Busting Writing Rules: You Must Outline

When I first started writing, I just put a pencil to a sheet of notebook paper and wrote.  Didn’t think anything about it other than having fun figuring out what was going to happen next as I wrote.

People around me noticed how I was writing.  Family and friends informed I needed to outline.

Beginning and intermediate writers scratched their heads and told me that I’d learn soon enough that I was supposed to outline.

In writing circles, this divides the writers up into outliners or plotters versus pantsers (the term coming from “writing by the seat of the pants.”).

What it Actually Means

Unlike other rules, this isn’t one that was misinterpreted by time or repetition.  I think there are two reasons it exists:

  1. Outlining is easy to teach.

    The instructor provides a system, forms, and off the writer goes to write the story,  It tells the writer what’s going to happen next, so when you get a free moment, you consult the outline and can figure out where to start.  You can also use it to figure out if you any plot holes.

    Pantsing….pretty much just start writing.  You discover the story as you write and get surprised a lot (sometimes for the better, and sometimes not).  You’re Christopher Columbus with his three ships, sailing across the ocean.  You don’t know what’s at the end of the journey until you get there.  That’s writing that has to be experienced, rather than taught.

    Some people want—or even need—more than “just start writing and figure it out.”  It’s just hard to figure out how to get started on a big project like a novel.  Because it is so big, it can also be overwhelming.

  2. Outlining is what we know.

    In school, teachers give writing assignments that include an outline.  I think that’s why so many adults kept trying to push me into outlining short stories.  In college, they had to outline term papers as part of the assignment.  It seemed like a logical thing to do, even for a short story.

Yet, everyone also says that it doesn’t matter how you get to the story.  Then why does pantsing get such a bad rap?

Busting the Rule

The problem is three separate issues.

  1. Pantsing is a messy process, especially for new writers.

    You start writing the story and somewhere along the line you go off track and run aground.  Then it’s hard troubleshooting what happened.  It can be extremely frustrating, especially with the amount of revision that you might end up having to do to fix the story.  It then easy to think you’ll never learn how to finish a story unless you outline.

  2. How craft is taught.

    For an outliner, learning the craft is wrapped up in doing an outline.  So if you’re learning about structure, it’s built into the outline by doing tasks like identifying where plot points go.

    Craft is taught as process-to-craft.  That is, the outliner uses the outlining process to learn the craft skill.

    But there’s no outlining for a pantser…now what?

    This is how pantsers get told over and over again they have to outline.  An instructor who outlines can’t figure out how to teach writers to get from Point A to Point B without using an outline as an explanation.

    Teaching craft for a pantser is craft-to-process.  That is, the pantsers learns the craft skill and incorporates it into their process.

So you can see this rule’s conflict.

What you can do

First, it doesn’t matter what process is used to create the story. If you give the reader a good story, they’re not going to care.

  1. Never put down another writer’s writing process, even if you don’t understand or don’t agree with it. It’s theirs. Let them own it. 

    Also, if you’ve never tried that writing process and finished a book successfully using it, don’t explain how to do it. All you need to do is search for Pantsers vs. Plotters on the internet and you’ll find a lot of writers explaining something they’ve never done. It just adds to this rule’s clutter of misinformation.

  2. Own your process.

    Too often, we allow the group-think to steer us wrong. “So many people are saying this, so they must be right” instead of asking, “What’s right for me?”

    There are a lot of writers who have adopted an authoritative tone as to what everyone should do—and haven’t even finished their first book. Remember Point #1 above—there are writers stating “This is a fact” and they’ve never tried the process.

    Always be the skeptic. I learned pretty fast that if I asked “Is this workshop pantser-friendly?” and got “Sure. We work with pantsers and outliners,” it was code for, “We expect you to outline.” I was very shocked when I asked one writer that same question about his class and he said, “Sure. That’s how I write.”

  3. Have fun!

    Everyone tends to focus on following the rules instead of just having fun. Fun is never going to steer you wrong, and it’ll show up in the story.

References for Pantsers

  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Pantser’s Guide to Writing by Linda Maye Adams
  • Storytelling for Pantsers by Annalisa Parent

There aren’t any actual instructions on how to write novels for pantsers. Read all of the books. Take what you need from them.

Busting Writing Rules: Give Yourself Permission to Write Crap


This book was inspired by a writing course I took in 2015.  As part of one of the assignments, I had to write down every writing rule I’d run across over the nearly fifty years of reading about the craft of writing.

The list was shocking.

Much of the advice actually probably started out with good intentions.

Too often though writers want rules to tell them what they need to do to get published.  The result is that a lot of advice got simplified into lists in magazines and online, often as “Don’t” or “Do.”

As a result, the original meaning is lost and writers fill in what they think it is.

