Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Writing Without A Net:
Organizing Without Outlines

By Katherine Derbyshire
2003, Katherine Derbyshire

hate outlines. I mean I really hate outlines: I almost failed my senior thesis rather than use one. For me, a piece of writing is a network, not a linear structure that will fit in a numbered list. The connections between nodes are as important as the nodes themselves.

Yet without an outline, it's hard to keep the details of a big project organized. What do you write next? How does it fit in with the rest of the work? This article is about the methods I use to manage complexity without the straightjacket that an outline is for me.

The structure of no-structure

An outline is only one possible tool for describing a work. Structure, on the other hand, is what turns a collection of random paragraphs into a coherent whole. There are at least two kinds of structure in writing. The first kind is inherent in the form. A 500-word news item, a 3000-word short story, a book-length technical report, and a novel could all present similar material in different ways. Outlines are good at describing the formal structure of a work: what are the beginning, middle, and end, and what happens along the way? 

The second kind of structure is inherent in the material. A technical article might be organized around the parts of a machine or the steps in a process. A novel might be organized on a timeline, around a series of riddles, or around members of a family. This organizing logic is usually not a simple linear progression. Characters all have their own agendas. Events affect each other in complex, sometimes unpredictable, ways. This complexity is hard for me to capture in a linear outline, yet it is exactly what makes a story interesting.

Making matters even worse from an organizational standpoint, I'm a non-linear writer. Instead of starting at the beginning and writing through to the end, I start in the middle and jump around. Diana Gabaldon, who also works this way (she discusses her methods at, describes it as like working a jigsaw puzzle. For me, it's like the slow accretion of a coral reef or a limestone cave. I focus on one area for a while, then another, and only gradually discover how they fit together to form the whole.

Although the individual puzzle pieces may look random, they aren't. Nor is non-linear writing the same as "writing the interesting stuff first," turning the less interesting stuff into a monumental task that's impossible to finish. The pieces are more or less complete scenes, arising from a unique convergence of setting, plot, and character. The connections make subconscious sense, even if they aren't immediately clear to my conscious mind. Each scene carries with it implications for the following story and the back story. As I work, I figure out what the organizing logic of the story is, and how the scenes fit into it.

For example, my current WIP began with a young man sitting in a town square, making extraordinary drawings that came to life and moved by themselves. The police appear to arrest him, and he runs. This scene, which appeared fully formed in my journal, raised all sorts of questions. Who is he? Is his power unique? Why are the police chasing him? Where is the city? What happens next?  To answer them, I wrote more scenes, which raised more questions. Some of the answers lie in the past: he's in the city (which turned out to be Renaissance Venice) to find out what happened to his father, a suspected traitor who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Some of the answers lie in the future: he doesn't know how his power works, and he needs to find out in order to control it. As I wrote all this out, I accumulated a pile of scenes, along with fragments of description, character sketches, notes on the setting, and so forth. I also figured out the beginning, middle, and end of the story.

Pulling the threads together

I think of this accumulated pile of notes and scenes as the zero draft. After the zero draft, everything that needs to be in the finished work is there. I've figured out the structure inherent in the material, but I haven't yet imposed the structure required by the form.

The zero draft of a fiction project is very similar to the research stage of a non-fiction project. For a non-fiction project, I'll read a bunch of things related to the topic at hand, interview a bunch of people, and accumulate a pile of notes. Though I'll have a general, one-sentence description of my topic in mind while doing the research, I won't yet know exactly what I plan to say. To figure that out, I sit down with my notes and a big sheet of blank paper. I use an 11" x 14" sketchpad, but you could do the same thing with index cards, sticky notes, or whatever tools feel comfortable.

I read through my notes and write the important ideas on the big sheet of paper wherever they seem to fit. Colored pens code which source said what and highlight my personal conclusions. Related ideas go close together. Lines show the connections, which could be logical: if A then B; structural: A is part of B; chronological; or any of a number of different relationships. This technique, called mind mapping or visual outlining, lets me see the inherent structure of the material and map it to whatever form I'm writing for. If I'm writing a short article, the structure is often simple enough to keep in my head. If I'm writing a book, I might have a master map for the book as a whole and detailed maps for each chapter or even each section. Either way, once I know the structure, I'm ready to sit down and actually write.

Not everything on the map will actually go into the work. Some ideas turn out to be extraneous to the overall flow. Still, the map contains all of the key ideas and their relationships to each other.

The first draft of this article is online at: I wrote it after I finished the map (see figure), but before I queried Zette to see if she was interested.

My zero draft in fiction serves the same function as the pile of notes for non-fiction. The difference is that the "notes" include large chunks of writing that I can use more or less as is. I'll have worked out many of the structural questions in the process of writing them. Mapping lets me see what I actually have written down and where the gaps are. Lines between different scenes show important connections that I may need to emphasize. Different colors can track different characters or subplots. I use the map to put the usable chunks of writing in linear order. It also serves as a guide for any new scenes that I need. Again, the amount of mapping I need to do increases as the work gets longer and more complex.

After I organize my notes, I have something that linear writers would recognize as a first draft. It's very rough, but it's in more or less the final order and contains nearly all the details that the finished work will have. From here, my revision process is fairly systematic, but usually quite lengthy. For non-fiction, it takes me as many hours to go from first to second draft as it did to create the first draft. Fiction goes a little faster because the "pile of notes" consists of complete scenes.

The map continues to guide me through the revisions. I use it to remind myself of things I thought were important that don't actually appear on the page, to make sure the structure on the page matches the structure in my head, and so forth. For non-fiction, I also use it (remember those colored pens?) as a quick index to sources.

By the end of the second draft, the work should contain everything that it's going to contain, in order, with the words I'm going to use. The third draft is simply checking for mechanics, overused words, cut and paste mismatches, and continuity problems. Book length works can require two "second" drafts because I can't keep that many changes straight at once.

Tools: controlling chaos

Just as outlines don't work for me, this method may not work for you. There is no One True Way of writing. If my description sounds like the way you work, I've found a number of tools that can help reduce the clutter the process creates.

Mind mapping or visual outlining software can make maps more legible and easier to edit. I use Mind Manager (, which is relatively expensive but has lots of features for organizing files, bookmarks, and other kinds of data. These turn the map into a topical index: very handy for doing a followup piece on the same subject six months later. Writer's Blocks ( is a visual outliner designed specifically for writers. Both packages have free trial versions.

Julie Morgenstern's book, Organizing from the Inside Out (ISBN 0-8050-5649-1), helped me understand why I have such trouble with outlines. The book gives all sorts of useful techniques for figuring out how your mind organizes information and structuring your work area accordingly.

Wiki software makes it very easy to build hyperlinks between text files. Using it for notes creates a sort of mini-web organized around a particular topic. Wikis can be either Internet-based or hosted on your own computer, and can be public or private. I use Pepys (yes, named after the famous diarist) to organize offline notes ( and have a very basic public wiki at So far, I'm finding that Pepys is a good substitute for the scraps of paper I seem to accumulate as I work on things. My public wiki seems more suited to finished thoughts that I'm ready to share with the world.

Structure and spontaneity

One of my reasons for writing this article was to help other non-linear writers. Linear methods are easier to teach, so they dominate writing and English composition courses. It's easy for people who work this way to think that something must be wrong with them rather than with the methods. Yet it really is possible to write even huge door-stopper books with an organic, non-linear approach.

I also wanted to bridge the gap between highly organized writers who can't begin without a detailed outline, and seat-of-the-pants writers who would rather have oral surgery than plan. Both groups have important insights into the process. The organic approach still requires structure, while the structured approach still needs spontaneity. I hope this article helps you find both.