A real look at how I outline

I’ve described my outlining process before on the blog, but this time I’m going to show you guys real pictures of my notes. I can not stress strongly enough that these are my actual notes from the book I Wish. If you haven’t read it yet and want to, there WILL be spoilers. Avoid this post at all costs if that will ruin the experience for you.

The program I use is Onenote by Microsoft. I swear by it. It’s about the most amazing notetaking software ever invented. Do yourself a huge favor and get a copy.

The first thing I do is a brain dump on paper. These are some actual crappy cell phone pictures of my actual crappy written notes. Seriously. Nobody can read my handwriting. It’s like a blind gorilla wrote them with his stupid foot. But it’s just an example anyway.

paper notes 1

paper notes 2

I love bullet points. Some of the notes made it to the final version, some were changed until they didn’t resemble the original note at all, and some I just scrapped completely. I can’t stress enough how important it is to just let yourself go during this part. Sometimes if I piece of information or dialog occurs to me, I’ll write right up the margin or further down the page. I use a lot of arrows and underlines or boxes to link ideas together or emphasize some. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s just what makes sense to you later on when you’re reading over it. I’ve also been known to go over sections with a highlighter.

paper notes 3

A lot of times I’ll use Xmind for mind mapping (ooh, I’ll take a picture of that too!), but sometimes it’s just faster to grab a sheet of paper and make a quick diagram. This is one I made when I was brainstorming some new scenes to add length to the book. I think really well in this manner. That whole chart took me about 10 minutes to come up with and I had ideas for an extra 6 scenes.

It’s totally unrelated to anything, but don’t my fingertips look fat in that picture? I just got sized for our wedding bands and my ring finger is a size 4, which is pretty small. I had no ideas that fingertips could even look fat, but there we are. Ahem. Done now.

mind map 

mind map 2

So here are a couple of samples of different mind maps I made to get some ideas onto paper. Again, some were used in the stories, some weren’t. The process of brainstorming this way really unlocks a ton of potential ideas in my mind and inspires lines of thinking that I personally feel enrich my writing.

At this point I start plugging the ideas into Onenote.


This is an example of the summary I write before I start breaking my ideas into individual scenes. I write the summary as if I were telling it to a 3rd party. This is where I find out if I’m missing important information. It breaks down roughly to each paragraph = a scene. I leave myself notes on the side to remind myself to add more information to a a section when it becomes a scene or to make sure I don’t forget something that’s coming up. Also if you’re actually reading my notes, you’ll see that this was before I determined that Katie is an overused name and changed her to Krista.


The last thing I do is write out a scene description. For I Wish… I used yWriter. It made formatting a bitch when I added new scenes though so I don’t think I’ll be using it this time around. But you get the idea. I wrote a couple of paragraphs of what was supposed to happen in that scene and then turned it into a 3000 word passage. Not a bad conversion, right?

I filled out each scene in the book before I wrote a word of it. Some descriptions are a lot more detailed than this one is. I included any ideas for dialogue or other phrases I liked and wanted to include. You can’t do yourself any disservice by being really wordy on this part. When I was ready to write every day, I knew exactly what I was planning to work on. I never had to spend any time trying to think of what came next because I already knew before I started writing what happened in what order.

There was one pitfall to the whole thing. My outline was TIGHT. I had every day accounted for, even if it wasn’t specified in the story exactly what day it was. It doesn’t matter if the reader knows as long as I do so that I don’t have my character in two places at one time. So when it came time to add more scenes it was like crap, where the hell can I fit that in? It took a lot of wiggling and a few serious rewrites at the beginning or end of the scene to fight them all in.

But that’s a minor problem and if I had a better handle on how long my average scene length was it wouldn’t have happened. The nice part about yWriter is that it tracks how long each scene is for you so it’s easy to do the math. Now I know that my average scene length is almost exactly 1500 words and I can plan enough scenes in advance to come out to where I need to be by the end.

Hopefully, this clarifies my process for anyone who was confused. Xmind and yWriter are both free programs and a lot of people have Onenote on their computers and don’t even realize it. If you have any questions you can leave it in the comments or hit me up on twitter @wrenem. I’ll be happy to help you out as much as I can.

Edit: Wow guys, totally didn’t expect this to go viral like this. It’s awesome, thanks for stopping by my fine little piece of web real estate. I’d love to have you visit again in the future. If you are interested to see what this outline and 2 weeks of 1st draft writing will net you, please consider buying a copy of I Wish… for only $.99. I’d sure appreciate it. Smile



Filed under I wish, technology, writing

111 responses to “A real look at how I outline

  1. Wow. Those are some serious outline notes. I don’t outline or plan anything at all. I word vomit. 😀

    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed feature!

    • It is a lot of effort up front, but it makes the rest of the process sooo much faster.

      Thanks for the congratulations, but I’m not even sure what the Freshly Pressed thing means. I just got an email a few minutes ago and suddenly my blog blew up. So I take it that it’s something awesome, LOL.

    • youcouldbelievethis

      LOL! I relate to the word vomit method. But I like this article I need to create a little more structure in my writing.

  2. WOW! This is an amazing process. I remember when “mind mapping” was called a “webbing.” Regardless of the name, it is a great tool!

    Great post –


  3. Congratulations for being featured on Freshly Pressed! Good post!

  4. Wren, your Freshly Pressed. Awesome! Here’s a digital Taco for you… I) Does that look like a Taco?

  5. Wow, nice to know I have a kindred spirit! 🙂 I love notes. I’m old-school, even though I’m very tech-savvy. I used colored note cards on a bulletin board so I could SEE the pacing. Then I transferred that into a writer document (openoffice, I stay away from Microsoft) and printed it out. I used simple tables, with different colored fonts depending on the type of scene. I also realized dates were getting tough, as there is a pregnancy, I didn’t want to make the mistake of writing about something when there is no way the character’s pregnancy would be that far along. So I threw in a line and assigned a date to each scene, starting with the ones that had to have certain dates, and filling on the gaps. No, it doesn’t matter that the first ultrasound is on St. Patrick’s Day, but when it worked out that way, I used it as a device to theme the home cooked meal I already had planned for my main character and his girlfriend. Outlining is probably my favorite part because it takes so much creativity and logic.

    • I couldn’t agree more. When events start to fall into place I get the same rush that I get when I solve a really tough puzzle or beat a game. It’s one of my favorite feelings. I’m sort of addicted to outlining I think. It’s cheaper than crack and takes less of soul than Twitter though so I’ll run with it. 😉

  6. Geez, there’s outlining, and then there’s OUTLINING, and you really rock the outline! I never got past the ‘Yeah, something happens, and then someone kinda, you know, does something that makes the first thing sorta…er…ooh, bunnies! Must buy more milk…” notes.

    May have to take a closer look at One note for windows, since I keep refusing to use it. Looks smart in your screen grab. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    PS Don’t worry about the fingertips. The camera adds ten pounds, and when it all goes on your fingertips….phew!

  7. The Dream Chaser


  8. That is awesome 🙂 I’ll have to show my hubby, when he has to write articles!

  9. Amazing!! And you have a very thoroough process… I am most impressed!

  10. Great post, makes me take another look at outlining, seems to be a good tool to avoid bad timelines, might not need so many rewrites!

  11. You’re very bold to let us peak behind the curtain. I wanted to believe it was all done by magic.

  12. I totally was not aware that Onenote could do this. I have to try this program out! Thanks for sharing!

  13. Leah

    Really helpful! I’ve never used One Note, but I know it has such possibilities. I need to get over my fear and start using it. And you have lovely handwriting, by the way. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  14. I need to outline a little more. Thanks for sharing your story!!

  15. Fantastic, insightful post. Thanks very much for sharing your process.

  16. Wow. I can’t use paper for anything. My handwriting is so terrible even I have trouble reading it. I agree though that mindmapping is a excellent tool. I plan to use it more in the future.

    Another great program, kind of a combination of ywriter and onenote, is Scrivener. I started with ywriter, I started fighting with it before the first draft was done.

    • I have Scrivener envy. I use a PC and so far the Window version is still in beta. I have Liquid Story Binder which is supposed to be a good alternative, but I can’t freakin’ figure it out to save my life. I’d like to upgrade my laptop to a Macbook at some point relatively soon so I might get a chance to try it sometime in the not too distant future.

  17. I don’t know who told you that your hand-writing is hard to read, but they were lying. It’s perfectly legible to me.

  18. Excellent info here. A helper for rookies, and a review for veterans.

  19. Your handwriting is more readable than mine! I love doing brain maps and bullet points. Thanks for sharing and congrats on getting on freshly pressed.