At the point where I was when I took that class, I was overwhelmed by all the writing advice.  Instead of helping, it twisted up my writing and kept me from getting published.

Yeah.  That’s hard to believe from the way experts talk about the rules.

But there is a point where the advice needs to be questioned.  Writing is anything but set rules that you can follow and have success.  The creative part of writing changes the dynamic where rules don’t matter as long as the story’s good.

So off to bust some writing rules.

Give Yourself Permission to Write Crap

I’m starting with this one because I think it’s a truly destructive rule.  You’re probably going, “Wait a minute!  How is it destructive?”

It’s a piece of advice that started with good and admirable intentions.  What it evolved into is less admirable.

What it actually means

Don’t strive for perfection.

Perfection is the enemy of creativity.  It triggers the inner critic, who picks apart every word, every sentence, every paragraph.  Nothing will ever suit the inner critic.

When I watch the baking competitions on TV, there is always one baker who declares she is a perfectionist.  It’s often said with quite a bit of pride.

Then she makes first contact with the time limitations of the competition.  Things get ugly

Perfection keeps her from changing course when something doesn’t work or is too ambitious.  Suddenly everything starts falling apart.  She scrambles just to finish the cake.  It’s not her best work.

For the writer, the inner critic can be a constant nag.  There’s something wrong with the first chapter!  That sentence is terrible!  What were you thinking when you wrote this?

So the rule’s intent is to shut off that really destructive thinking that keeps you from writing.

National Novel Writing Month, which is in November, was meant to break through the perfectionist tendencies.  If you write 50K in a month, you don’t have time to let the inner critic take control.  It’s a very exhilarating experience because the writing is downright fun!

But then what’s so destructive about the rule?

Busting the Rule

The problem  is the word “crap.”

As writers, our stock and trade are the words.  This one has a huge emotional impact.  It’s usually said when we’re angry or frustrated.

A lot of people come into writing with impostor syndrome.  They expect at any moment someone is going to call them out as an impostor.  That they’re not really writers.

So when they hear “Give yourself permission to write crap,” they hear something else completely different:

  • “My writing is crap.”
  • “All first drafts are crap.”

That turns the inner critic on full force.  The writer goes into the story not thinking about how bad a writer they are.  Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Because if the writer thinks the story is crap, they start writing sloppy and get stuck a lot.

The result is that writing the first draft, which should be a fun exploration of the story, becomes a torturous, painful process.

Even the editing process is affected because the story is still not good enough.

Maybe you don’t send it out to a publisher because it’s never going to be good enough.

Or when you get a form rejection, your first reaction is that it must be that comma mistake on page ten.

The worst part of perfectionism is that it’s vague.  There’s no checklist or standard you can follow.  So you ending up feeling like a failure.  The story can never live up to the vague ideal of perfection.

What can I do?

  1. Never use any negative words like crap or garbage to refer to your writing. 

    Some are so common that most writers don’t think twice about referring to them.  But your stock and trade are those words.  Listen for the negativity and kick it to the curb.

  2. Turn off the perfection voice. 

    One of the things that I’ve found very useful is writing down what I’m grateful for at the start of the day.  It’s a simple thing, and often only one thing, but it does change my mindset.  Perfection is never glad for anything.

  3. Be alert for things that triggers calls for perfection. 

    Everyone’s going to be different.  The inner critic is also likely to change tactics once something no longer works, so keep your eyes peeled.

But this is also a common enough issue that there are plenty of books on the topic.  Browse through the library not just in the self-help section but also the business section.

Sometimes being aware of the problem in the first place is enough to get started.

Other “rules” I’m going to bust in August:

  • Make Your Character Suffer
  • You Must Outline (well, yeah, you knew I have to hit this one)
  • Write What You Know




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Busting Writing Rules Cover

White cat with gray points and wearing glasses staring straight at you


Here’s the cover from Busting Writing Rules: 12 Rules That Hurt Writers.  Chapters of the book are going to appear on the blog starting the first week in August.  These are all the topics:

  1. Give Yourself Permission to Write Crap
  2. You Must Outline
  3. Make the Character Suffer
  4. Write What You Know
  5. Keep Description to a Minimum
  6. Write Straight Through
  7. Best Sellers Don’t Know What They’re Doing
  8. Only Use Said for Dialogue Tags
  9. Show Not Tell
  10. Avoid Passive Voice
  11. No Dream Sequences
  12. No Adverbs

Now I get to do the behind the scenes for the cover.

Covers for writing books are hard.

It’s just a hard topic to illustrate.  What represents writing?

  • Pencil, fountain pen, quill
  • Typewriter (usually an old Royal), typewriter keys, computer
  • Light bulb, or some other sign of creativity

For me, just a “Meh.”

