Being a Better Writer’s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice: Outline Everything!

Welcome back to another Monday installment of our summer special! That’s right, it’s Being a Better Writer‘s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! It’s not over yet! We’ve still got a few weeks (and cliche topics) left.

But first … We’ve got some news to talk about. I’ll keep it brief. First, Jungle is now in Beta. If you have been a prior Beta Reader, please check your e-mail inbox for an invitation and reply, as the sooner the Beta is complete, the sooner Jungle can at last come out!

Next, Patreon supporters can look forward to another chapter of Stranded this week. In addition, I’m going to be looking at some more normal content for Patreon as well, drafts and the like. And some previews for Jungle, with as close as we are.

In other news, my total of Goodreads reviews and ratings now equals 111. Yup, one hundred and eleven. Mostly significant because numbers like those only come once. But more ratings and reviews, on Goodreads or elsewhere (like Amazon) does help new readers find my works, which is always great!

Lastly, on the news front, after 3 weeks of silence, I heard from my old part-time job out of nowhere. With … shifts. A couple of them. Just out of the blue, show up for these will you? And … ehh. Apparently we’ve gone even wilder now, and it sounds like my boss has to get individual shifts and hours approved by the folks slicing everything to the bone? Frankly I’m surprised he hasn’t quit yet, but then he may be taking the same strategy I am with these hours: Use ’em while you get your new job. I’m going to keep up the part-time hunt so I can dump this place, because a few hours in just three weeks, with no knowledge of whether or not that will continue, is just abysmal (and shifts showing up a day before because “gotta approve!”) is just an abysmal and frankly telling work situation. Ultimately, it’s not going to pull me out of the ditch, but it’s a small bit of help.

Getting Jungle out will ease this issue quite a bit.

All right, that’s it for the news. Now, onto Being a Better Writer‘s Summer of Cliche Writing Advice! We’ve been doing this all summer, but in case you’re new here and unfamiliar with the feature, the SoCWA (hey, that’s an interesting acronym) is a look into all the different kinds of cliche writing advice writers young and old encounter.

See, it doesn’t take long for any writer to find themselves being presented with “advice” from the world at large. At this point in my life, I’m firmly convinced if JRR Tolkien were to walk into a dinner or social event held today and introduce himself in conversation while happening to mention “… and I’ve written a few books” someone at that social event would immediately look at him and go “Well, don’t forget that there’s nothing new under the sun!”

You can’t get away from it. Young or old, new or experienced, if you’re a writer, you’re going to find these bits of cliche, easily repeated advice thrown at you constantly. Because it seems most people have heard them somewhere, and with as easy to remember as they are, they end up bouncing around inside their brain to get spat out later any time they encounter an author.

So this summer, BaBW has dedicated itself to an examination of these oft-repeated bits of “advice.” Each week, we look at a different common phrase and see if they really are useful, or if not, what we should be learning instead. So this week?

Outline Everything.

So, those of you that have been following SoCWA may have noticed an amusing trend wherein a lot of the bits of cliche advice we’ve looked at seem to have their own counterpart that encourages exactly the opposite. So, for example, we’ve already discussed “Stop planning and start writing,” a bit of advice telling writers to stop sitting down and working everything out and just getting on with it. Which, I should point out, was good advice. Also, with only single sentences to go off of, completely at odds with this bit.

Which ultimately means that those of you familiar with that other post, where I called it a fairly good bit of advice, are likely guessing that I would therefore say that this bit of advice is one of those “less helpful” or even harmful cliches that we’ve seen so many of.

Well … not quite. And the “why” goes back to one of the largest problems with these cliche bits of writing advice: They’re short. This makes them easy to remember, sure, but at the same time it can rob them of critical bits of context that are needed to make them useful. Or they can have been turned into something that’s half right, half wrong.

And well, that’s kind of the case with this one.

See, with diving into “stop planning and start writing” the real core behind the phrase is that many young, would-be writers will make the mistake of planning, and planning, and planning, and planning, and planning … And never actually do any real writing. That post goes more in-depth, but it’s an endless cycle of plans and worldbuilding without any actual writing happening on the story itself.

But note that while I said the phrase was good advice (as I’ve seen plenty of new “writers” fall right into this endless trap of worldbuilding and planning), in the post on that saying I did acknowledge that this saying is to stop planning. Which implies that yes, some planning has taken place.

