Digital Outline for More Time
Unless you’re a celebrity author whose books sell by the millions, you’re probably like most writers who struggle to fit writing in around an existing career while balancing family, household chores, or other necessary responsibilities. In the last six years, I’ve moved five times across three states, had three children, and like everyone else, been in a year-long quarantine during which I’ve coached my oldest through virtual kindergarten and headed off countless catastrophes due to cabin fever. So I’m there with you.
The last thing we all want is to waste those few minutes we can devote to our craft staring at an empty page or deleting thousands of those hard-won words because the story ends up somewhere undesirable. When I found myself struggling with this very problem, I decided to do some research on how to streamline my process to make my limited writing time as efficient as possible. My conclusion was the necessity of a thorough digital outline. Some of this is adapted from Outlining Your Novel: Map You Way to Success by K. M. Weiland, but the rest I’ve pieced together through my own personal experience.
1. Go Digital
I know a lot of writers will lash out against the idea of using a digital recording form, but hear me out. For me, once my life got truly busy, I found writing in a physical format to be restrictive and more often than not resulted in me not writing anything at all. I also wasted a lot of time cycling through old pages of notes searching for specific tidbits of information. That’s why I now advocate for putting at least your notes in some kind of digital format you can access whenever creativity strikes. For most, that means a phone app.
Few of us go anywhere without a phone in hand, so why not repurpose those hours of scrolling through feeds into productive writing time? There are dozens of apps designed specifically for writers, and if one doesn’t work, throw it out and find one that does. I kept trying apps utilizing the notecard approach, but when I reevaluated how I conceptualize information, I eventually landed on a program called WorkFlowy, an interactive bulleted list that best reflects how I’ve always organized my thoughts. Scrivener is another great option, which I use for my actual writing. I just recommend finding one that can sync information between a web app and a phone app so you always have access to your notes and never lose that million-dollar idea because you couldn’t write it down.
2. Make Cheat Sheets
Now that you’re set up with your digital note-taking platform, the best thing you can do for yourself is draw up cheat sheets on characters, settings, world building, or whatever you need specifically. For example, one of my protagonists is a ballerina, so I’ve curated an entire reference section on ballet. If you already have these in a physical format, then type them into your digital notes so you don’t waste a moment skimming for that one important detail while your precious time slips away. Ctrl-F will become your new best friend.
3. Wrangle Your Story into Scenes
At what point you do this will vary. For me, I usually end up recording the basic steps of the plot when I come up with the original concept and then later separate those large chunks into specific scenes and fill in missing plot points. Some like to write a quick and dirty rough draft of their story first while others plot out their entire story one scene at a time from beginning to end. Everyone has their own philosophy when it comes to writing, but I strongly encourage you to do this step at some point.
Don’t think about chapters, just break the story down so you can see how each scene leads into the next and how the plot progresses from start to finish. In my more complicated stories, I even go so far as to use searchable labels like hashtags to establish what the purpose of each scene is, what plot/subplot it builds on, and what the characters’ specific motives are. This keeps me focused on furthering the plot and building character arcs when I actually sit down to write and also reveals possible conflicts I might not have considered otherwise, all which save me from having to rewrite entire scenes down the road. It also makes it easy to follow a subplot to its conclusion, guarantee it flows right the first time, and keep details from getting lost in the shuffle.
4. Break Down the Story Further
This step will look very different for most of us. One of my novels I’m working on is incredibly complex given the nature of the worldbuilding and the number of characters involved. This has made it necessary to break down each scene into specific “beats,” basically the main points you’d use to explain the scene to a friend. I’ve found it helpful to add further directional notes to each beat as they come to me during my daily life, even snatches of inspired dialogue or narrative that I later paste directly into my novel. There’s no right way to do this. It’s whatever makes remembering and writing easier on you so your time is used as efficiently as possible.
Writing time is precious. By using a digital outline, not only will you save time tearing through pages of handwritten notes, you’ll have already done all the hard work of figuring out the plot, fighting through the annoyance of logistics, and solving those big head scratchers before you sit down to write a single printable word. Even better, you’ll greatly reduce those frustrating visits from writer’s block so you can wring productivity out of every spare moment. So do yourself a favor: craft a digital outline and gift yourself more time to do what you love most.