how to use your outline header

How to Use Your Outline When Writing Your First Draft

HOW TO USE YOUR OUTLINEOutlining your novel is one thing. But then, whether you prefer to outline with minimalism, maximalism, or hindsight (aka, in revisions), a surprisingly easy stumbling block can be that of figuring out how to use your outline in the first draft.

Recently, I received an email from Matt Powers, which made me realize that, out of all the dozens of posts I’ve written about outlining, I’ve never actually talked about how to use your outline when writing the first draft. Matt wrote:

I’ve read several of your writing books, as well as too many blog posts to count, and I don’t think I’ve seen this addressed. Forgive me if I missed it.

I have an extensive outline that I’m quite pleased with, and I’m about 40,000+ words into my first draft, but here’s the thing: I’m struggling with the actual writing and I can’t seem to get into the flow because I keep going back and forth between the draft and the outline. I have so much in my outline that I want to be sure to include, that I find I can only get a few sentences in before I’m pulled back to referencing the outline.

It’s like I have one eye on each, and it equals a slog of an experience!

I see tons of advice on how to create an outline, but very little on the practicality of actually using it. So I guess my question is, how do you utilize your outline when writing that first draft? How often are you referencing your outline as you write?

The How and Why of Outlining a Novel

For a long time, the writing world differentiated between writers who were “plotters” (those who planned/plotted a story before writing it) and writers who were “pantsers” (those who “write by the seat of their pants” with no upfront planning). However, over my years of outlining many books, writing many words about outlines, and learning about how other writers work, I’ve come to believe these distinctions are far too narrow.

At some point in the process, almost all writers end up outlining/plotting/planning. And at other points, we all end up pantsing/winging it/being spontaneously creative. In a craft as complex as that of novel-writing, both are equally important. How much outlining an author does upfront versus how much revision that same author does on the back end will vary greatly depending on each author’s personal mental wiring and creative preferences.

That said, let me now express a little of my personal passion for maximalist outlining. I write extensive outlines, which start out with largely incoherent stream-of-conscious ramblings and questioning, before eventually solidifying into detailed scene outlines that contain just about everything a first draft should except for narrative prose.

For example, here’s a snippet of the scene outline from my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer (from the scene in which he “contracts” his super-speed):

Will flees for home. The trip is a blur. He’s nauseated, vomiting, and horribly dizzy, heart beating out of control, short of breath. I think that the powers should manifest just a little bit: his hands moving quicker than he’s used to, so he has trouble with the door latch. But he chalks it up to his illness.

And here’s approximately the same snippet from the corresponding scene in the first draft:

Through the weed-eaten garden, Will ran. Up and over first one stile, across the road, then the other stile. The night air cut through the sweat on his face. Even as he ran, his teeth rattled cruelly.

For the first time since he was a lad running this field at night, he caught his toe and fell on his face. Before he hit the soft soil, his stomach erupted. He vomited, and then he vomited again. The stars in the sky spun and spun, in every direction, up and down, in front and behind.

On hands and knees, he dragged himself forward, barely gaining his feet.

This time, there was no running; indeed, he could scarcely walk. He splashed into the knee-high stream before its gentle splashing even registered in his ears. He crossed without looking for the bridge. He would have been unable to see it in any case.

He staggered up to the house. His vision had gone completely dark, so maybe there was no light in the window.

>>Click here to read the complete transcript of my outline for my dieselpunk adventure Storming.

My goal in writing any outline is to, first, pour out all of my “dreams” about a given story. I want to number all the shiny pieces my subconscious creativity has given me.

Then, by the time I’m done with the outline, I want to have moved as thoroughly as possible through the first analytical pass. I use my scene outlines to work through a story’s logical progression. I want to figure out as many of the details as possible, everything from what props are available in a particular scene’s setting, to the specific action/reaction sequence of each scene’s structure, to the motivations of all on-stage minor characters.

In other words, I try to use my outline to answer every single question I can think of before I start writing the first draft. I do this for two intertwined reasons.

1. I want to write a clean first draft (because revisions:blech).

2. When writing my first draft, I want to turn away from my logical brain and immerse myself utterly in the imaginative dreamzone space of my story.

I can’t do the latter if my logical brain is always turning into Hermione-raising-her-hand-every-five-minutes. And I certainly can’t do both simultaneously if I haven’t already checked off the bulk of any story’s necessary causal analysis and troubleshooting.

This is why I outline. But how do I then take all these tens of thousands of words from my outline and seamlessly integrate them into the creative zone of my first draft?

5 Tips for How to Use Your Outline

How you choose to reference your outlining notes during the first draft will depend largely on the format of the notes themselves.

