Organic Vs. Outlining

Why it matters…

This argument has been raging for centuries at least. I do not presume to tell anyone to change their process but to present the sides, devil’s-advocate style, and justify why I lean the way I do between these two. My prewriting, novel-planning method is in a constant state of flux as I try to pin it down and find what works best for me, so my goal is to present you with the sides and what I have learned of both approaches thus far.

To plot or not to plot…

In the article, Revising your writing again? Blame the modernists , Craig Fehrman writes that “during the 19th century, the Romantics made resisting revision a virtue. The best literature, they believed flowed from spontaneous and organic creative acts. ‘I am like the tyger (in poesy),’ Lord Byron wrote in a letter. ‘If I miss my first spring, I go growling back to my jungle. There is no second. I can’t correct.’ ” This is really the crux of the argument between these two approaches: organic composition is perceived by some to allow for freedom of the creative faculties where outlining inhibits that creativity. While this all-or-nothing mindset of Byron’s seems an extreme perspective, there are authors today that still seem to identify with this approach.

The organic method

In a 1992 Writer’s Digest article, Steven King says of his process,

“There’s no outline, nothing like that. That freezes it, it takes what should be a liquid, plastic, malleable thing to me and turns it into something else. Hey, to me it’s the difference between going to a canvas and painting a picture and going out and buying a Craftsmaster paint-by-the-numbers kit.

This “paint-by-the-numbers” comparison probably derives from the assumption that is tidied up at the end of an outlined novel complete with a red ribbon; every loose thread is pulled together into what might seem to be a too tight braid. Life just isn’t like that—there are often loose threads never addressed again. While not all outlined novels have to feel stiff or too tidy, the opposing organic approach is King’s process and for him, it has paid off.

Another example of a successful writer sharing this perspective is the poet Robert Frost. In his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes”, he makes a valid point about artistic honesty and relevance to the human condition: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Again, this seems to have worked for the poet laureate.

The outlining method

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Stephen King and Robert Frost is John Grisham. According to Tony Vanderwarker, in an article written for WU, John Grisham is a stickler for an outline—but a good one. One you put your damn soul into. While Grisham is of an analytical mindset (accounting major and former law practitioner, as the article indicates), his strict outlining guidelines are invaluable. In most cases, the egoistic writer needs to hear Grisham’s advice regarding one’s initial outline draft (yes, multiple drafts of an outline may be required):

 “Throw it out, start over…Takes too much ink to get it going.”

This simple, little statement has been in my brain since reading this WU post—and now you know how long I’ve been procrastinating on writing this blog post (Doh!). If you’re writing any type of modern novel, with the exception of maybe surrealist concepts or some short stories, you’re going to have to outline for a controlled, relevant flow of information. Even if you initially create organically, you will eventually go back through to do some cutting, rearranging, theme-searching (like soul-searching, but this one hurts), in short, revising/rewriting. As a novice, I never considered that everyone—anyone worth their salt at least—does this. But that I am no where near an expert no longer quite a novice, I have learned that very very few authors never reexamine their first draft, even fewer never change a word of their manuscript.

First novel--no outline

First novel–no outline

Second novel--with outline. Which is more well-known?

Second novel–with outline. Which is more well-known?


Outline now for revisions later

Revising and outlining go hand in hand, especially with regards to the charges laid against them; they are, after all, the more logic-driven, homework-feeling aspect of writing. Because of this logical aspect of both, outlining now can greatly assist in the revisions/rewriting that will come later. Once you take that raw, unformed idea that sprung forth from your head ready to take on the world like Athena from Zeus’s sick, sick mind, you have to mold it. It saves you time for you later to make sure your plot is on a track now, in the first go-around. Many would argue this, outlining, inhibits creativity. But

something to keep in mind about outlines is that you create them, and you can change them too.

But even then, it might still inhibit some. For me, someone who does not like thrashing in a sea of epistemological uncertainty, especially in the calling I have decided to invest my life in, it works. My own “outlining” is usually just future scenes written out in some rough order in which they’ll happen. But I will say that experimenting with more in-depth outlining for my rewrites and future novels, I have noticed a change in my work, in the direction in which it flows—more focused, less distracted. Middle-of-the-road outlining, as I have termed it, just means setting yourself up with a structure-awareness program as you go.

