How to Create a Simple Outline for Your Writing

by Suzannah Freeman

Girl with photo frame

Planners vs. Pantsers. You’re one or the other.

Remember back in school when your teacher made you plan your stories and essays before you were allowed to write them? That’s because taking the extra time to plan actually saves time in the long run.

Why You Need an Outline

Outlines can help you:

You don’t need to spend hours upon hours outlining everything you write; the time you spend should be directly proportional to what you’re writing. It might take only a few minutes to outline a blog post, but several hours (even weeks) to outline a novel.

How to Outline Non-Fiction

If you’re writing a blog post, a magazine article, or a non-fiction book, follow these steps to create a simple outline:

  1. Think of a tentative title that describes what you want to say, in a creative or highly effective way. You can always change it later, if necessary.
  2. Brainstorm a list of key points you need to cover to address your overall message.
  3. Jot a few notes under each of your key points, which you will later flesh out.

For example, when I wrote the article 6 Tips to Ease You Back Into Your Writing Routine, I (1)  gave it a descriptive and helpful title, (2) decided on six key points I needed to cover, and (3) wrote one or two dot points under each key point to help me focus and keep on track as I filled in the meat of the article.

Once you have an outline like this in place, you can virtually leave your ideas hidden away for months and be able to pick them back up where you left off.

How to Outline Fiction

Outlining a short story or novel is different than outlining non-fiction writing.

  1. Write a one-sentence summary of your story.
  2. Decide on your major characters and their motivations/goals.
  3. List key scenes you will need to tell your story, including the climax and ending.

If you’re planning to write a novel, you can expand your outline with The Single Most Powerful Writing Tool You’ll Ever See That Fits On One Page.

There’s no end to the amount of planning you can do to prepare for writing a novel, but these steps are a good starting point to keep you from straying.

Are you a planner or a pantser? What’s your personal process for outlining your writing?

Today’s Challenge: Create and outline for your next writing project. Later, compare your level of focus and productivity to previous projects you’ve written without an outline.

About the Author: Suzannah Windsor Freeman is the founder of Write It Sideways, a blog where writers learn new skills, define their goals, and increase their productivity. She is co-founder of the Better Writing Habits challenge.

  • Boy, this is a great post and just what I needed today. I don’t mind outlines for my blog posts, but outlining my fiction is much more difficult (or daunting). Thanks for separating the two genres and offering suggestions for both!

    • I’ve tried pantsing a novel before, and it ended up going absolutely nowhere 🙂 Now I outline, even though I keep it fairly flexible and do allow for changes when they seem necessary. I find it a much more efficient way to work!

  • Thanks for this post! I use to always outline my work but somewhere along the line I stopped and suffered because of it. It takes twice as long to finish a post now then it did if I just outline what I already want to say. I will definitely be incorporating this technique for my articles back into my writing.

    • It does take an extra bit of effort, but I think outlining makes the task easier overall. Hope you get back on track soon!

  • Anonymous

    I’m an outliner/planner, so I took to that Single Most Powerful Page the first time I saw it. Invaluable! Great new blog!

    • Yes, Larry Brooks deserves a medal for posting that tool!

      • Anonymous

        Absolutely! Larry Brooks’s site deserves a medal too!

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  • I figure if you can’t condense your novel into one sentence at the beginning, then you’ll probably never be able to. They’re tricky, but very valuable.

  • Great tips. I’m sharing this with my writer friends on Facebook and Twitter (@dtfpress).

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