Writers who prefer the minimalist approach may create outlines that feature only a single phrase for each suggested scene, or even just a phrase for each important structural beat. In this case, referencing the outline is a comparatively simple and intuitive activity, since you’ll probably only need to check your notes at the beginning of each writing session. (In fact, some of these writers end up filling in their outlines simultaneously with their first drafts, as a way of keeping track of what they’re writing, for easy continuity checks.)

But what if, like me, you end up with enough outline notes to form a respectable pile of notebooks?

Completed Novel Outline Wayfarer K.M. Weiland

Completed outline for my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer

In the case of maximalist outliners, it becomes essential to create a system for accessing all those juicy notes you’ve labored over, without constantly pulling yourself out of first-draft flow.

(Needless to say, writers who prefer to wait until after the first draft is altogether finished to do their logical thinking will have few, if any, notes to start with. Depending on the extent of required revisions, these authors may end up, to all essential purposes, following either the minimalist or maximalist crowd.)

Here are my top tips for organizing and using your outline notes, however few or many they may be.

1. Organize the Notes as You Go

Here’s the thing about piles upon pile of rambling notes that circle around randomly: they get to be a mess quick. This is especially true if you outline longhand like I do (if you’re interested in following my outlining process in a tidy digital approach, check out my Outlining Your Novel Workbook software).

The trick is to organize your outline notes as you’re writing them. Use color-coded highlighting systems to file your ideas for easy reference later. If you’re writing longhand, transcribe regularly (especially if, like moi, you can’t read your own writing after too much time passes). This will save you a ton of work in the interim between outline and first draft. You can thank me later.

Scene Outline Dreambreaker Highlights

2. Buy Scrivener

You can, of course, write and use even the most complex of outlines without Scrivener. But this powerhouse word processor for writers just makes everything so much easier. With its opportunities for folders and files and sub-files, among many other organizational gadgets, its a huge step up from juggling your story’s outline and first draft between separate Word files.

By the time I’m ready to write my first draft, I will have used Scrivener to organize my outline notes scene by scene, along with many sub-folders for reference material that includes everything from research notes to costume pictures to character interviews to the random bits of story info I call “orange notes” (because of the highlighter I use to color-code them).

Writing_Process_Scrivener_Character_Sketches_Interviews

This way, if I find myself needing to break concentration to check something, I don’t have to go far. With everything at my fingertips, I can quickly check myself, then jump back into writing.

3. Block Out a Beat-by-Beat “Storyboard” for Each Scene, But…

Now that we have our outline notes set up and optimally organized within Scrivener, what’s the best approach to referencing the notes without bumping out of the writing zone every five minutes?

Each time I begin writing a new scene, I review my notes and create a sequential list of everything that needs to happen in the scene. The list I used for the scene from Wayfarer, in the original section of this post, started out something like this:

  • Will is dizzy as he runs home across the field.
  • He trips and vomits.
  • He tries to get into the house, but his reflexes are too fast.

In essence, I’m creating a non-visual storyboard, with each beat blocked out.

4. …Don’t Do It Until the Last Minute

You’ll note I do this storyboarding whenever I’m ready to start writing a new scene. Feasibly, you could go ahead and write up the complete beat list for every scene before you start the first draft. This is an approach I consider with every book I write—and one I always reject.

Why?

Because my memory is faulty. I write best when I know what I’m writing. If I have to take a little time at the beginning of every scene to think my way through my scene outline, then I know my head will be in the right place. If I merely scanned a beat list I might have written months ago, I would inevitably miss some important moment on the list and end up constructing the scene inappropriately.

Writing up each scene’s beat-by-beat sequence refreshes my memory and lets me take full advantage of all the notes and ideas I labored over when in the outlining phase.

5. Paste Your Beat List Directly Into Your Scene Doc

Once I’ve knocked out my beat list, I put it in the main body of my scene’s Scrivener file. I position it on the screen so the first item of the list is just above the bottom of the screen, directly in my line of sight. This way, I can easily glance down and reference the beat I’m working on.

Wayfarer Chapter Five Outline in Process

As soon as I finish the beat, I’ll delete it, which raises the subsequent beat into view. Sometimes, of course, I won’t need to reference every beat. I may write several beats before needing to look down and check my progress.

This approach allows me to focus on bringing to life the first draft’s causes and effects without having to constantly click out of full-screen mode to make sure I’m adhering to the logical progression I already worked out.

***

Is this the most elegant approach to dealing with maximalist outline notes? Maybe not. It does require a little extra work before each scene. But over my years of outlining and writing almost a dozen novels, this is the method I’ve found most useful. It helps me make full use of my outlines and, as a result, allows me to write relatively clean first drafts from a place of uninterrupted creativity. As far as I’m concerned, that’s win-win!

