Using an Outline on the Job

by Bess Cozby
published in Writing

This is the third post in my series on the benefits and practicality of writing with an outline. In my first post, I listed three reasons why most writers need an outline. In the second, I discussed three things to keep in mind when creating an outline. Now, what do you do now that you actually have one? Here are three things to keep in mind when you dive into your draft.

The Same Rules of Drafting Still Apply

What are these rules? Well, there are no rules to good writing. Not really. But writers have found a few tried and true methods that I’d like to recommend.

  1. Write every day — This is not feasible for everyone, but the closer you can get to writing every day, the better. It’s always harder to come back to a project and get in the groove of writing after a long break.
  2. Set a challenging, but attainable goal — This will help keep you motivated. If you set unreasonable goals, you won’t reach them and might get discouraged. If you set too easy of goals, you won’t get anything done!
  3. Get a buddy — Even if it’s not another writer, just having the motivation of emailing someone to say you made your daily word count will help keep you on task.
  4. Reward yourself — This is the fun part! For the bigger milestones along the way, set up a way to celebrate! Even if it’s just getting a mocha instead of a coffee, or having a movie night with your best writing friends. Writing is a solitary experience, so having some fun steps along the way can help you be more energized and motivated when you sit back down to your desk.

All these are good things to keep in mind, whether you’re writing with an outline or not. In fact, these are all tried and true methods for getting just about anything accomplished, and the same would apply to revision, querying, or any other part of the writing process. But for drafting with an outline, there are two more things to keep in mind.

Use Your Outline to Make a Plan

Wait, what? Your outline is the plan, right? Right. But it’s a plan for your story — you also need a plan for youself. This is where the goal-setting from the previous point comes into play. When you are setting your goals for your draft, use your outline to make a schedule.

But plans change, right? Yes. Of course they do. And your planned thousand word debate scene might turn into a ten thousand word debate novella. But you created this outline. You know your story better than anyone. And you are the best–and only–judge of how long each of these scenes is going to take to write. Unfortunately, you will probably often be wrong. The point here is not to make a perfect plan, but to make a plan that allows for imperfections. Just writing down what you want to accomplish and when gets you on the road to accomplishing it.

An outline is invaluable because it sets up your expectations. Many writers fail to finish books because they didn’t realize how long it was going to take them, and the task becomes daunting. Productivity experts all agree–the best way to accomplish a big task is to break it into little tasks, while keeping the big task in mind.

So, you want to write a YA fantasy novel. You’ve researched it, and you know the average length of such a novel is 60-80,000 words. Your outline is pretty extensive and awesome, so say you budget 80,000 words. At 1,000 words a day, giving yourself leeway for bad writing days, holiday, and a few unexpected stumbles along the way, you can expect to have a draft in about three months. And you can write a schedule for yourself that accommodates that. An outline isn’t going to get you there, but it’s going to help guide you along the way.

Use Your Outline to Revise Your Plan

Here’s where the magic comes in. So, you’ve written a mystery. You’ve outlined it, and you know the ending. You know the murder is in chapter one. You know the love interest will die in chapter twenty two. And you know the protagonist will find the murderer in chapter thirty. But you’re writing chapter ten, and that love interest that was just supposed to be a side character keeps coming up with these witty things you weren’t expecting. She keeps talking. She won’t stop talking. And you’re starting to think she’s cleverer than she seems. She must have some motivation for just showing up at the murder scene in a red dress, just the protagonist’s type, with a backstory so perfectly form-fitted to fall in love with him that someone must have planned it.

Oh wait. You planned it. And now you’re realizing that this is all so convenient. Too convenient. And she’s too smart. And, actually, she’s the murderer. Except that’s too obvious, too. She’s not the murderer. She’s the murderer’s sister; her brother is psychotic, but still her brother, and she’s trying to get the protagonist off his trail while also trying to prevent him from killing again.

And all the sudden your book is so much more interesting.

And your outline is shot to hell.

Never fear! Remember how I said in my first post that plotters and pantsers can get along? This is where that happens. Take a look at this outline J.K. Rowling made for The Order of the Phoenix. 



People study this thing. J.K. Rowling is not only a hilarious tweeter, she writes fabulous plots. And in this outline of Chapter 13-24 of Order of the Phoenix, she outlines the basic plot of each chapter, and what is going on in each of the subplots. If you read it carefully, you’ll notice a certain person of great importance is missing — Sirius Black, Harry’s Godfather and a central character in Order of the Phoenix. In Rowling’s original version, Mr. Weasley and not Sirius met his end in Order of the Phoenix.

She still had an outline. And my guess is, when she realized that it was Sirius that was going to die and not Mr. Weasley, she had to revise things that came before. She also had to revise the outline she’d already written. If you have an outline and a basic knowledge of story structure, you can rework what you have to accommodate the changes you are sure to encounter in the  process of writing a first draft without throwing your book completely off course.

So, take your love-interest-is-now-the-murderer’s-sister scenario. Maybe she can no longer die in chapter twenty two. This doesn’t mean you have to re-write your book from scratch. You’ve got an outline. And instead of revising the whole thing–and maybe getting bogged down–you can revise the outline. This will give you a clear plan to move forward, and a clear idea of what you’ll need to revise. An outline won’t make the act of writing any easier, but it will make the process of drafting–and reaching your goals–a lot smoother.

In my next post, I’ll go over a couple ways to make outlines. Maybe you’ll find one that works for you!

IMG_4628Bess Cozby writes epic stories in expansive worlds from her tiny apartment in New York City. By day, she’s an Editor at Tor Books, and Web Editor for DIY MFA. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency. Tweet her at @besscozby, contact her at, or visit her website at

Enjoyed this article?