  20. changdeb

    i agree with you. onenote is awesome..if only it did not error and made my notes disappear all at once.. no where to turn for help, as nobody around me is using it haha..

  21. Very useful information. Thank you. As a retired higih school teacher who has graded thousands of papers (yep, thousands), I looked at your handwriting and immediately thought 1. girl 2. legible 3. I want to keep reading.

  22. This is such an informative post! I am probably the worst outliner in the history of outlines. But I have OneNote on my computer and never thought to use it for my writing! I am so excited to put my nose to the grind stone and outline a story. Thanks for all the tips and congrats on being freshly pressed! 🙂

    • MaggieJo,

      If you need any help with Onenote or outlining, send me an email at wrenemerson(at)gmail(dot)com. I love the process and I’d love to convert you to an outliner too. My friend Courtney Cole would say I’m converting you to the dark side, but she doesn’t have to know, LOL. 😉

  23. Fascinating look into your creative process! Have you by any chance read Story by McKee? I’m going to have to explore using OneNote to implement his ideas with your! Keep doing great things!

  24. thor27

    We all have our methods to outline don’t we. Mines similar.

  25. I’ve recently decided to write a novel myself and am in the extremely early stages, ie: brainstorming a subject matter/plot. It is very helpful to see how other people go about the writing process. I really enjoyed reading this and will check out the rest of your site as well. Thanks alot!

  26. A very cool post. Congrats on the FP. The one comment about you “rocking the outline” is worth repeating. It is a formal, structured project management approach to writing I found very interesting.

  27. Congrats on FP..a lot of new info here for me THANKS

  28. Really enjoyed seeing how your creative process works. I loved the mind map examples.

  29. Sierra.Komodo

    Very nice. You’ve actually given me a few ideas for my own brainstorming process. Normally, I just jot things down and rue through it in my head until a scene starts to form, then start writing out that scene without stopping. Then go back and edit through it XD

    I might be able to be more organized now, though. Thanks!

  30. One of the reasons I sort of feel like I cheat when I write is that I never outline things before I start. I usually write a couple of pages and then do a quick outline of the main events, sorted by dates, and then update it as I go.
    Seeing the way you outline makes me very impressed! Really like the mind maps! (I do those as well, but on paper, or in photoshop.) Did you do them in Onenote or did you use another program?

    • DRW,
      I used a free program called Xmind for the mind maps. It’s really awesome and I highly recommend it. There’s another free program for mind maps called freemind, but I prefer Xmind’s interface. It’s attractive and I’m shallow like that.

      • It’s so unimportant and NOT mention-worthy.. but I had to stifle a real life “LOL” here at work when I read that last line. So shallow, Wren.

        Aun Aqui

  31. This are some serious outline! I could never be the efficient and organized. It’s interesting to see how the mind of others works. I’m jealous 🙂

  32. This is wonderful! I’ve just begun writing my first book and really didn’t know of any good tools to you. Thank you for the outline explanations, great job!! :-))

    And Congrats on your book completion and Freshly Pressed!!!

  33. I’ve tried the mind-map technique before–thanks for reminding me to use it again!

  34. Pingback: Writing Pitfalls – Can You Research Too Much? « bardicblogger

  35. Sarah

    i’ve had OneNote ever since I got my laptop and haven’t opened it once until I read your post. I opened it and WOW. It really does have amazing features for sporadic and incomprehensible note taking. Thanks for the tip and great post 😀

    • I like to imagine myself like a matchmaker that helps people find awesome software like Onenote. You’ll love it, I swear! Email me or send me a tweet if you have any questions at all and I’ll try to help. 🙂

  36. That is some seriously intense outlining!! I’m impressed!

  37. Wow, after reading your post, I feel like a total slacker! I don’t think I’ve ever outlined a story in my life. Maybe that’s why the novel I’m working on is up to 560 or so pages…..and not finished (yet!).
    Good luck with the writing, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  38. love this post! It’s so interesting to see how writers go about their craft..everyone seems to have such a unique process. this is sort of similar to my obsession with looking at people’s desks or workspaces, or browsing through the “what’s in your bag” group. I’m such a messy, disorganized person so this post gives me confidence that there CAN BE a systematic approach to such a creative process.

  39. this is great! i’d like to eventually write a book myself, so nice to see a perspective on the developmental process. thanks!