But cats, books, and writing are linked together.  Cats sitting on books…usually the one you want to read…cats sitting on keyboards when you want to write…

Plus, cats are rule breakers anyway.

So I went looking for cats and books.  Wasn’t generally what I was looking for.  Too busy, not quite right.

Maybe…cats and glasses?

And I found this image right away.  All the colors are sampled from the cat’s fur.

Degrees of Influence

This week I went to a conference for women, which included a reminder that even us just being present was an influence on other people.  While I was there, actor David Hedison passed away.

Who’s David Hedison?

If the name sounds familiar, he starred on the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the original movie The Fly.  He’s the guy screaming, “Help me! Help me!” as the spider moves in for lunch.

He was also my favorite actor growing up.

KTLA TV showed a science fiction afternoon with Tom Hatten hosting (who also passed away recently).  There were films from the 1950s and 1960s.  At 4:00, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea came on, followed by Star Trek.  I liked both shows even though they were quite different.

Star Trek was like a Western in space with more cerebral content.  It took modern-day politics and built futuristic stories about them.

In its later years, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a hark to those science fiction movies I also watched.  We had monster and aliens and even a mermaid.   David Hedison was one of the starring actors and he played the action hero.

Some of the memorable episodes included him walking through the inside of the whale to save lives and turning into a werewolf because of a scientific experiment gone wrong.

Suddenly the show disappeared from the air.

The first season was in black and white, so stations discontinued running the entire show.  The fans were left to meet at cons and correspond through mail and writing fan fiction. I collected photos and joined his fan club.  None of us had access to him.

Except on film and TV.  When there were fewer channels, TV Guide would include a short summary of the shows and the guest stars.  So when it came in the mail, I went cover to cover and found David Hedison in other shows.  Variety was at the local library, so I looked at the casting announcements and found more.

Because of this influence from a person I never met, I read books about Hollywood.  There was the book Making a Monster that described how David Hedison was made up for The Fly.  I looked for behind the scenes photos because that was more interesting to me than posed photos of characters holding ray guns.

I’m ALSO writing a mystery set in Hollywood after World War II.

Enter the Internet

Then the internet changed everything.  In 1997, I started David Hedison’s official website, which I ran with another person until 2007.  After that, it became too much work because it was competing with my writing, so the other person and her son took it over.

This was in the Gold Rush days of the internet.  No one knew what they were doing.

But we knew one thing: It was the public face of this actor.  Agents or producers might see the site.  So we had to represent him professionally.

Drove the new base of fans crazy.  They wanted dirt.  They wanted personal.  They wanted intimate.

The site always amazed David Hedison, I think.  He didn’t really understand why people would visit.  We provided a nearly complete credit list vetted by him, as well as frequently asked questions and upcoming appearances.  This was a very different experience then hunting through TV Guide and Variety.

The fan base also changed with the internet, and not for the better.

In print, we were a bunch of fans who wanted more adventures from our favorite TV show.  It was hard work and it scared a lot of people off.

On the internet, the fans were far less friendly (an early sign of what we see today).

One time, a fan sent a note on the mailing list asking how to learn to be better.  In hindsight, she was probably fishing for praise.  Then, I thought if you wanted to write–because it is something that takes a lot of time to do–you wanted to learn.  I got verbally smacked when the fan sneered and said, “Not everyone can afford editors to fix their writing.”

Uh, I use a copy editor to catch the dumb stuff.  I don’t use a developmental editor to tell me how to write.

Between the website and the fan behavior, it started to very apparent that I needed to stay away from the fan politics.  Eventually, I dropped off the list.  It was no longer fun if we couldn’t have a conversation without people melting down.

It was a lesson I learned again when I was on the writing message boards.  About ninety-five percent of the writing community fits into two categories.  They pass around advice that’s plainly wrong and say the best sellers (who are in the other two categories) don’t know anything because the wrong advice is so common.

When someone on the writing message boards asked for advice, I always felt like I had to not say what I knew was true, or be very careful about what I did say.  One time I got my hand smacked by another writer because I “you don’t understand a thing about outlining”–this after I said “This is my experience with outlining” and said why it didn’t work for me.

I’ve ended up doing some of the same things for Facebook.

Meeting David Hedison

The first time I met David Hedison, two other core fans and I drove to Massachusetts to see him in a play.  I was so nervous!  I was convinced I was breaking out in wrinkles all over.

We told the theater we were friends of his and they sat us in the second row the first night and the first row the next night.  The stage was so close to us we could have reached out and touched the actors.

And then David Hedison walked out on stage.

My first thought?

Holy cow!  He’s three-dimensional!

I hadn’t realized how flat film made actors look.

After the performance, we got to meet him.  He was bouncing around–lots of energy–and got us sodas and chatted with us.  He was very nice and friendly.  The next night we got to see a photo session with all the actors.  They goofed around and mugged for us.

