Most published writers agree that inspiration is overrated. After all, inspiration can generate a story idea or a character or even a scene, but it rarely generates a whole story.
Once a story idea has sprung from your head, you must grow and nurture it. This typically means outlining it.
Some writers prefer getting words on a page rather than outlining. That may work for some, but for most of us, it’ll result in a disjointed story that’s missing key elements. Outlining certainly is imperative for a novel and definitely a good idea for a short story.
An outline forces you to think deeply about your story in advance of writing it. Rather than penning passages that must be tossed because they don’t fit well into the final story, you can get that first draft closer to publishable form by working out exactly what you want to write. You can ensure the plot will flow logically from opening line through climax, can sketch out characters so that you know them better, can settle on the best point of view all in advance of writing that first line.
In many ways, the outline is like an instruction book for your story. It helps you feed the story with just the right nutrients and to ensure it receives the correct amount of sunlight. You know what you’re aiming for even before you sit down at the keyboard.
As with anything, a writer can misuse the outline by overrelying on it. Just because your outline says to write something doesn’t mean you have to, especially if it will result in a weak story. Once you start drafting the story (the next step in the writing process), always remain flexible by considering the possibility that your outline contains flaws. After all, as you continue to think about your story, you may come up with better ideas than when outlining.
A side note: There’s no right or wrong way to outline. You can use 3x5 note cards. You can write a complex beat-by-beat or even line-by-line plan. You can make a quick flow chart. Do whatever helps you best organize your thoughts.
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