  40. Wow! What a nice break down and step by step! Thanks for sharing your process – especially the side by sdie of the manual process and the computer generated mapping! 🙂

    • I’m glad it was helpful. I debated adding the handwritten part because it’s so early in the process I really have no idea where my ideas are taking me, but in the end I figured why not? It’s probably weird to be so self conscious of my ideas in the first place.

  41. Congrats on being Fresh Pressed Wren!

    My writing process is so unorganized in comparison to yours. It makes the rewrite process more laborious I think. I want to check out the programs you mentioned. Maybe I can work on organization a bit more on my next novel.

    Thanks for the great post!

  42. That’s funny that you call it a “brain dump”, that’s the same thing I call it. This was a really good read, I enjoyed reading the process you go through. I wish I was that organized! I pretty much keep all my stuff in one .doc file and work from there, otherwise I get scatterbrained.

    Thanks for sharing!

  43. Hey, nice post.
    I’ve got new blog, so feel free to check it out. 🙂


  44. This looks like a really cool program. I have never hear of it. I am also an aspiring writer, look forward to reading your blog!

  45. ~*REBECCA DAWN*~

    Wow kudos on being so organised with your writing process! I only wish i could be like that! youve given great pointers on how to outline your ideas! i love bullet notes too! i would spend hours plotting out my story ideas, by the time i would actually write out a story i would be too pooped to do it. lol. good luck on “I WISH”!

  46. I might actually try this for a second draft. It’s really, really tough for me to plan ahead, I like to write and see what happens to my characters, and by the end of the book, I know the plot. But I’ve never been really sure how to go back and revise for a second draft. This seems like the perfect way to do that, since I now know the story, I can re-work, fill out subplots, etc. Thank you!

  47. Loved these thoughts. You really have a great way of putting your thoughts down on paper – for something that will eventually become gold to someone’s mind. Great work!

  48. chocolatespacemonkey

    How would in depth outlining affect the outcome of the book? Sometimes I wonder if I would get a different effect if I just spat out the first draft and craft that into something more coherent. Perhaps it would read more raw and you get to explore places you wouldn’t necessarily go with an outline.

    • I never finished a story before I used an outline to work from. I don’t think I can. My thoughts are just way too scattered.

      • chocolatespacemonkey

        Do you think that it might change the style? I guess it all depends on what you’re going for. More specifically it might depend on the content?

  49. Wow! This program would save me all the heartache that comes with me inevitably losing my notes and scribbles. I’m also thinking about buying Scrivener, but this one seems pretty awesome too.

  50. hey.. those’re great! 😀

  51. very nice and organized!!! at the end i dont even feel like throwing out the outlines cause they were so much work!!!

  52. congratulations on being freshly pressed!

  53. That’s a serious amount of planning! But probably realistic – and necessary. Good books don’t write themselves. Good plots and characters aren’t word-vomited on to the page.

    My own approach falls between the two; I’ll plan, then I’ll write, then I’ll re-think, re-plan and re-write. I use Word. But for planning, paper’s good. I find it’s quicker with pen and ink than it is to struggle with recalcitrant software, and the results are the same.

    Matthew Wright

  54. Organized, structures, impressive.

  55. Nice job! Very inspiring to get on with a good outline myself…

  56. Really helpful! I’ve never used One Note, but I know it has such possibilities. I need to get over my fear and start using it. And you have lovely handwriting, by the way. Congrats on being freshly pressed.

  57. Congrats on being FP. You work in a very structured way- I can’t even get myself to sit down regularly, let alone make comprehensive outline notes!

  58. Natasha Larry

    Wow, I would kill for the ability to be this organized. You don’t want to see my writing process…

  59. I just read your blog, great stuff. I have that Onenote but not really sure how it all works I will have to learn. I am just getting into writing blogs and wrote my first short story still trying to get the confidence to enter it in a writing competition. I would love to write I lost my job last year, and I am trying get into it now. I found your blog very interesting. I did a pre-college course last year and used the X Mindmapping I found it helpful. I got top of the class for my essay so that gave me some confidence. Well I will keep trying and watching your blog. Well Done

  60. God I wish I could be this organized. I struggle with outlining and organization and I’m sure that if I could do a better job at it the whole process would be smoother for me. I’m going to check out some of the programs you’ve noted here and see if I can’t put them to good use.

