How to Outline a Novel, Short Story, or Essay

Outlining is a typical part of the writing process. Whether you’re working on a fictional project, like a novel or a short story, or you’re writing a long academic essay, having an outline to work from is useful. It can help keep you on track so you don’t leave out anything important.

That said, outlining can be intimidating when you’re new to writing. And some writers prefer not to outline at all. In this post, I’ll discuss how to decide if you need an outline, and how to create one from scratch for any writing project.

This post contains affiliate links. I receive compensation if you use one of them to make a purchase.

Can You Write Without an Outline?

You can write without an outline. Some writers prefer working this way because they feel like it gives them more freedom to be creative and see where their stories take them.

However, an outline can be very valuable for keeping your novel, short story, or essay organized. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, you probably have important themes or ideas that you want to carry all the way through the piece. An outline can help you make sure those key components show up where they’re supposed to.

Creating an outline can also be a good brainstorming exercise if you’re feeling stuck. When you’re in the middle of writer’s block, it might be easier to work on an outline than to try to crank out new scenes.

You can also write your first draft and then go back and create an outline later. This is a good compromise between the two writing styles. You get the freedom to explore your idea in a draft in the beginning, but then you can tighten your writing and improve its organization with an outline.

How to Outline a Novel, Short Story, or Essay (5 Key Tips)

Here are some tips for outlining your next writing project.

1. Start With What You Know

One way to begin your outline is to simply write down everything you know about your novel, short story, or essay.

If you’re writing an academic paper, this might be your thesis statement and the sources you plan to reference.

For a novel or short story, you might start with your characters, your setting, or your main conflict. You could even include the themes you want to explore in your piece. If you have an idea for a scene, you might even try writing it out by hand in a journal as a first draft.

Don’t worry too much about chronology or organization at first. Once you’ve compiled everything you already know about your project, you can start moving parts around and filling in the gaps.

2. Find a Format That Works for You

There are many different ways to format an outline. Some writers like a traditional list of chapters and scenes, others prefer more visual options that make it easy to move parts of their outlines around.

If you’re looking for a writing program that gives you multiple outlining options, you might want to check out Scrivener. It includes a traditional outline format as well as “notecards” you can use to organize the parts of your writing project.

The Scrivener corkboard.

Outlining in Scrivener is especially useful because you can always see your scenes in the Binder on the left side of the screen. You can also use the split view to see your outline and the part of your project you’re currently writing side by side.

Split view in Scrivener with a notecard and a draft.

But there are almost as many outlining methods are there are writers. You might like to work on paper in the early stages of writing. Or maybe you have a lot of research to compile for your project and want to collect it in a binder. Some like to use a “mind map” or web style outline that shows the connections between different events, characters, and other elements.

Whatever you decide, just make sure it’s easy for you to keep track of all the key details you need to refer back to when working on your draft.


I’ve been a dedicated Scrivener user for years. I’m confident you’ll love it as much as I do! Click the buttons below to find out more about this wonder app, or purchase Scrivener right away.

3. Add Supplementary Planning Documents

An outline is great for planning your plot, themes, and even character development. But there are some other important factors to consider when writing a novel.

Character and setting profiles are also excellent planning tools that you can use to support and refine your outline. For instance, your character profiles will help you understand your protagonist’s motivations, which are important to know for plotting purposes.

4. Ask Questions to Troubleshoot Roadblocks

Once you’ve compiled your initial ideas and done some planning around your characters and setting, you can start to outline your novel in more detail. Put everything you have so far into your chosen format, then start looking for gaps you need to fill in.

For example, perhaps you know your protagonist is going to start the story in their hometown, then eventually end up in another location. You need to figure out what has to happen in order for them to get from one place to another.

This involves many different kinds of questions you’ll need to ask yourself, such as:

  • What is motivating your character to leave their town and go somewhere else?
  • Are they happy to leave? Sad? Regretful? Scared?
  • What are the logistics of their leaving? Are they traveling far? What mode of transportation will they take?
  • Do they need money for travel, and if so, are they able to easily acquire the funds they need?

This is just one example of how you might look at your outline and ask questions about what’s in it to further flesh out your project. An essay might require very different questions. You’ll want to look for holes in your arguments and do more research to fill them in.

Or, perhaps you have all your plot points figured out, but they need some refining. This is a good time to look at your character profiles and determine what’s driving each of the players in your novel or short story. Do their desires and motivations line up with their decisions?

These types of questions can help you smooth over your project and fix any roadblocks that are keeping you from finishing your manuscript.

5. Determine Your Piece’s Structure

It can be easy to get wrapped up in a scene and not think about where it belongs in your book. When you outline a novel, you have the chance to see your story’s structure from a distance and decide when to reveal important information.

For an academic essay, this might look like examining each of your arguments and figuring out how they play off of one another. If one part of your essay includes details that support another part, you’ll want to make sure that it appears first so that your essay makes sense.

Fiction and creative nonfiction pieces have a lot more flexibility. While a chronological structure is the default for many writers, it’s not the only option. You might decide some scenes are better told as flashbacks so you can withhold vital insights and create suspense.

Perhaps you want to publish a memoir in vignettes. Or your short story is more poignant when you tell is using reverse chronology. Intergenerational novels often feature multiple timelines presented side-by-side to highlight parallels between characters.

If you’re outlining in Scrivener, you can easily move notecards around on the corkboard to visualize your project’s structure. Printing out scenes or chapter synopses and laying them out can also help you re-organize your project in a hands-on way.


Every writer’s process is different, but many like to use an outline to help keep their projects on track. From fixing plot holes to improving character development, an outline has many benefits that can make your novel, short story, or essay more successful.

Want to see more posts like this one? Make sure to sign up for my monthly newsletter and follow me on Instagram!

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.

Molly Tyler

Molly received her B.A. in English in 2016, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2019. She now works full time as a digital content marketer.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *