Writing from an Outline: Room for Improvisation?

Saturday, December 10, 2016
When I write a book for Abdo Publishing, I always start by turning in a first chapter and an outline. Once I have the outline in place, it is easy enough to run through it, chapter by chapter, writing each section as I reach it in the outline. Invariably, I come across a something that just doesn’t work as outlined.

The first time this happened, I panicked. The outline had been approved by my editor. How closely did I need to follow it?

When the panicked subsided, I remembered the whole point of writing the outline. It isn’t a contract written in blood. It tells the editor what major topics I will cover. An outline is an opportunity for writer and editor to agree on a big picture plan. I’ve never had an editor comment when I make minor changes to my outline.

Minor changes include fiddling with sidebars. When I plan a book, I look for the best possible place for each sidebar. As I expand the outline and write the text, I sometimes find that a sidebar is actually a better match with a different chapter. Moving it is no big deal as long as I have the right number of sidebars in each chapter.

Sometimes a sidebar doesn’t need to be moved anywhere but the recycle bin. If my sidebar idea is logically flawed or weak, sometimes I can reslant it for a workable fix. Other times I cut it and come up with a better idea.

Then there are those sidebars that I have troubles keeping short enough to actually be sidebars. Some of them just need to be radically edited. Others just aren’t tangential enough to be sidebars. That means it is time to make it a chapter section which can help solve another problem if I have a chapter section that isn’t strong enough to be part of the main chapter.

Generally I can make these kinds of changes without messing with the big picture plan I created in my outline. Needless to say, if I’m going to make a change that does interfere with that plan, I clear it with my editor first, usually by sending a brief e-mail.

An outline gives me a goal for my manuscript. It isn’t a set of constraints. It is a plan, nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes that plan has to change slightly to produce the best possible book and that’s an okay thing.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--A plan is like a cellphone. It's there for your (the writer's) convenience. As prolific and successful as you are, it's not a surprise that you've found a way to make flexibility to work for you.

Sticking rigidly with a plan, even though you've done more research and have found more forks in the piece--that would be silly.

Thanks for the post, Sue.

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