Today’s saying is like an inverse of that. Enough I won’t call it “good advice.” Perhaps I’d go with something like “sort of okay advice, but we could probably put it a lot better.” Why? Because while planning is good, and a new writer just starting out should give it a whack, the problem with this phrase is rather than reminding a new writer to do some planning, it goes way past that.

Outline everything. Yeah, how else is a new writer going to take that? This is the kind of advice that creates the problem “stop planning and start writing” was made for. It’s a quick, easily remembered two word phrase that will stick in people’s heads … and ultimately do more harm than good there. Because once it’s stuck, they’re likely to remember it. And when the temptation strikes to do more planning or outlining as opposed to actual writing … They’ll jump on it, because this phrase will come to mind. “Oh hey, I’m supposed to plan everything. So yes, I need to outline this whole thing …”

And it never ends. Because everything is a pretty large scope. Even for a short story. “But I haven’t figured out the background motivation of the character who gives the protagonist their change at the gas station, and their family! That might be important …”

Best case with this kind of advice is that the writing really never takes place. Worst case is that the outlining becomes a runaway train of constant brainstorming. “Oh, but the guy at the gas station, his father is secretly working with the mayor and … Wow, I guess this isn’t a short story about a man dealing with his dog, but a political thriller!”

You may laugh, but I’ve seen this happen. I remember meeting one young writer who, in fairness, had actually finally gotten around to the writing part of their work. Only to have three vastly different plots that were all “interconnected” by their planning. Supposedly, one character was the “primary” character with their plot, but along the way it had been “hijacked” by several other characters and plots, none of which had any real bearing or connection to one another. They’d been “discovered” in this writer’s planning process, and since they were all “part of the story” each one of them had been dutifully shoved in.

It was a mess. A colossal mess. Because they’d tried to “outline everything.”

So yeah, it’s not good advice. But that doesn’t mean a new writer shouldn’t try and plan what they can. See, until you’ve got enough experience with writing to know what style of writer you are and what sort of approach works best for you (planning or pantsing), planning things out is a great way to give yourself guideposts to aim for.

Note, however, that I said “things” rather than “everything” and used the term “guideposts.” Because that’s the sort of planning that’s beneficial to a writer of any experience. Goalposts, guide markers, and a general plan? They give you bits to aim for.

Let me make an analogy. Say you’re going to make a road trip! One that will last at least two weeks. How would you plan for the trip?

Well,  you’d probably start out by figuring out where you were going. And then you’d look at places of interest along the way to stop at.

But would you need to plan for food and gas? Well, maybe, depending on where you were going. There are some roads in Australia or Alaska where you must take that into account.

But at what point does your planning become too much planning? When you start picking every single gas station or food stop? When you start figuring out how many minutes to spend at each attraction? When you’re panicking because you realize that you can’t perfectly account for traffic and plan the schedule down to the minute without slip?

Writing is similar. Having the destination figured out is a good step. As is some of the stops along the way, along with why you’ll stop there (so, character background, plot point, etc). But eventually you’ll hit a point where you’re planning too much and are just better off writing.

Which is, again, why “Plan Everything” really isn’t great advice. It’s got things half right, but looses out by encouraging a young writer to try and, well, follow it to the word.

Unfortunately, there’s not really a nice catchy replacement phrase to make use of either. Maybe “Don’t forget to have a destination and write toward it” or something of that nature, that could infer that ultimately, it’s the writing that matters in the end, and not the planning.

Actually, that kind of works, with some tweaks. “Have your destination, and write towards it” still isn’t as snappy or easy to remember, but it’s a far better bit of advice.

So, ultimate bit of advice? Avoid saying “Outline everything.” Its heart is in the right place, but ultimately its meaning shoots far past the mark and does more harm than good. Something like “aim for the destination and write toward it,” while longer and not as catchy or easily remembered, is a much better bit of advice to give.

Good luck. Now let’s all get writing.

Though if you have a moment before you go, please consider supporting the site and the future creation of more articles like this one! Your support helps keep this space ad-free and the creator creating! You can buy a book for the cost of a one-time donation, or if you’d prefer to offer monthly support you can become a Patreon supporter!

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