"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." -Dr. Samuel Johnson
On more than one occasion, I’ve publicly announced that I don’t like to write. Since I earn my living doing exactly that, you must assume I’m a masochist. Not so. I’ll explain why in a minute. For now, suffice it to say that I agree with Dr. Johnson. That great dictionary builder and professional quipster got it right. No man, or woman, who wasn’t a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.
In writing, as in geometry, the shortest distance between two points is a line. An out-line. The choice to outline or not isn’t simply an arbitrary decision made by flipping a coin. It speaks volumes about a writer’s relationship to the written word. Some people are in love with language for its own sake. These people pour out their hearts in journals and diaries when nobody is looking. We will call these fluffy-headed individuals non-outliners. Other people are in love with the ideas behind the written word. They never pick up a pen, crack open a notebook or raise their fingers over a keyboard without having a purpose in mind. We will call these talented and insightful individuals outliners. They are virtuous and good for the environment. Let me explain why.
I once participated in a panel discussion at a mystery fan convention along with four other authors. We were discussing our individual processes for writing a book. Keep in mind that we’re talking mysteries here. One of the authors told the audience that she just starts writing and sees where the narrative takes her. She laughed gaily when she added that one time she got to the end of her story and totally forgot who her killer was supposed to be. I blinked. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. She then told us she had to throw out her entire first draft and start all over. Tee hee!
A second writer chimed in with a similar experience. Three quarters of the way through her first draft, she decided that she liked the character she’d picked as the villain too well so she had to go back to the beginning and retrofit another bad guy to take that character’s place. My jaw dropped to the floor. You can get away with that sort of thing when you’re writing literary fiction because those books don’t have plots anyway but in a tightly structured genre like the mystery rule one is that the author is supposed to know whodunit. It helps with planting clues and all that.
After I picked my jaw up off the floor and refastened it, I thought about the countless trees those two authors had slaughtered. Sure, we all use word processors nowadays so maybe those first drafts never made it as far as a printer but I tend to doubt it. Non-outliners have been with us since the dawn of language. Trees have fallen to the axe in vain for centuries. And before trees were used to make paper, non-outliners were scribbling their random thoughts on parchment. Just think about all the dead calves, goats, and sheep who were sacrificed needlessly to the whims of the disorganized. People, stop the madness! Save a tree (or some livestock). Learn to outline!