How you outline, how much you outline, and how you use your outline when writing your first draft are all deeply personal parts of the writing process. Only you can figure out the nuances that will position you to write your best novel. But these tips may help you decide your own personalized tricks.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you outline upfront? Has it been a challenge for you to figure out how to use your outline when writing the first draft? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Stimulating and helpful, as usual. Thanks, Katie.
    For my next historical novel, I have a spreadsheet of dates of historic events interspersed with fictitious story events, plus several ‘background’ docs about the real and fictitious characters, etc. And I have some scenes sketched out in Scrivener. My problem is that I don’t yet know in what order to place the various scenes for best effect. I’ve come to realize that strict chronology is probably boring.
    Do you advise writing scene by scene and later rearranging them for maximum suspense, or deciding the sequence up front?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve always had best luck writing the book in its intended sequence, rather than hopping around. Foreshadowing and other subtle techniques develop more organically when the book is written in order.

  2. I’m just learning Scrivener. What a powerhouse! I probably won’t use all its whistles and bells right away, but I’m excited to be able to use it, especially the cork board. I love 3X5 cards! I’ve struggled with outlining my whole life-hated it in school. But, I can certainly see the advantage of using it, especially as I’ve experienced the dreaded question: “Now, which character was it way back in chapter (which chapter?) who threatened her with the butcher knife?” Then the hunt is on, using the find, going back to the beginning to make sure I don’t have 2 characters saying the same thing. Oy vey! Thanks, Kate for a very clear and informative post. I never miss yours!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Scrivener’s Keywords function is fantastic for keeping track of which characters/settings/props/subplots/thematic elements show up in any given scene.

  3. Casandra Merritt says

    Very helpful. I have found that when working on the first draft, I need to know my characters well, especially my Antagonist, and how everything will turn out in the end. Other than that, the details fill in by themselves. I do write a lot about my story, mostly to discover the theme, but I don’t know if you would call that an outline, because it’s mostly unusable and all runs together. My “outline” is what you described at the top. I don’t do scenes until later, and I have a single sentence for each plot point. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      ” I don’t know if you would call that an outline, because it’s mostly unusable and all runs together.”

      Hah. I totally call that an outline. That’s an exact description of my early sketches, before I finally pull it together in a linear scene outline.

  4. I like the idea of a beat sheet. Having all the answers ready and waiting sounds like such a time saver for a first draft. Thanks for sharing your process.

  5. Bravo! Again!! I have been struggling with this question, trying several different routines, and I have not really tackled that beast. I will give your technique a try. Obviously, writing a 100K +/- tome over several months can be taxing, let alone the editing phase. How many times do we want to read our entire work of art. Tips and tricks (one bite at a time) are the only way one can hope to successfully complete the task. Many thanks, as always!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “One bite at a time” is an excellent mantra for writers. Any work of fiction, but particular one as long as a novel, can sometimes seem like an insurmountable task. But it really is like eating the elephant–one bite at a time.

  6. This post was SO helpful for me, thank you so much!

  7. Hi katie,
    Thanks so much for this article, I’m currently developing my trilogy and have the same problem as the guy who wrote to you so I have devoured this post! I really love #5 because I hadn’t thought of that and have now began setting up my scrivener to ”flow’ when I’m writing.
    I’m so excited to write now, I was beginning to dread it because of all the notes I’d made.
    Debs

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The last outline I wrote, for the Dreamlander sequel, was the most complicated outline I’ve ever written. I even had myself linking between Scrivener docs to indicate foreshadowing plants and payoffs, just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything or creating plot holes. It *did* feel a little overwhelming sometimes, but using this trusty method let me break everything down into very manageable pieces when it came time to do the actual writing.

  8. I am somewhat of a neophyte and early in my writer-to-author journey. Therefore, I am hesitant to offer anything even resembling advice. So, let me label this post as, “in-my-experience-only”.

    Matt Powers asks a great question. He quite nicely summarizes several questions on problem areas I’ve had on organization with physical notes, plot progression, and outline-to-draft transition. And, as usual, KM comes up with an awesome reply.

    My only comment would be she needs more emphasis on how her own software helps a writer stay organized well before the outlining process begins in earnest. The workbooks could replace the software, but reorganizing and rewriting in long hand would be a mess. So, in my experience, read her books on story structure and outlining; use her software to organize all your story’s details and characters; then use Scrivener to write your scenes.

    Over the past 18 months I’ve read and tried several approaches. I’ve settled on the approach above because it works for me. Here’s why. Once I have the plot well thought out, I can start describing what each scene is intended to tell reader. It also helps me avoid writer’s block because I know what to tell the reader and when.

    For what it’s worth . . . in my experience only . . .

  9. Get out of my head!

    Your posts have an almost frightening tendency to tackle exactly whatever issue I’m chewing on at the time! And this one was very helpful once again.

    I also tend towards “maximalist outlining” (in large parts thanks to your other great articles) and now translating the resulting Series Grid into a decent first draft has been quite a challenge. Though I’ve spent so much time poring over plot- and character-arcs, actually writing the scenes and characters sometimes feels almost weirdly “out of touch” with my original vision… As if I have the skeleton of my story set up with the outline, but right now I’m just randomly tacking on misshapen bits of meat like Dr. Frankenstein, and for now the creation looks nothing like a passable story. I guess it will require quite a bit of “cosmetic surgery” later down the line, i.e. revision….

    …but somehow I’m weirdly okay with that, and I feel almost empowered that I’m not letting it hold me back. Almost looking forward to polishing it eventually! 🙂 (passing the 50.000 word mark today!)

    So for now I think my own take away (in addition to your excellent tips) is: revisions may be “blech”, but for now my goal is to HAVE something to revise in the first place 🙂
    Thanks again and keep these amazing posts coming!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m glad you posted this. There’s always a balance, for all writers, between wanting to write as perfectly as possible in order to avoid revisions and not letting perfectionism or revision-avoidance stall you out in the first draft. Sometimes writing a messy first draft is absolutely the best approach. Better to finish a messy novel than not finish at all.

      • Thomas Pähler says

        Yeah, that “stalling” was exactly what was my problem in previous “first drafts” (technically, the current manuscript is more like a fourth first draft 😛 ). But at some point I realized that I kept stalling and abandoning the novel at roughly the same point, just before the middle part. I had the beginning, I knew what would happen in the end, but the road there was entirely unclear. -> Read all your articles, began obsessive outlining! Now at least I know exactly where I’m going and how 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          What you’re illustrating here is a wonderful example of why authors must observe their own processes, identify the roadblocks, and figure out how to break through. Just because one writer says the process should work one way is no guarantee that it works that way for another writer. We all have unique challenges in getting the words on paper to make sense.

  10. Love this post. I love Evernote for digitally ordering my notes Since I always have my phone with me, if something pops up on my head, it’s very easy to just put a note in a stack and add tags to it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve always felt a little wistful that I’ve never gotten around to using Evernote. But my process works without it right now, and as I always say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But from everything I’ve heard, Evernote seems to offer some of the same easy organizational options that Scrivener does (thought without the word processor features, of course).

  11. I have a general outline when I start. I fill in some of the details later. Sometimes I change things, and I want the flexibility.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Art is always and ever about finding the perfect and personal balance between order and chaos.

  12. C.M. - II Tim. 1:7 says

    Thumbs up! I know I’ll need to refer to this article again when I’ve finished reading and start to apply the lessons you gave in Outlining Your Novel and the Workbook. Thank you very much!!

  13. I’ve recently become okay with my writing-with-no-outline (or pantsing) ways. I discovered I simply can’t figure out what happens until I write it in the first draft! Thank you for acknowledging that we all write differently and that’s okay.

    But yes, I revise A LOT.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are tricks and tools that affect every part of the process. But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that we produce something other people like to read. 🙂

  14. Usvaldo de Leon says

    I outline moderately for a few weeks but when it comes time to write I toss it aside and never look at it again. I have to write to understand what I’m writing about and to nail down theme and some of the plot points.
    The me who does the outline is not the me who does the writing, and it’s important to recognize what i might like in an outline doesn’t always work for me while writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s interesting. What is your purpose for starting with an outline when you know you’re going to set it aside?

      • Usvaldo de Leon says

        It helps clarify thoughts and general plot direction; it gets me started. But I can’t figure it all out until I begin writing – actively thinking it through.
        Like maybe in my outline of The Great Escape I’ll envision Steve McQueen getting shot after an early attempt. “Ah, this sets the stakes”. But then as I write it I will realize that McQueen embodies the spirit of resistance and can never die and that will start changing the story. But I won’t know that til I start writing.

  15. Hi, I just wanted to comment that I more or less use your #5 idea most of the time when writing now–that is pasting notes into the document. When I’m actually working on outline and prep, I go through a fresh-copy notebook of notes I’ve culled from all the plot & structure studies I’ve done over time. Then I fill in my thoughts for the current book project and paste my new notes into the the pertinent scenes of my WIP. Sometimes I will even give myself directions like “This is the mid-point.” It makes for a document that seems bulky to start with, but really helps the flow as I go.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      One of the features I love in Scrivener is the ability to create files within folders. I use the files for chapters, which are contained within folders pertaining to the structural parts (1A, 1B, 2A, etc.). It makes everything so much easier to access than back in the old days when I wrote my manuscript all in one big Word document.

  16. Thank you for the post. Extremely helpful. This has always been a major struggle of mine; translating my outline into a first draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My goal with outlines has always been to smooth the transition of the various necessary parts of the creative process–particularly the logical parts versus the straight-up creative parts.

  17. Lila Diller says

    I could probably write an entire blog post in response–I may have to do that! 😉 But for now, I’ll try to condense.

    I consider myself more of a plotter than pantser, because IRL I like to plan ahead for everything and pack for every contingency. But my writing process has evolved over time to mesh both methods together.

    The reasons for your incredibly detailed outlining — I’ve never heard of any prewriting so intense! — are the same for why my method is so minimalist:
    1. “I want to write a clean first draft (because revisions:blech).”
    I feel that my writing has evolved enough that if I visualize a scene in my imagination, then I can capture it pretty well, enough for a clean rough draft. I used to love the revision process, throwing down anything in that first draft just so I could get to the second draft’s revising magic. I think that stemmed from my inferiority complex that my first draft couldn’t be worth anything. But I’ve learned so much that, while still needing revisions and editors, I know that even my rough draft won’t contain much crap.

    2. “When writing my first draft, I want to turn away from my logical brain and immerse myself utterly in the imaginative dreamzone space of my story.” I see your overly-detailed prewriting as already being in the imaginative space and now this rough draft is actually more of a second draft. I personally feel like this kind of visualizing the scene that you do in your outline would stifle my actual writing–I would already be striving for that perfect phrase or searching for the perfect synonym with the right rhythm.

    But, it works for you, and that’s perfectly fine. One thing I have learned is that what works for one writer doesn’t necessarily work for another writer. Just because Stephen King writes every single day doesn’t mean I have to. My creative brain needs a sabbath, a rest of at least one day a week to recharge. The same goes with outlining. What works for one writer doesn’t work for everybody.

    My process is more of a bulleted list of beats, how to get the characters from the beginning scene to the resolution. Then I reorder, add in subplots, and insert each of these phrases or sentences into separate chapters. I keep my notes highlighted in my document so that I never start a new chapter with a blank page. This is usually enough to stimulate my imagination to visualize the scene enough to start writing. If I can’t visualize a particular scene that day, I go on to the next. I skip around and write what I’m in the mood to write, not necessarily from chapter 1 chronologically until I reach The End.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is great! Thanks for sharing.

      This: “I see your overly-detailed prewriting as already being in the imaginative space and now this rough draft is actually more of a second draft.”

      100% accurate! I often think of my scene outlines as very rough first drafts. They’re just not written in “prose.”

  18. authormattgianni says

    Nice post! I really like the idea that nobody’s really a 100% plotter or 100% pantser, but that they rather fit somewhere in the continuum between the two extremes. The outline for my 99k-word debut was 17k words, broken out by time, location, POV, setting, scene (goal, conflict, disaster), sequel (reaction, dilemma, decision), and foretelling – so I’m much closer to the plotter end of the spectrum. While transitioning from a structure-level outline to a scene-level outline, the rule I give myself is to detail out that scene (plotting) until I’m confident I can start writing those eight or ten pages (pantsing).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “The rule I give myself is to detail out that scene (plotting) until I’m confident I can start writing those eight or ten pages (pantsing).”

      This.

      This is exactly what I do as well. My goal is basically to try to answer any questions I know will need answering if I’m going to be able to write the scene smoothly.

  19. robintvale (Jessica) says

    I’m an accidental plantser and will continue things this way with this first book. I can’t wait to be able to buy Scrivener and try it out I’ll admit I’ve gone to the website and drooled over it, it looks amazing.

    For now, word-pad will have to do when on my pc and when on mobile the color note app, and then the character planner app will have to do. I have so many files on color note like the ghost, a to-do list so I don’t forget important things like killing the flashbacks, repairing the dialogue, reminders to have the main pov use her powers more as after chatter two she stops. Another note to secure a website. Another note with the god’s names as I often forget them, the worlds name too.

    Merrly’s life goal, plot hole fixes, world-building bits that need tweaking, plot goal, plot hole fix, notes about the first plot point, a full note (folder) just for the antoganists.) Reminders to slash the word count, story questions that I think readers might ask and I need to answer, their wants and needs. It goes on and on 😛 Learning how to organise ourselves when writing is a tough still. Hea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think you’re smart not switch word processors midstream. I waited to start using Scrivener when I started a new project, which turned out to be a good plan–for me anyway.