My critique partner and best friend, OstiumUnity, pretty much outlined her latest novel, Undertow, scene by scene. While she may not be a flighty writer, I am a flighty reader, and I always ask ten thousand questions. Some having to do with faults in logic she may not have seen, but usually it’s just me overthinking it from a writer’s perspective. Before she told me that she had outlined– something she had not done to the same extreme before–I found myself in awe of how much smoother and polished her work seemed, how few questions I had, and how much I could just sit back and be jealous of her mad writing skills—I mean, enjoy the novel. Not only does Undertow feel so thoroughly developed but also natural and right.

Still wondering why I used the term “organic” versus outlining?

The first time I had heard the word “organic” in reference to literature was in one of the most difficult classes of my collegiate career, a little undergrad class called Critical Approaches to Literature. I was terrified, especially when our professor told us to go home and look it up. The next day, after my unfruitful search, she enlightened us: Organic Unity was what Aristotle attributed to a work with a beginning, middle, and end, in which every part of it is inseparable from the cohesive whole. If one part is subtracted from that interdependent whole, the entirety falls apart. Though I use the term organic as natural or unplanned, in this context, I feel my proposal lends itself to this concept of Aristotle’s Organic Unity more than writing without an outline.

While I believe outlining does not necessarily hinder your writing process in lieu of this organic unity, I don’t know that I could ever pass Grisham’s Guantanamo-Bay-esque outlining camp. Incorporating some outlining into your prewriting approach could end up being very worth the payoff though, and I hope I have demystified and de-structuralized it a bit to make it less off-putting.

The Verdict


Prewriting and preparation are about what works for you and should be a sacred ritual. It should be tailored to what inspires/benefits/encourages/prepares you. If you set pen to paper and just let it take you where you want, then by all means, surprise the hell out of yourself. If you plan every minute detail and that seems to be working for ya, then plan away. Or if you’re somewhere in the middle on this,  for both organic writing and outlined writing often lean on one another—the situation of most writers, I suspect—then keep on keeping on.

Finally, if you humbly came to this post because what you are currently doing does not seem to be working, then, hopefully, some of the pros and cons of both approaches and the experts’ opinions laid out here help you find the path of stress-free, productive, not-throwing-you-cell-phone-because-you’re-procrastinating-with-twitter-at-your-cat* composition.

*(or dog, if you’re a writer you probably have one or the other. It’s easier for them than humans to deal with our type)

Additional sources:

And if you’re not into outlining, but you like to be organized, check out these writing tips

Want to weigh in? Please do! I would love to hear any additional pros or cons not addressed here. Also, if you have your own post on this subject, I’d love to add it to the additional sources!

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5 Responses to Organic Vs. Outlining

  1. What a great post! It may have been a long time in the making, but the work paid off. 🙂
    I’m very much like you– I started out writing with no real outline but am now beginning to see the benefits of more pre-planning. My aversion to outlines was never really because I didn’t think they would work, it was more a form of laziness. I didn’t want to devote the time to planning. I just wanted to get right to it. These days I definitely think a blend is the way to go. When I wake up with an idea hammering my brain, the best thing I can do is hurry to the keyboard and run with it, maybe even for several days or weeks. But when that initial steam evaporates, it’s time to back up and see where this thing is going.
    I also think that both processes (organic & outlining) feed off each other. Yesterday, I was writing (organically) when I realized something surprising about one of my characters. I don’t think I ever would have come up with that concept in an outline– I had to discover it through drafting. But once I figured it out, I stopped and planned out how this new information would affect the direction of my novel. The combination of the two left me with something really good. (I hope.)
    Sorry for the long comment. Your post really got me thinking! Thanks! 🙂

    • A. B. Davis says:

      I have totally felt that encroaching laziness upon looking at peoples’ pictures of their excruciatingly detailed outlines *cough* Annie Neugebauer *cough*. But I am also so intrigued and in awe of it. I want that for myself, but it takes so much stamina to conjure up something like that, hence Vanderwarker’s Guantanamo Bay association lol

      Yes, getting the idea out that is whispering in your ear is probably best to do first, before any structuring, but when you get down to the nit and grit, that’s the time to put in the…work (wanted to rhyme there, but it would have just been weird).

      Yes! It has only been with organic composition that my characters have every surprised me. I didn’t think that was possible! But it’s amazing when it happens, when your work takes on a life of its own, which can really only happen with stream of consciousness composition (not necessarily in that style, and not necessarily without an outline).

      I’m so glad the time it took me to brainstorm this paid off. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Carie.

  2. Pingback: The Journey and the Destination «ostiumunity ostiumunity


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