I’ve talked to a lot of writers about outlining, and in general I’ve found there’s two predominant methodologies: pantsing and plotting (also sometimes referred to as gardening and architecture). I’ve tried both methods, and I think I’m most comfortable somewhere in between.
As a younger writer, I was a pantser. I’d sit down at the keyboard and just make stuff up. There’s a lot to be said about this method of writing. Some famous authors are pantsers, most notably Stephen King. Oftentimes the best ideas come out of left field, and just because something works in outline form doesn’t always mean it works in practice. That being said, pantsing for me usually led to unfinished work. I’d continuously write myself into a corner, or have some shiny new idea come out of nowhere that either required drastic changes to what I’d already written or just didn’t fit with my original idea.
When I was in grad school, I was forced to try some new approaches. Given tight deadlines and the expectation of quality work, I couldn’t just rely on making it up as I went. I started plotting, which definitely improved my productivity. I was able to write quicker and needed to do far less revision/editing once I was finished. Plotting also allowed me to see the missteps in my story earlier, the result of which was having to rework far less. Outlines let me fail early and often.
Upon leaving school, I took much of what I learned and began to apply it to my fiction. I completed many more stories and novellas, finished a novel and wrote another. Both of those novels were definitely practice books and will never see the light of day (for many, many reasons), but I definitely learned a lot through the process. I continued outlining, but after awhile realized I would ultimately get bored with the actual writing of many stories, simply because I’d already told them to myself. The act of discovery, which had originally motivated me to write, was replaced with an over-reliance on plotting, and I found it hard to move forward unless my outline was absolutely perfect. So I went back to pantsing, which helped reset my brain but also meant I started lots of stories and never finished them.
Sometime over the last year, I realized that I could apply both methodologies to generate success. Plotting helped me figure out what kind of story I wanted to tell, as well as work out the characters and backstory, so I wasn’t at a loss for what to write, but the details could all be made up on the fly.
My outlines never include names and only minimal description. They’re really just story beats. One or two short sentences about what happens in each scene. The outline is also subject to change. If a new idea comes up as I’m writing (which it often does), then I can quickly rework the outline to accommodate it. Overall, I’ve gained a greater degree of control over my writing and feel that both pantsing and plotting have become a vital part of my process.