Outlining 101: The Basics - article

Welcome to Outlining 101. Yes, some eyes just rolled. How can a creative soul develop masterworks by being stuck in the straightjacket of an outline? You ditched pre-writing sketches in high school and have never looked back. No blueprints for you. Books must grow organically out of your thoughts, and an outline will stifle your creative flow!

No worries. Winging it is a valid writing method especially for fiction writers. As an author, you are not required to use outlines. That said, many authors benefit from a well-laid plot blueprint. It helps authors avoid corners with no way out. It also helps authors who continually start projects but for the life of them cannot figure out how to come to the completion point. There are many ways to outline. The following list will touch on the nuts and bolts of popular methods.

Classical Outlining

A classical outline includes Roman numerals, letters and numbers for headings and subheadings. This is a highly organized form of outlining and relies heavily on sequential thinking. It is most popular for non-fiction works. The goal of the classical outline is to create a blueprint that effectively divides main ideas and subordinating ones, while at the same time coordinating ideas into a cohesive whole. This kind of pre-writing organization brings clarity to the work.

Summary Outlining

In a summary outline, the number of chapters is estimated. The writer often starts out with a document similar to a beat sheet used by screenwriters (a sequentially ordered list of plot events). Then a short summary of each chapter is written. A clear goal is defined for each chapter, and the characters are discussed, along with settings and chapter timelines. This kind of outline is very linear in nature.

Index Card Outlining

This form of outlining is very popular because it allows for constant reorganization of ideas. Writers create short scene synopses and rearrange them at will. This is great for those who have a non-linear style. Many use Post-it notes instead of note cards. Post-it notes can be easily arranged on a wall board, offering a more visual way to follow the story’s plot. For the technically inclined, a program like Microsoft’s “Power Point” or Mac’s “Keynote” allow you to create cards online and easily rearrange as needed.


Clustering, or mind mapping, is an outline form that is very random and organic. It’s about creating a web of ideas that will eventually be used to start a story. The main idea is placed in a central bubble. More bubbles surround it. They radiate out from the center, creating a web-like shape upon completion. Lines connect all the bubbles with coordinating ideas. For large works, a poster-sized sheet of paper is recommended.

Several software programs offer easy outlining capabilities for authors. Microsoft Word is the industry standard. It has a classic outlining feature that many authors swear by. This feature is complex and requires reading and perhaps taking an advanced course. Other programs have more user-friendly outlining features. Scrivener, Writer’s Blocks and Celtx are popular writing software programs with outlining capabilities.

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  • I like the index card idea and using power point. This will give me a better visual sense if my scenes are in the right place.

  • I put in all of my chapters with outlines in the order that I thought they would go even though I was using a story that involved a historical researcher telling his story as he was living his life.  My researcher's character is linear, while the research is not.  The story follows his discoveries as historical fiction until his story merges with the research.  I chose outline, but I must admit, I am intrigued by the comments about using power point and may look into that in the future.  Great article.  I will keep this or any updates from it handy.

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    Im trying to write my first book and the index card one stuck out to me!!! Thanks for the idea

  • Those are great choices and the one I use it the bubble. As a teacher in second grade that is what I taught my students when we had writing workshop each day.

  • Each outline has some benefits. I am on my second thriller and work between a summary outline and visual mapping.