I met him numerous times after that. He knew he could trust the core group of fans.  We saw him in more plays and at conventions.

Because of this influence, I started to see actors as people as not celebrities.  I’d see actors who were professional and ones weren’t.

I’d get that lesson in professionalism over and over.

David Hedison was at one con where they did a Q&A on stage.  The interviewer wandered off-topic, asking about other actors (sort of like if you write a mystery and the interviewer starts talking about Michael Connelly and not you or your book).  He diplomatically found a way to end the session and had the audience laughing.

If I picked up a magazine with an interview, I knew what I was going to get.  He never dished gossip on anyone.

When I started focusing more on my writing and my personal website, all those things I learned from the degrees of influence filtered in.

One of the classes I attended at the conference brought up the degrees of influence.  But at the end of her second workshop, the instructor did something she didn’t intend to.  She brought up politics on one of her slides.

Politics was part of the conference because you have them at work and even within your family or the church.  The other speakers kept it at that level.

She inserted personal opinion.

I’m sure she thought everyone agreed with her (I didn’t).  But it had an unintended influence.  If I see her name on an agenda, I won’t take a class from her again because I can’t trust her.

We all influence someone else, every day, all day.  I doubt if David Hedison knew he influenced me, but I knew.


Smiling David Hedison



5 Fiction Writing Links

This week, I have some interesting links for you:

Dave Farland on Avoiding terrible advice.  He has a weekly newsletter, and when he’s judging Writers of the Future, you’ll get a lot of insight into the slush pile.

10 Rules for Writing Fiction: This is not as bad as the title implies.   It’s got lists from many different writers, including some recognizable names.  But scroll down first and look at Roddy Dowell’s, and then Neil Gaiman.  Take it all with a heaping of salt and a laugh.

How to Write a Novel in One Draft:  A writer breaks down Dean Wesley’s Smith’s methods for producing a novel in one draft.

Are you making your writing harder than it is? I’ve heard plenty of writers talk about writing as if it were tortorous.  They’re making it harde than it is.

And to finish up with a smile, The Writer’s Dog.

Researching Fiction and Facebook Settings

It’s not a secret that your internet travels often end up on Facebook.  It’s worse when you’re a writer because we can research some pretty odd things.  I looked one the name of one of the goose-necked cigarette things for a story–and ended up not using it–and Facebook gave me ads for them.  I don’t smoke.

Writer Anne R. Allen reported mentioning a drug in one of her Facebook posts.  She doesn’t take it.  But suddenly she was receiving MAIL from drug companies to get her to buy the drug!

So I thought I’d post something to help cut back on the weird advertising.

Part I

This step you’ll have to repeat about once a month.  The first time will be the worst because you’ll be cleaning out years worth of accumulated data.

  1. Click the upside down triangle in the upper left corner for the menu.
  2. Click SETTINGS.
  3. Click ADS.
  4. Click on YOUR INTERESTS.
  5. Go through each category and delete everything.

I was pretty shocked the first time I did this.  There was a lot of entries, dating all the way back to when I first got on Facebook.  Some of the entries were just plain strange.  Sports teams periodically show up, though I have no idea why.

Part II

You’ll only have to do this once.  As far as I can tell, it doesn’t turn back on.

  1. Scroll to the YOUR INFORMATION section.
  2. In the ABOUT YOU section, turn everything off.
  3. Then clean out the categories section.

When I first did this, it even had my “political affiliation” (which, in my word swapping, I accidentally typed affliction). It also got that wrong.  I turned it off, and its since disappeared from the list altogether.

Part III

Finally, this one will help clean things up overall.  I remember when I first signed up for Facebook, it had me select books, movies, TV, music–all data mining on consumers.

  1. In the top banner, click your NAME.
  2. Click MORE and pick something like BOOKS.
  3. Start deleting.

Part IV

While you’re at it, take a few minutes to review your friends and the pages and groups to see if there’s any you can take off.

I did a mass update myself during the 2016 election and then a second time in the last year.  I unfollowed a lot of people with the following criteria:

  1. Anyone over the top on the politics.  It wasn’t everyone, by the way.  I’m okay with differing opinions as long as it’s civil.
  2. Any writer who appeared to follow me for the purpose of selling books to me.  Not entirely sure why writers think other writers are their market…
  3. Anyone I didn’t recognize or had stopped posting.

It used to be that it was a badge to have a certain number of followers.  But I’ve seen recent traffic that social media is a great way to keep in contact with fans of the books, but it isn’t a great way to find new readers.

The landscape’s changed a lot. Now it’s important to protect yourself from the data mining.

– – –

Next week, we’ll have some more cover refreshes.