The Worst Writing Advice? Outlining

A rabbit and a gnome fight over a carrot

I was working on interview questions for the Remembering Warriors book bundle this week and the above question stuck with me.

There’s a lot of really bad writing advice out there.  Beginning writers pass around advice as if they were experts, and there’s a confirmation bias from other beginners, so no one questions it.  The problem is so bad that when an experienced, well-published writer gives advice, they will say he’s wrong because it doesn’t agree with all the advice the beginners are giving.

But the worst writing advice I received was that I needed to outline.

It doesn’t bother me if someone else needs to outline to produce a book.  It’s whatever works, and everyone is different.

But the reverse is not true.

When I started writing, I naturally gravitated to just starting the story and writing it.  It’s called pantsing, and pantsers discover what the story is about by writing it.

From the start, people were horrified!  I was eight.  Why did it matter?

At least two different people instructed me on how to outline.  Neither of them were writers, or even English majors.  They simply could not imagine how I could write a story without outlining it first.

Cat disapproves
Cat disapproves

But I didn’t realize how pervasive this was in the writing industry.  I wanted to get published, so I studied Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and any craft book I could lay my hands on.  When the internet was invented, I jumped on and read site after site on writing craft.

I didn’t know that all those resources defaulted to the assumption I was outlining.

I kept trying to write novels.  But they were born broken.  Really broken.  Not fixable broken.  Alien spaceship takes out a city broken.  I didn’t realize at the time the source of this was all the craft advice that assumes outlining.  My subconscious was picking up on the outlining parts and slipping into the story, causing it to break.

I made it worse by going back to craft books, searching for answers. I explained my problems on writing message boards.  The default response from writers?

You guessed it.  Outline.

Eventually, I tried outlining.  I figured, why not?  I actually tried several different types of outlines.

One was this four week class on “Pantser-Friendly Outlining,” where one writer taught her method.  I almost quit that class each of the four weeks (that pesky Army “Accomplish the mission” kicked in).  The instructor got very impatient with me because I wasn’t doing it “right,” and other writers jumped in, trying to explain it to me.

Not one person said “Maybe you’re not an outliner.”

The default was to outline.  Period.  No one gave any other answers or options.

For a field that starts with creation and imagination, this seems rather…limiting.  There is no one size fits all in writing.

What’s the worst advice you’ve run into?

All the books in Rabbit Bundle, Remembering Warriors.

Montage image of all the covers from Remembering Warriors

10 thoughts on “The Worst Writing Advice? Outlining

  1. Michael James February 4, 2018 / 6:22 pm

    The part of my brain that activates when I write is inaccessible to me when I outline. Outlining feels too structured, it’s like doing math. I wander, I write 7x the amount of words I need and I write myself into dead ends all the time. . Down with outlines!
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Maye Adams February 5, 2018 / 7:23 pm

      For me, it feels like I’m trying to force the story to fit into a particular direction. It doesn’t feel good, or fun–just something people say I’m “supposed to do.”


  2. Michael James February 4, 2018 / 6:34 pm

    Also – the worst advice I ever received was in a writing group. They said I should stop using “said” for dialogue tags and use something more expressive like “he sighed, he pouted, he yelled” etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Maye Adams February 5, 2018 / 7:29 pm

      The worst part is that the people giving it could pick up a best selling writer and see what that writer is doing–and instead, they dismiss the writers as not knowing how to write.


  3. Nita February 4, 2018 / 7:32 pm

    Oh, thank you for that! (Heaves huge sigh of relief)
    The other worst advice I got (and still get, from writing websites) is “no first novel ever gets published, every first novel is crap, but go ahead and write it to get it out of your system anyway, then stick it in a drawer and go write a ‘real’ book.” This is so discouraging to me as a new writer. I have enough mean voices talking to me inside my own head without writing websites advising me to not even try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Maye Adams February 5, 2018 / 7:26 pm

      I really hate how negative everyone is about writing books. It just sets everyone up for failure.


  4. spiralwriter February 5, 2018 / 11:11 am

    Mine was the same, Linda. “You must outline!” For years I believed that one. And yes, for years, I didn’t write anything at all. Once I got past that one, I walked headlong into the “All first drafts are garbage, so you must rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…” Ditching that one over the past couple of years has made all the difference! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Linda Maye Adams February 5, 2018 / 7:26 pm

      I ditched the rewriting, too. My stories have been soooo much better for it.


  5. Pearl R. Meaker February 10, 2018 / 4:51 pm

    Hi Linda, I wanted to let you know I nominated you for The Mystery Blogger Award. (and no, it’s not for mystery writers 😉 ) I hope you’ll hop over to my blog, Pearl’s Pearls for all the info about the award. Have fun!


    Liked by 1 person

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