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Mapping the Jungle: An Editor’s Pitch for Outlines

I thought I’d drop by today and chat a bit about my love for outlines, and why I think they might be helpful for writers. 

Now, don’t panic, pantsers. I’m not saying that every writer needs to outline every book. As Terry Pratchett said, “Everyone finds their own way of doing things.” And if you are the kind of author that needs to spend some time wandering around in “The Valley Full of Clouds” with him, that’s completely okay. I’m not here to tell you how to write your first draft. 

Instead, I thought I’d talk about those first big revisions. You know, the early ones where, now that you’ve told yourself the story, you need to get from your Zero Draft to something you are actually willing to let other people read!

And that’s where I think outlines are vital. The first thing I do when I’m getting ready to do first round edits on a book is to create an outline. Outlines are incredibly helpful when editing. Going back to the metaphor above, if a book is like a misty valley full of clouds, then an outline of a finished draft is like a map. And that map will make it so much easier to actually see what is actually on the page (versus just in your head), find the plot holes and chasms that need to be filled or bridged, and catch places where things go a bit slow and bland. Also, it’s way easier to envision moving scenes around when it’s a few sentences in an outline versus pages and pages of manuscript. 

Basically your outline will become the basis for your revision blueprint. And I promise, no matter what kind of writer you are, revisions will always go better if you head in with a solid battle plan!  

So how do you go about creating this outline? 

Step 1: Take some time away from the project first, so you can come back in with a fresh eye, as a reader and editor, instead of a writer. 

Step 2: Write down what happens in each chapter and in each scene. Not what should happen (although if you have ideas, you can make notes) but only what actually happens on the page. Try to capture each scene in just a sentence or two. 

Step 3: Make sure you list all character names, how they affect the scene, and any important emotional states or breakthroughs. 

Step 4: Try to keep track of the setting as well. Are they in the library, the engineering room of a spaceship, or out in the woods by the creek? 

Step 5: Take note of any questions or immediate thoughts. Don’t get bogged down in figuring out solutions or fixing things, but if you are confused about something, make a note of it. Likewise, if you have an idea for how to make the scene better, again, make note of it, but just a sentence or two—don’t start rewriting yet!!!

Keep reading until you have the entire story mapped out. Then, take a step back and really look at your outline. I usually try to take a day or so to sleep on it after reading, so I can come back fresh with new ideas. Then you can dive into planning your revision. 

Now that you have your map, it should be much easier to see where things aren’t quite fitting together or where the pacing becomes a bit uneven. If you have one chapter that has seven highly packed action scenes in it and then the next four chapters can be described in a single sentence, you might need to rearrange a few things to space some of that action out or speed up the aftermath. If the characters are in the same setting for multiple chapters, that might be a place where you pay attention and take another look. 

Are there any places where your main character is enraged in one chapter and then is filled with joy in the next? If so, what triggered that shift? Can you tell from your outline? If not, then that might be a place where you should take a deeper look. 

As you can tell, I LOVE outlines. They are such a useful tool for editors. And I hope that they will be useful for you as a writer as well, because at some point every writer needs to put on their editor hat and dive into the jungle of revisions, and having a map makes that journey just a little easier.

Do you have any questions for our editors? Let us know in the comments?

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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