Outlining and Drafting Your Story

Yogi Berra, one of baseball’s great Hall of Fame catchers, once said “You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.” While improvisation will always play a role in the writing process, a good idea of where you’re going with your story can help you stay focused and on track to complete your manuscript.

Begin outlining your book by creating a one-line synopsis of what your story is about. You need to know what your story is about to effectively communicate it to your readers. As Kathi Macias writes in THE TRAIN-OF-THOUGHT WRITING METHOD, "If you can't summarize your would-be manuscript (or maybe one you've already written) in one line, that tells me you aren't really clear on the theme or purpose of the piece. How then can you expect your readers to figure it out?"

Fitting the Pieces into an Outline

You probably have a wealth of ideas, anecdotes, and passages you want to include in your book. The outline enables you to decide where these individual pieces will go in your story, and how they all fit together. "Start by making an outline of what you believe your story will be, and fit your smaller stories within the outline, so you can form an idea of what the manuscript may look like," says Sally Forman, author of Eye of the Storm: Inside City Hall During Katrina. Forman had scraps of hand-written notes from her experience as New Orleans' city communications director during Hurricane Katrina, but it wasn't until she began fitting these scraps into an outline that a coherent narrative began to emerge.

If you're writing fiction, you can also outline each of your characters. What do they look like? What mannerisms and gestures do they employ? What are their thought patterns? If you're struggling for new ideas, get out and find a good spot in town to watch people as they interact and talk around you. Pay attention to how people look, how they act, and how they play off each other throughout a conversation. Incorporate these details to give some extra life to your characters.

Forming the Building Blocks of Your Manuscript

Once you have a good one-line synopsis of your story and an outline of your ideas, begin forming the chapters as the basic building blocks of your manuscript. Define your goals for each chapter. What new information will your readers have at the end of the chapter, and how will they navigate through this information? Once you can begin to see each chapter emerge, you'll also begin to see how you can transition from one idea into the next.

Throughout the process, don't limit yourself to a strictly linear outline. There are multiples ways to get your ideas down on paper. You can try putting the title of your book in the middle of a sheet of paper, and then branching out from the center to place your chapters. If a sheet of paper is too small, use a whiteboard or corkboard, so the pieces are easy to move around. When you look at this type of outline, it's easy to see how you might move chapters around to fit into your overall narrative.

No outline is ever complete nor chiseled in stone. If you get to a point in your writing where your original outline becomes more of a burden than a guide, then revise it. As you begin to flesh out your characters, setting, and plot, or explore new ideas about your research, the possibilities in your narrative begin to expand. You'll probably end up with as many outlines as drafts.

Once you are comfortable with the overall structure and direction of your outline, you can get down to the real work of drafting your chapters. Again, don't limit yourself to a strictly linear writing style. Many writers purposely wait to write the first chapter until after the rest of the book is complete. Begin working on chapters with fleshed-out ideas, when you already know what you want to accomplish. As you write the parts you're comfortable with, new ideas will emerge for areas that need more development.

Now that you're down to the actual drafting of your book, have fun. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, or trying to edit yourself as you go. You'll have plenty of time to revisit and revise your writing down the road. Get the ideas you've had rattling around your head for so long down on paper. The more you write, the easier the process will become, and a coherent narrative will begin to emerge. With your well-developed outline in hand, you'll know where you're going and why.