couple different tools. The first is Scrivener, which has a cool notecard feature that lets you move the cards around however you like. Perfect for outlining! The only problem I’ve found with notecard outlining is that, for me, it’s very linear — I feel like I have to have X card in place before I can jot down the scene for Y card. I’ve tried to get around this by putting in placeholder cards — ah yes, the infamous “Something” scene — but then my brain just keeps jumping back to that blank card, wondering, “What happens there?”

So, while Scrivener is great, what’s been working best for me is my old standby — writing by hand. And this is where the real differences between outlining and writing have become apparent. I write by hand all the time — I know what that feels like, the responses and outcomes — so it’s been easy to contrast to the process of outlining. 

Writing is instant gratification. You type, words appear. It can be slow going, yes, but you still can quickly and easily see the progress being made. Hell, there is even a way to quantify it — hello, word count!

Outlining is delayed gratification. You’re not really going to see the fruits of your labor until much, much later, until after the first draft is written and all the pieces have easily fallen into place. Which, while you’re doing it, makes it seem like a more frustrating process — “WHERE ARE MY RESULTS??” you want to scream.

Writing is action. It’s turning off the editor and just getting those words down on the page. At least, for me it is — when I’m really in the writing zone, I try not to think too much, because it can quickly turn into overthinking. I don’t want my internal editor saying, “Oooh, you know? That really isn’t all that good.” Not on the first draft. I just want to get those words down, keep the story moving.

Outlining is thinking. When I’m outlining by hand, it seems to activate different parts of the brain — I feel free to be much less linear, to just wander and circle and finally zone in on a solution. And sadly — there often aren’t a ton of physical results for this effort. I sat in the backyard the other night for almost two hours, outlining. And I felt really good about it — I had a couple great breakthroughs and felt that, all in all, it was a solid night’s work.

Then I looked back over my notes, and I had three scant pages of chicken scratch.

But! That doesn’t mean I failed (I mean, I don’t think it does, at any rate). It just means… well, outlining is turning out to be a much more internal process than writing. Which is odd, right, because writing is such an internal, solitary activity. But outlining is forcing me to go deeper, think harder, get totally and completely lost in my head. And there’s no real way to quantify that on a page. You just have to trust that in the end, it’ll be worth it.

(One aside? That belief that outlining takes the magic and surprise out of writing? I’m finding that not to be the case at all. I’m delighted by what I’ve discovered about my story while outlining — new plot points, new factoids about the characters. It still holds the same magic.)

I’m making progress. Soon I’ll be able to fill out those “Something” notecards. But until then, you can find me in the backyard, a vacant expression on my face as I mull over the endless possibilities. 

Pen to Paper

As much as I love computers for all they have given me — Excel, Oregon Trail, cats on the internetz — there’s something about handwriting I’ll never get over. It’s all so very tactile: your hand brushing against paper; the smell of lead; the ink spots that cover the sides of my index finger after a writing session.


While it’s a lot slower than writing on the computer, most of my writing starts out like this — handwritten in a small purse-sized notebook. There are two reasons for this. One: I don’t own a laptop! Pen and paper is cheap and portable and no matter where I am I can steal fifteen, thirty minutes whenever I can to write.

One of my favorite notebooks: dot-grid from RAD AND HUNGRY.

Two: this may sound odd, but my writing is better when it starts in handwritten form. I really got on the handwriting bandwagon after reading Lynda Barry’s What It Is. (Let me stop right now and say: if you are a creative individual and haven’t read this book, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING GO NOW WHERE IS YOUR CREDIT CARD??) Barry is a big proponent of handwriting. She says it opens up a different part of the brain, something we’re not able to access by sitting stationary at a computer ::

There is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something.

And I dunno. I’ve always argued that I’m a great candidate for the placebo effect, but there’s something about handwriting that just works. The story progresses to places I didn’t imagine — characters say things I didn’t expect. My own stories surprise me in ways they never do when I’m working solely on the computer.

The downside of handwriting: not being able to figure out my notes. STILL not sure what this is supposed to mean...
The downside of handwriting: not being able to figure out my notes. STILL not sure what this is supposed to mean…

I try to get other things into my notebooks, too. Drawings (which I do poorly). Typography (OH SO AMATEUR). I’m not good at these things but I’d like to get better. One notebook at a time.

This weekend’s plan: map out the future backyard on grid paper. Draw out the lines. See where it takes me.