5 Reasons Writers Should Not Outline Articles or Essays

I never outline my magazine articles, book ideas, or essays, so when I found this article on the reasons writers should not outline their work, I was thrilled!

Here’s what Publication Coach Daphne Gray-Grant says:

“When I was a sullen high school student, many of my teachers demanded that we submit outlines with every essay. We fooled most of them by writing our essays first and creating the outlines afterwards.

However, one of our more devious teachers insisted that we submit the outlines several weeks before sending in the essay. Talk about irritating! Even a group of know-it-all teenagers couldn’t figure out the clear solution was to do the whole damn project early enough to write the outline afterwards!”

Below, Gray-Grant describes why she doesn’t think writers should outline their work. Read through her thoughts, and let me know if you agree with her…

5 Reasons Writers Should Not Outline Articles or Essays

Guest Post ~ Daphne Gray-Grant

All these years later, I believe I was correct in abhorring outlines.

Are you a writer who thinks I’m crazy to counsel AGAINST outlining? Read on to learn why I think outlining is one of the worst things a writer can do…

Outlines kill your creativity

Outlines, which are linear and logical, force you to use the linear and logical part of your brain. What’s so bad about logic, you ask? Well, nothing…EXCEPT when you’re trying to do something creative, like, say, writing. Then, logic is the last thing you want. Sure, when you’re solving a math problem you need logic. Ditto for following a recipe or editing something.

But, when you’re painting a picture or creating a song or writing an article you want your creative brain to be in charge. All of our brains have logical parts and creative parts. In my more fanciful moments, I like to imagine them as people in a car. But guess what? Only one part of your brain can be driver. If your logical brain is driving, your creative brain is asleep in the back seat. (Either that or really disgruntled about not controlling the wheel.)

Outlines mute rather than enhance the urge to tell stories

Probably the worst aspect of outlining is that, by its nature, it emphasizes the importance of fact over story. But as the writer Maya Angelou puts it: “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.”

Readers respond to stories. Stories keep them interested and engaged. Your writing needs stories as pizza needs cheese. I’ve never seen an outline that includes enough stories. One of the most important reasons writers should not outline their work is because it decreases the story-telling aspect.

For tips on using stories in your writing, read 7 Reasons Writers Are Fools If They Don’t Tell Stories.

Outlines turn writing into a duty rather than something that’s fun

Consider an outline for an article or essay that you produced in the past. Did it fill your heart with joy? Did it make writing a pleasure? Did it make your writing seem urgent and important? If it did any of these things you are the exception proving the rule.

Writers should not outline articles or essays or essays because outlines generally turn writing into just another “to do” task that causes you to feel worn out and dispirited.

Outlines organize your writing

I say this somewhat sadly because I’m exuberant about the benefits of being well organized. I like nothing better than a thoroughly clean desk, a tidy closet and even a tax return that’s submitted a few days early. But when it comes to writing, I most definitely don’t want to be organized. Instead, I want to be inspired. Outlines simply aren’t capable of that task.

Outlines lead to dull, stale writing

Here’s what happens when you get organized and logical: you suck the life out of your writing. You stop taking risks. You stop being interesting. You stop making discoveries. In the end, you’re left with the same product as a person who has completed a paint-by-numbers piece of art. It may look “perfect” -– but it’s also perfectly predictable.

Instead of outlining, I urge writers to rely on mindmapping. Mindmapping is a highly creative process that gives you access to the deep recesses of your mind. It will help you find stories to tell. It will liberate your writing.

To learn more about mind mapping, read Mind Mapping for Writers – How to Mind Map a Story or Article.

A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of the popular book 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a brief and free weekly newsletter on her website. Subscribe by going to The Publication Coach.


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3 thoughts on “5 Reasons Writers Should Not Outline Articles or Essays”

  1. I also disagree and believe this article is little presumptuous. What doesn’t work for you may work for others. Outlining is outlining. You organize how you want to tell a story. It’s not necessarily linear and it does not at all produce stale writing. In fact, I’m pretty sure the majority of writers make some form of outline, be it linear, snowflake, or even beat-sheets.

    There’s very little substance behind your reasoning. In fact, it’s a tad offensive because you are implying that those who do outline — however little — produce dull, stale writing.

    Additionally, posts that provide a list of things tend to follow an outline of sorts. In your case, it’s 5 points. 5 that you had in mind to write about and merely supplemented. Good luck to you.

  2. Many moons ago in a class I was also ask for an outline 2 works before submitting written work. Restrictive in nature outlines can dilute and restrict creativity. My idea of an outline is structure and following a structure could for some people lead to a piece of written work being less effective in the message they wish to view. Creativity should not be stifled as an outline structure does not affect this in anyway.

    Just my thoughts.

  3. Well, I hope no one gets upset with me when I say that I respectfully disagree with the basic presumptions in this article. I think outlining is a vital part of any well-structured work of creativity, whether it is an essay, novel, fashion item, architectural structure, painting, sculpture, software program or any other work you could name. 

    I think the inherent problem here is the article author’s conception of what an outline is. There is a strong implication here that outlining involves a strict, rigid, carved-in-stone, linear document that can only pre-exist the work it is trying to structure. If an outline were simply a written piece of dogma, to be blindly adhered to without any kind of artistic license, then I could understand the objection someone would have to it. But this is hardly ever the case.

    Imagine the literal meaning of the word. The picture is that of an overall shape, like the outline of a silhouette or the light pencil lines that a painter puts down before they commit paint to canvas. In neither case does the outline strictly dictate the identity of the person or what the painting will finally look like. The details will eventually make themselves known.

    What is an outline but a mind map displayed as a list? And accordingly, isn’t a mind map just an exploded outline? And when the final story or article is written, doesn’t the reader read from start to middle to finish in a linear fashion, much as an outline simply places sign posts for each section and paragraph? An article well-written already has an implied outline by default. Otherwise, it’s simply a series of disconnected points, devoid of a thread that leads the reader on a journey that enlightens progressively with each step forward on a single path from start to finish.

    An outline is a plan. A structure. A direction that marks the basic path from launching point to destination. But there is no rule that says that a few detours can’t be taken along that path to make the journey more interesting. For my first ‘real’ novel, I used an outline. It was the first time I actually finished a full first draft. Every attempt before failed due to one basic reason: I had no outline. I was wandering in the wilderness without a direction. I’d hit walls, get frustrated and eventually lose interest. By contrast, a structure that indicated where the story would lead the reader was what provided the discipline to fill in the gaps between each literary milestone. I believe this applies even to essays and shorter written works.

    But did I follow the strictures of my original outline? No. I embellished the details, improved the story arcs, improvised parts of the plot. What resulted was a better story that was more lush and complex than if had I just gone with what I had at the top of my head. The structure freed me rather than restrained me by allowing me to explore the possibilities and by imposing a disciplined approach, rather than running down rabbit holes that led nowhere and would discourage me from continuing.

    You can stumble your way through the dark, and eventually come out the other end. But an outline is like a flashlight. It acts as a guide and exploring becomes an act of discovery. 

    With an outline, there is room for compromise between planning ahead and creatively following options that stray from the original idea, yet retain relevance to the heart of the story. 

    Like an artist who sketches a figure at first, they can slowly build the details, commit, erase, change, redraw and refine till the picture comes together as a whole. All great artists work this way. But no great artist sets out, paint already stroked out on canvas, not knowing if they’re painting a portrait or a landscape. 

    There are happy accidents. But seldom are accidents actually happy. In my experience, most accidents are disasters. That’s just the way nature seems to work out.