  20. This is the article I’ve been hoping for! I knew what was always causing me to be stuck, but I could never put it into words – until I read this article!
    I do a lot of extensive research while “cherry picking” what I’m going to need for my books, then I isolate it all in one main binder. I have struggled with the problem of trying to plot and create at the same time. This article was eye-opening and I now see how I can move forward creating stronger tighter scenes and working more productively. THANK YOU!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I find I definitely work best when I’m able to separate the aspects of the process into distinct chunks–logic and creativity being the broadest categories.

  21. Loved this–another great and useful post!

  22. ingmarhek says

    I enjoyed this post.
    Index cards and port-it notes are my best friends when outlining.
    Not a fan of Scrivener. There has to be a user-friendly alternative to it.

  23. Sheri Byler-Yutzy says

    I find outlines extremely overwhelming, but necessary, so thank you for sharing your process. I dream of someday working through outlining and drafting with confidence—but I think it’ll take a few go arounds before I’m there.

  24. Hey guess what––our schoolteacher was recommended to read an article of yours and when she didn’t know who you were, I told her all about you and how you know who I am! I just thought that was pretty cool. You can say “hi” to my class and I’ll send it to all of them if you want. 🙂

  25. Again, this is so timely! I started my first draft a couple of weeks ago, and this is really helpful/

    I organised my notes in OneNote, because I already had it on my computer and phone. I use a scene outline and an extended summary of my story to write my first draft.

    I am a recovering perfectionist who never before finished a first draft because it was never good enough. This time, my goal is to finish that first draft, no matter what. So I decided to write it with a nice fountain pen in a notebook. So far, it works. I keep writing, and I make notes in a seperate notebook. like ‘page x: more foreshadowing’ or ‘page y needs more description’.

    In the beginning, I literally told my inner critic: yes, you are totally right, this is far from perfect. I hear you, but right now I have to finish this thing and once I finished it, it is your turn. In the meantime, I make notes of what you say.’.

    Writing is hard sometimes (because of said perfectionism), but it is also a lot of fun right now. Thanks to your books and this website 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “In the beginning, I literally told my inner critic: yes, you are totally right, this is far from perfect. I hear you, but right now I have to finish this thing and once I finished it, it is your turn. In the meantime, I make notes of what you say.’”

      I totally believe in this. The inner critic isn’t necessarily an enemy. Often, as long as its not coming from a place of shame, it’s very helpful in its ability to spot problems.

      • Daniel B says

        My inner critic weirdly took the voice of my protagonist. Now he’s the one pointing out flaws in the workings of the secret spy organization whose mess he got tangled in. That kinda makes it feel like not something to be ashamed of, but someone criticizing things in-world.

      • I love my inner critic because it not only asks a question but poses a solution. Every time I feel like things are getting a bit wonky in my first draft, my inner critics there for me. The problem is making sure the inner critic doesn’t drown you in a sea of your own criticism

  26. Katie, you may have just changed my life. (Again)

    I love love love the writing-with-the-beats-on-the-page trick. Easy way to keep headed in the right direction while not getting bogged down with too many notes. Reminds me of using daily affirmations and goals, but just, you know, for writing instead of life.

    As always, thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Plus, it’s very satisfying to watch the beat list slowly diminish as you delete the ones you’ve finished!

  27. Very helpful post, K.M.!
    A couple questions for you: first, why don’t you just transcribe all of your notes digitally from the get-go… Is it because you’ve trained your brain creatively over time to “spew” it all down on paper first? Second, in Scrivener, do you create a master scene doc that acts as your whole story, or do you create individual scene docs and then combine them at the end into one whole piece which eventually becomes your novel?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s just something about writing longhand that I really enjoy for the raw creative stages of outlining. I think it’s partly that my writing is so sloppy–in comparison to the cleanness of typed text–that it gives me more freedom from perfectionism at this stage.

      I create individual files for each scene, both because this makes it easy to access everything when writing and also because I would have to do that eventually anyway when formatting the e-book.

      • Sure, I can dig that. The process is so interesting to hear since we all arrive at it differently. I think my own anal retentiveness prevents me from writing on paper (scribbles out misspelled word then rips up paper because it’s too “messy” ;-D)
        Ah, okay makes sense. How do you manage labeling the scenes though, and what if you add a scene to the mix that wasn’t originally in the plan as you go along?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          By the time I get to the first draft, I rarely add new scenes. I did add one to my last WIP though. I did a little sketching to figure out what needed to happen, then just stuck in a new Scrivener file. When adding or rearranging scenes in my notebook, I use 3×5 cards in a WriteMind Planner to indicate new scenes. The pages pop in and out, so are easy to rearrange.

  28. Gary Myers says

    Another great post!

    I stumbled around, and arrived at the same basic process, especially in regards to the beat sheet for each scene. I don’t do detailed MRU, but do note each actor’s emotional responses. In addition, I record three things before starting to actually write the scene. First, I make myself explain how the scene moves the plot forward. Second, I note how the theme will be evident. Finally, I list any foreshadowing that needs to be included to set up future scenes.

