Guest Post: Outlining, by John Klima

John Klima previously worked at Asimov’s, Analog, and Tor Books before returning to school to earn his Master’s in Library and Information Science. He now works full time as a librarian. When he is not conquering the world of indexing, John edits and publishes the Hugo Award-winning genre zine Electric Velocipede. The magazine has is also a four-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award. In 2007 Klima edited an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories based on spelling-bee winning words called Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories. In 2011, Klima edited an anthology of retellings of fairytales for Night Shade Books titled Happily Ever After. He and his family live in the Midwest. You can follow him on Twitter @EV_Mag or learn about his editorial services at his personal site:

Outlining isn’t for everyone.  Nor is it for every project.  Most short stories won’t require outlines, and many novel-length writers function perfectly well without creating outlines for their work.  Deciding on whether an outline is appropriate is directly related to the length and complexity of the work at hand.

Occasionally you have something that you want to put some thought to before you start getting words down on the page.  It could be something rather lengthy like a planned trilogy where you know where it’s going to end (or you’d like to know where it’s going to end so you can write towards that end instead of inchworming* your way along the plot) or it could be something that you’re in the beginning stages of and you want to see if the idea is sustainable.

You might also find yourself in the position where someone (i.e., an agent or editor) has asked for an outline (say of the second and third books of a trilogy**) and now you’re not sure what to do next.

The best part of outlining is that it is also part of the creative process.  Where your brain might list sidewise and try to crawl outside your skull at the thought of making an outline, remember that you’re in control and you can tell your brain to stuff it and starting organizing stuff into sections, ideas, supporting ideas, and so on.

I have to give credit where credit is due.  My wife teaches composition at the local two-year University of Wisconsin school, and earlier this year she was frustrated with the quality of outlines she received from her students.  So she created an assignment/worksheet to help them.  I’m not a good outliner, so when I read her assignment (I’m often her guinea pig when she has new assignments…I don’t know if that means that I’m similar to her students and if I can understand it so will they OR if I’m so damn smart that I’ll suss out any flaw in the assignment; personally I think it’s the former, but what can you do?) I was so taken with how clear and concise it was that I wanted to share it with you folks.

I’ve adjusted the assignment somewhat, but you’re essentially getting this the same way her students did.  This assignment was created for students who were writing a research paper, which is different from a novel, but an outline is an outline.  I’ve found it useful with larger projects I’ve been working on, so I hope you do, too.  Something that might help approach the outline is to think of it as a very rough, very nebulous first draft (although if you want to put a lot of detail into your outline, feel free to do so!***).

Keep in mind that the outline below is only a sample outline.  For example, section I.A doesn’t always need two supporting points while I.B needs four; that was done to show how you use the structure of an outline.

Thesis statement (how you describe the book to your mom; your book in 25-50 words):

  1. Major section #1
    1. 1st main idea
      1. supporting idea (usually a “they say/annotation)
      2. your discussion of #1 (usually this is the explanation/”I say”
    2. 2nd main idea
      1. discussion of B (“I say” could go first)
      2. supporting idea (“They say”/annotation)
      3. supporting idea (Another “they say”/annotation)
      4. discussion what #2/3 who (“I say” again)
    3. 3rd main idea
      1. 1st complex idea
        1. Supporting idea (“they say”/annotation)
        2. Discussion (“I say”)
      2. 2nd complex idea
        1. Support (“they say”/Annotation)
        2. Discussion (“I say”)
      3. 3rd complex idea/Explanation of what C.i and C.ii show for thesis
  2. Major section #2 (etc.)

Here are the basic rules for outlining:

  • Make the items at the same level of generality as parallel as possible.
  • Each subdivision must contain AT LEAST 2 items.  So all I. need to be paired with at least a II., all A. need at least B., all i. have at least ii., all a. have b. and so on.
  • If you can’t divide something into at least two items, then create another single item for the level above. (Ex. Rather than have an 2.a. by itself, just make a 3. section, OR instead of a B.i., just make a C. section)
  • Use sentences unless phrases are clear.
  • Be careful as word processing programs like to format outlines the way they want to format them.  Don’t be afraid to change things.  Alternately, if you don’t want to use the pre-built outline templates, you can manually create the outline using tabs instead, tabbing over once for every level of detail (i.e., the main section I at the left margin, one tab for the A. section, two tabs for i., three tabs for a., and so on). Your software might try to automatically format your outline, so again, be careful.
  • Be flexible.  This is a writing plan (think of it like giant pre-writing).  It is fine to change organization/order as you write.  You will know what you actually need and where when you write.
  • This outline should be fairly lengthy.  Typically the working outline of a research paper is about half the length of the final draft.  For a novel, that’s likely unreasonable, but don’t be surprised if you have an outline of ten to twenty pages or more.

* It was Bradley Beaulieu who I first heard describe his writing process as inchworming.  Essentially it means planning a little way ahead in the plot, writing all those ideas, and then planning again when the well is dry.  You move through the novel like an inch worm, a little bit at a time.

** In the early 1980s Glen Cook had submitted a proposal for a trilogy to David G. Hartwell (this was likely the Starfishers books).  Glen had the first book written, and David was certain that the publisher would want all three, but he needed an outline of books one and two so that it could be on file.  I seem to remember the story being that the publisher required wouldn’t buy the books ‘unseen’ and required at least an outline in order to draw up a contract.  Glen had no idea how to write an outline so over the weekend, he wrote books two and three and then created the outline for them from the rough drafts.

*** David Drake creates extremely detailed outlines when preparing to write.  This has been a great benefit to people who co-wrote books with David as the books almost write themselves.



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  1. M. Stephan Schaub
    22/06/2012 at 3:19 pm Permalink

    I just decided to try outlining my latest novel attempt. I’ve never outlined before, so it should be interesting. Very timely and much needed post, Thanks!

  2. A. Zanoni
    22/06/2012 at 4:26 pm Permalink

    Wow. This explains a lot about David Drake. I love reading his essays in particular, they’re so orderly. I’m always pleased when he turns up in NYRSF; it’s like having candy. 🙂

  3. Paul Weimer
    24/06/2012 at 4:15 am Permalink

    Given Drake’s propensity to collaborate–I’m not surprised. Thanks, John!