To Outline, or Not to Outline: That Is the Question

In his book On Writing, Stephen King likens the writing process to unearthing a fossil. You start off with an idea and discover the story as you go.

Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol at
Image courtesy of Anusorn P nachol at

When I first read On Writing, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. Seriously. Outlines didn’t work for me. I couldn’t stick to them, and sometimes I just didn’t know what happened at certain points of the story. I had a general idea of where I’d end up eventually, but I wasn’t always sure how to get there. I had to start writing and let the story reveal itself. I found a great deal of comfort in knowing that Stephen King became extremely successful without ever using an outline.

Any time I mention On Writing to someone, I also have to mention Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks. Brooks is the author of the bestselling Shannara series, and his approach is the complete opposite of Stephen King’s. He outlines to the point that he knows everything single thing that happens before he starts writing his book. No surprises. He’s an engineer to Stephen King’s paleontologist.

Even though I don’t outline, I like knowing that Terry Brooks has sold millions of copies by doing the opposite of Stephen King. Why? Because it proves there isn’t a secret formula. There isn’t one right way to write. Writers come in all shapes, sizes, and genres. Our methods are as varied as our tastes.

My husband, awesome guy that he is, waited in a very long line to obtain a signed copy of Sometimes the Magic Works for me, and the sentiment Terry Brooks wrote on the title page is perfect. It applies to all writers whether they outline or not: “Make the magic work for you.”

Whether you’re an engineer or a paleontologist, the magic still happens. There’s more than one way of making it work.

©2013 Kim Vandel

5 thoughts on “To Outline, or Not to Outline: That Is the Question

  1. I’ve heard nothing but great things about On Writing, but I’ve yet to read it myself. I, for one, must outline. For me this is the creative portion of writing. I need to know where I’m going before I begin the first draft. Would Stephen King’s book work for me, if I’m an outliner?
    Hadn’t heard of Sometimes the Magic Works. Will check that one out, too. Great post!

    1. Thanks, Gwen. On Writing would still work for you because he covers all aspects of writing like description and dialogue. Part of it is also his autobiography which is really interesting. Definitely check out Sometimes the Magic Works. I have a feeling Terry Brooks speaks your language. 🙂

  2. Great post about the way we write. I’m not sure if I have to outline, but sometimes I find writing a bit of an outline of at least characters to be helpful, then let the magic flow. I’ve never read On Writing either but am aware of its existence.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Magnus. I start by making notes about my characters and writing a few scenes, but it’s never organized enough to call it an outline. I love the process of discovery as I’m writing. I love it when the the magic flows!

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