    I feel it works well, though it’s surprising how often I deviate from the plan. When the first draft of the scene is done, I go back to a copy of the original beat sheet and resolve any deviations.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All of this is great–and very important. I tend to do most of this “checklist” stuff earlier in the outlining process, so it isn’t as obvious by the time I get to the beat list–but hopefully it’s all still there!

  29. Nancy S. Thompson says

    I’m definitely a plotter and usually write extensive outlines. I’d go as far as to say the outline was really a first, handwritten draft, sans setting and dialog. It worked well on my first 2 novels (romantic thrillers). The outline for my 3rd book wasn’t as complete, but it didn’t seem to hurt my process, so, for my 4th manuscript, I chose to outline only minimally, and it’s pretty much stopped me in my tracks.

    There’s enough to follow along, but not enough just to sit there and expand as I type my real first draft. Strangely enough, I find it harder to write now that I’ve read countless books on craft, predominantly yours and James Scott Bell’s. Sometimes I think my gut works far better than my brain. Book #5 will definitely be well and fully plotted. That’s if I ever finish #4.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are fleeting moments when I think, “Ah, I’ve totally got this writing thing down now. I don’t need to outline anymore.” Fortunately, my good sense takes over before I get too far. :p

  30. To me, an outline is like a sketch, and the first draft is the first layer of paint over the sketch. My outlines are left “sketchy” so I put them directly into the draft and build upwards.

    I know a lot of writers write lots of material then cut back, but my revisions tend to be a building process, adding rather then subtracting.

    I hate the idea of bringing darlings into the world only to kill them. It happens, sometimes, when I give too much character backstory.

    It is interesting to think of getting lost in an outline because I write outlines to compartmentalize and avoid getting lost in the draft. I like the idea of a beat list, if the outline is too complex, but I think my outlines are not much more elaborate than a beat list. If my outline were going to be so complex as to require breaking into a beat list, though, I would likely need a beat list to create the outline.

    I’m a special case, with a very limited memory. I have to break things into small parts to handle them. Unlike an actual canvas and painting, in writing, it’s harder to look back at what is done without having a big brain to store all the information in memory.

    I need the sketch of the whole thing laid out, and the piece of the sketch I’m working on right in front of my face to keep on track. It’s interesting to see how others approach the problem, though.

  31. JOHN CRYAR says

    Love your ideas and your blog. However, being old school, I like to stay in close touch with my work. I use Word. That’s all. I’m sure many other tools mentioned are useful. It was no problem for me to use your advice in this post with my 3″ x 5″ cards, color markers, and Word.

  32. Thanks another helpful post from you. Can you clarify exactly what you mean by a beat. Apologies if it has been covered in a previous post

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A beat is a moment in a story. It’s something that happens on a small level. For instance, each of the following are micro-beats:

      *A cowboy walks into a saloon.
      *Orders a beer.
      *Notices a stranger watching him.
      *Tells stranger to mind his own business.

  33. Thank you Matt Powers for asking this questions! And, thank you K.M. Weiland for addressing it! This post came at a great time for me as well.

    After working through the process-outlining, structuring, and character arcs (even using your Scrivener Tutorial which is great)-I still struggled with what to write. I craved more. I think the beats idea will help.

    The issue I’m also having is I seem to be writing what I’ve heard called “White room syndrome.” I don’t seem to be able to write very much emotion either. I’m telling myself it’s okay. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired (as an INFJ maybe). I can go back and add description and emotion, like in layers, during the second draft. If I do it now, I spend the good part of a week on one chapter and still come up short with word count and emotion.

    So, for now, I feel I just need to get the story down. Plus, I’m new to writing and maybe I’ll get better with experience. Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Both avoiding white-room syndrome and adding emotional details were things I had to learn consciously as well.

  34. I think about my stories for so long before I start my first draft (months) that I would just jump right in. I’d have a pile of handwritten notes on scrap paper where I’d jot down ideas, good plot points I thought up while doing something unrelated to writing, or books I found and wanted to read for research. They were disorganized and I’d just read through them before I started writing or pick them apart when I wasn’t sure where to go next.

    I wrote down the major structural moments (once I found them on the scrap paper notes) but never did a scene outline because I’d thought about the book so many times by the time I started writing I thought I’ve got this. But daydreaming is extremely different from writing. I found that I would get stuck when I reached a point in the story I hadn’t thought about or a point where I couldn’t bridge the gap between two scenes and that led to discouragement. So after a while, I thought maybe if I had a roadmap to this story I wouldn’t get stuck in a ditch because I would have spotted that ditch a mile back.
    So I read your outlining series, I took notes on your outlining series, and I reread your outlining series. I found it extremely helpful! So I sat down with my manuscript and wrote a scene outline and when I reached a scene I had skipped I brainstormed what should happen next and wouldn’t move on until I had something. But going back to create a scene outline for a story you’ve already written wasn’t as easy as it sounds. It was better to have it than to not, but I’ll never do that to myself again.

