Author and Editor Suzanne Hartmann shares a couple tips for writers as they work on the first drafts of their novel-length manuscripts. Check out a few more here.

Use Some Type of an Outline

Although seat-of-the-pants writers will chafe at this, it is a good idea to write out your thoughts about your story before you begin writing. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be in a form an outliner would call an outline, but it will at least give some direction to your story. It will help you to identify the event that gets your story started, give you the major plot points, and let you know how the story will end.

Not all outlines look like the traditional outline we were taught in school, but each type offers guidance as you write. Outline styles aren’t set in stone. You can merge two styles or make any of them more (or less) structured. The important thing is to choose one you can be reasonably comfortable with so you will have something to guide you as you write.

Types of Outlines:

  • Chapter-by-Chapter:  This type of outline follows the indented format we all learned in high school. Each chapter is the broadest topic and listed on the far left. Each scene is a indented as a subtopic and itemized under each chapter. Specific details for each scene are indented  as subtopics under the scene.
  • Scene-by-Scene: This type of outline starts with scenes as the broadest level instead of chapters. Specific ideas for each scene are itemized in an indented list underneath.
  • Idea-by-Idea: If you have not yet grouped ideas together into chapters or scenes, you can still create an outline with each idea as the broadest topic and itemize the specifics in an indented list under each idea.
  • Narrative: To create a narrative outline, you write out bits and pieces of scenes and plots in chronological order. It might include bullet points, sketchy ideas for scenes, or whole chunks of dialogue or description.

No matter which method you choose, putting the ideas rattling through your mind into some type of format makes sketchy ideas more firm, helps you see how to link major plot points, and gives some form to the story—all of which will help you mold the story as you write.

Do a Brain-dump

Once you have an idea of where your story is going with an outline, you need to get your ideas out of your head. You don’t want to lose any of them as you write out the details in your draft.

For pantsters, this may be how you write your narrative outline. If you prefer more structure, you might want to start with a narrative outline, then create your outline from the ideas that come out in the brain-dump. Or if you’re extremely structured, you might be able to slow down and sort the brain-dump as it comes out and place each idea in its appropriate spot in your outline as the ideas flow.

After adding the ideas from your brain-dump to your outline, a quick review will reveal plot holes, identify a sagging middle, and show how you can string your main plot points together in a cohesive manner. Take some time to firm up your outline before you start writing. This will make it less likely that you’ll run into a brick wall as you write, and save you time and frustration during the revision process.


Suzanne Hartmann is the author of PERIL: Fast Track Thriller #1, and Write This Way: Take Your Writing to a New Level, a blueprint for new authors to guide them through the process of writing and revising a novel.

Suzanne is a homeschool mom and lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and three children. When not homeschooling or writing, she enjoys scrapbooking, reading, and Bible study. On the editorial side, she is a contributing editor with Port Yonder Press and operates the Write This Way Critique Service.

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Facebook – Suzanne Hartmann – Author

Twitter – @SuzInIL

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