  61. what a great detailed story about outline! Thank you for sharing your thought process. I think I will definitely add this link for my students. They often think outline are a waste of time. Grr…

  62. Really interesting! I love seeing how others go about the writing process.

    Also, OneNote is God’s gift to just about everything. I take all my notes for college in it!

  63. Janel

    Just one word. ‘WOW’!

  64. Thanks for all the information, and thanks for going over your programs and the way you use them. I am downloading Xmind as we speak and learning to use Onenote better. I do use and love yWrtier, but I have found the scene adding aspect a bit daunting.

    Anyway, thanks for being so detailed, that was the most helpful part of all.

  65. Appreciated this; I’m a journalist, as well as a poet and songwriter. When expounding on ideas or describing events/ places/ people/ life, my writing (if I’m not at a computer typing) is mad. There is underlining, caps — there are bullet points and scribbles — there is sideways, marginal writing and pages are connected by fierce arrows, urging the reader (or editor – – myself) on. Really liked observing your writing routine and getting some insight from your perspective. Best wishes, truly!

    Aun Aqui

  66. A Well Wisher

    Hey, congrats for making it to Freshly Pressed.

    And yes, I’m aware about the One Note software in my computer, but I don’t use it for writing scenes or anything…I use it more for storing ideas and cool stuff that I come across…anyway, leave all that.

    This post was really great to read! Keep more such great posts coming!

    And once again, congratulations!

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  70. This is coolness. My process is different…but I’m fascinated by yours. Thanks for this terrific space!
    -Lynn @ Skydiaries

  71. Wow. Well, this certainly does make my own process look infantile. LOL

  72. Nice article, congrats on getting Freshly Pressed! Hope you’re dealing ok with the inevitable crazy full inbox 😉
    C-C xx

  73. Helpful post for me..Those handwritten photos makes me understand your post more. Magical handwriting!:))..more readable than mine. 😉 thanks for sharing.

  74. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this…great stuff! I’m officially subscribed!! Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! ❤

  75. Holy 98 comments, Batman! Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed, DANG! Anyway, just wanted to say I laughed when I saw that first pic of your “outline.” Pages upon pages of scrawl in a notebook? That’s how I roll, too. Except I tell people I don’t outline – that’s more of a “freewrite until the idea solidifies” kind of thing for me. Whenever I get really REALLY stuck working on my MS, I pick up a pen and journal my way out of the hole. See ya in #pubwrite

    • LOL, I suppose that falls more into the “idea generation” stage than outlining. A more accurate title would have been “How I Pre-write”. I like your terminology, though. It sounds a lot less anal retentive than mine. 😉

  76. Great examples of outlining. I use mindmaps to generate draft ideas or to get through stuck bits. I’ve been working on short stories lately and usually don’t outline them. My writing group hassles me for not writing down outlines (I tend to use 3×5 cards in novels) and I realized that my short stories would only need three cards.
    1 – Introduce interesting character
    2 – Something bad happens to them
    3 – They die.

    Have to work on that.

    Looking forward to reading your book.

  77. Congratulations on getting featured in Freshly Pressed 🙂

  78. Wow, really cool post – I’m glad I stumbled across it! You’ve reminded me how much I enjoy creative writing, and how little I’m able to do it lately.. yet the fun of it, for me anyway, is the process. Thanks for sharing yours!


  79. Those are some outstanding outlines. I do outlines, as well, but not nearly that intensively or detailed. In my outlines, I tend to make a rough draft, you could call it. I break down the story into the most logical form of chapters and then write three or four key points that happen in that chapter. In the end, things will change; two chapters might be molded together, I might add in an extra chapter if I realize something that needs to be done later, but at the very least, I have the bare essentials on paper.
    It’s intriguing to see how other writers make their outlines; yours is amazing. It seems you’d put as much time into the outlines as into the novel itself.

    • It seems like a lot of work, but it’s truly a labor of love. Outlining is where I have the most fun. I can entertain the most unlikely ideas without fear that they might not translate well. The writing isn’t too bad, but outlining will always be my favorite part.

  80. Pingback: Mangler du inspiration til hvordan man outliner sit projekt? | ulrich.bojko.dk

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  82. I don’t normally comment on blogs.. But nice post! I just bookmarked your site

  83. Pingback: Character Cards: My Writing Process « Courtney Cole

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