Outlining can be a useful tool, but only if done properly. Of course, what constitutes proper outlining is subject to the occasion. There are some who prefer not to bother with any planning at all, but it’s worth trying at least once, and so I’ll highlight a few methods I’ve come across here.
Method #1: Streamlining
This is the most straightforward (if also the most time-consuming) method, and the one I tend to use if I have an outline at all. But, it can also save a lot of trouble while actually writing the story, if done thoroughly enough. This is basically the process of thinking the story through in order from beginning to end, noting all the major events that play out as you go. Name people and places as they come up (though it’s sometimes helpful to make a separate character list as well) and describe them as thoroughly as possible. The biggest flaw is that of coming up with new plot or subplot twists as you go along or after you’ve finished. That’s why it’s best to go over these outlines several times, adding new points by squeezing them in the margins or via asterisks and daggers if necessary.
Method #2: Spotting
This is better when you’ve got an assortment of related ideas, but don’t know exactly how to arrange them yet. Just write them all down, then come back and number them when you’ve got a firmer idea of where things go. And, as before, add in new ideas as necessary. As an alternative, some people write each event on a separate notecard (with all accompanying details) and arrange them later.
These are the best ways I know of, and the only ones I have actually tested for myself. There is a third method that I haven’t tried, though it may work for you:
Method #3: Matching
This is perhaps the least cohesive of the bunch, at least in the initial stage. However, it can potentially be great for folks who have a truly random scattering of ideas, and no other way of organizing them. It involves making several lists: one of characters, one of settings, and one of events. Select at least one item from each list (more than one from the character pile, if necessary), then build a story (or at least a scene) around that. You can even add a fourth category involving time, if you so desire, but either way this one is probably best done on notecards or the like. It sounds a bit chaotic for me, and if used for a book-length work, could potentially entail writing a number of scenes out of order. But, for those to whom randomness is not a problem (or for single-author anthologies), it might just work superbly!