    I’m starting a new novel idea and I’ve been trying to fill the plotholes upfront by asking questions but I’m not sure if I’m asking the right questions. I’m kinda wandering about my story world like where do I start. I try to follow any question that arises down the rabbit hole, but I’m worried I’m not seeing all the questions I should be asking myself about the story. I’m trying to get past what’s on the surface, do you have any pointers or tips about specific questions we could ask ourselves to explore our story more deeply in the early stages? Because I discovered when I have found the right question the answer normally fits nicely into a slot I’d yet to fill.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The big questions to ask are always those that that have to do with the main structural beats, what connects them, and how your character arc and theme are emerging and tying together with the plot. I have a list of questions at the end of the posts in my series on story structure and character arcs. They might be a helpful place to start. And, of course, I also have workbooks for both structuring and character arcs.

      • Main structural beats. For example, how did the characters first find themselves engaged in the story at the inciting event? What are all the choices the protagonist could make at the third plot point and how can I “cut the loose threads” so the choice I write isn’t second-guessed by readers wondering why the protagonist didn’t do this instead?
        So simple but I could not see through the forest until you said that. I swear you’re a writing Merlin Katie
        Thank you.

        I have both of your workbooks, I’ll dive into structuring your novel this weekend. But creating character arcs is my favorite because once I’ve outlined the character arcs I magically have my story structured as well. But since I haven’t settled on names or started character interviews I’ll stick with the structuring workbook.

  35. Andrewisediting says

    This is great, thanks for another brilliant post.

    I outline like crazy, but turning that outline into a first draft has proven at times problematic, since I outline in a mind-map and then transfer it to dot points in the chapters, and then write the scenes in the chapters.

    This has led me to be a very poor estimator of how big each scene/chapter will be, which has resulted in structural issues, missing the spot for the Inciting Event, Point of No Return, etc.

    What I think I need to start doing is to write scenes, and then arrange those in Chapters at the First Draft stage. Dunno. Maybe it’s just the noob missing the mark, and that sort of judgement will come with experience.

    Anyway, anything that can help turn that outline into a sensible first draft is much appreciated!

    Have an awesome day 🙂

  36. I recently stumbled upon a process like this. I gathered some ideas for how to tweak it from this post, though. (By the way, I use Scrivener.) Thanks!

  37. I kept reading about outlining, even downloaded your book and workbook (which I’m still working through) but wasn’t really sure what a novel outline looked like. I still thought of outlining the way I learned in junior high: I, then A, B, C; then II, A, B, C and so on. Wish I had learned this method before I ever started writing novels. Now I’m on my second novel without having done an outline first. I think outlining is better for me than being just a pantster. Thank you so much for all you do for writers.

  38. Katie, thank you for this. Of all the areas in the writing process this transition from outline to draft is the most difficult for me. I’ve spent enough time outlining and reflecting on my outlining process that I can see where my process differs from yours. I’m going to go try the list of beats (at the last minute, of course).

  39. I’m amazed at how much thought you’ve given this. Your approach is great, I will try it with my own draft right now, thanks!

  40. Jessica Salmonson says

    I’m still getting the hang of this, but this works so far.

    Priests try healing her from the “infection” > heal > fail > It (has a name but don’t want to leek a spoiler, lol.) *waking from this and VERY pissed > Foreshadow: dark shadows start creeping again this time from Murrain ooh! *beep* the vines! they were taken out in the last revision search for them.) >After, fight the guards come out use level 10 silver runes on her and bring her to the dungeon. > It goes back to sleep exhausted complaining about wasting energy.> M. finally (maybe) reveals why she needs to go home. She still doesn’t fully trust Parcival or Han.> …. and that goes on for a couple of paragraphs.

    That’s just one chapter. This isn’t set in stone but does help me remember why the characters are doing what they are doing. Along with reminders to do, add or take out things. When I’m gone too long as life get’s in the way I’ll forget what the whole dang goal for that scene was in the first place. Ugg.

    • Jessica Salmonson says

      Sorry a typo meant to say – that’s just part of one current chapter.
      This is sure as heck better then just winging it how I did before and ending up with umpteen chapters that spin around doing nothing.Not all “going by feel” is bad I get some of the best scenes and dialogue that way (my favorite anyway) but they still end up in the darlings folder to try and reuse later in a place that fits.

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