Whether your writing style is more “meticulous planner” or more “writing-by-the-seat-of-your-pants,” your first draft can find its way with persistence. There are no right answers about how you get there, as long as you do.
Already jotted down that final punctuation mark? Look at you being awesome.
Still en route? No problem! The journey is long, but you’re well on your way.
But here's something you may not know: outlining isn't just a pre-planning tool, and it's not just something to keep you moving as your manuscript unfolds.
A post-first-draft outline can empower your hero's journey and your book’s lifeblood.
Here’s how this transformative revision process works:
1. Write your book’s Mission Statement.
After you finish your manuscript, write a single sentence that captures what your protagonist wants and/or what they're up against. This is the Mission Statement of your book, the expectation you give your readers from the start that will be the driving force that holds your entire story together.*
A company needs a Mission Statement to stay on point or their customers will take notice. A book should be similarly purposeful.
Themes and take-aways are different conversations. Vision Statements and Mission Statements are separate concepts; however, if you focus on your mission, you’re able to assess if you’re getting the job done.
2. Examine what you’ve captured on the page.
Skim through your entire book, and begin a post-first-draft outline. Using index cards, sticky notes, a paper notebook, or your favorite writing software or app, go through your book scene by scene, chapter by chapter, and write down the “happenings.” A sentence or a few notes on the developing story are all every scene needs for this outline—not the ideas or thoughts or dialogue, just the elements of the plot.
If you already outlined, that original draft doesn’t matter for this exercise. If this level of detail would have distracted your muse earlier, that’s fine too. Your goal in the story-structure revision stage isn't to see what you planned; it’s to see what you've accomplished.
With a little bit of time, you'll have an at-a-glance recap of your entire book.
3. Double-check every scene against your Mission Statement.
Every single moment in your book needs to be there for a reason, driving your narrative forward in some way. Are you upping the stakes? Is your plot progressing? Are your scenes on point or are they unrelated vignettes? Amusing tangents, fascinating research, and character backgrounds are fun to write, but they can weaken the experience of a story if they’re not connected to the hero’s journey in some way.
Every scene you find that's "on mission," add a check mark, highlight it green, or otherwise distinguish “goal accomplished!” on your outline.
For every scene that's “off mission,” ask yourself why it's there. Is it establishing something else vital to the story? If not, how can you elevate it so that it is? Or would anything be lost from the total story if it was cut?
An outline also allows you to catch the pivotal moments of your plot that are thinner than they should be. Seek out these scenes too and consider their expansion to ensure maximum story impact.
There are so many ways to examine your novel’s structure before, during, and after writing your manuscript. A book can be a living, breathing beast. Editing is where you tame it and make it do your bidding.
You have a mission. All writers do, no matter what it might be. But are you fulfilling that mission? Are your pages? A post-first-draft outline allows you to double-check and be sure.
*Books that juggle multiple points of view are permitted multiple “Mission Statements,” but each thread needs to similarly stay on task.