Like most professional writers, I often get questions from folks who aspire to write a book. One of the most common -- especially for people contemplating a novel -- is this: Should I create an outline before I start writing?

The simple answer is that there's no "should" -- some (successful, famous) novelists create elaborate, meticulously detailed outlines before they write a word of the actual book; others (also successful and famous) don't do any formal preparation at all. They just kind of feel their way through as they write the first draft.

Of course, when you dig a little deeper, you generally find that the writers in the second group usually have a pretty clear vision of where they're going before they start -- or, they go through several drafts and rewrites of their manuscript before they get all of the plotline pieces to fit together. Without a plan of some kind, it takes those writers a lot longer to reach their goals.

So what does all this have to do with investing? A lot.

If you don't have a plan, you're just throwing money around
Let's put it this way: Do all of your holdings fall neatly together into a single comprehensive financial strategy designed to get you to a well-thought-out goal, like a crisp, fast-paced novel?

Does that strategy take into account all of your portfolios (401(k), IRAs, brokerage), your real estate holdings, your spouse's holdings, your employee stock options, and your dog's hedge fund? Is it -- taken as a single entity -- consistent with your tolerance for risk in our post-crash era?

Is it up to date? Did you carefully work out your asset allocation a while back -- and then decide not to worry about it after some of your stocks made big moves?

Think about this: If you bought any of these big-name stocks near their lows in the past year, or others that have grown like these, you could be looking at a significant change in your actual risk exposure:


Percentage Gain Since 52-Week Low

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ:GMCR)


Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS)


Ford (NYSE:F)


American Express (NYSE:AXP)


JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM)


Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS)




Source: Yahoo! Finance. Data as of market close on Oct. 6.

Growth like this is a beautiful thing -- but it can knock your portfolio way out of balance. Is a rebalancing strategy part of your plan? How about a debt strategy? How much do you owe and when do you plan to pay it off? Is that part of your plan?

Or is your plan, like most folks' plans, a hodgepodge of ideas that is, in the words of financial planner John Gisolfi, "more a result of default than design"?

We've all read books like that, and ... well, those authors don't tend to get a lot of repeat business. But some of the things that are true of a book are also true of your financial plan. It has to make sense. It has to take you somewhere. It works best if it's the result of a well-thought-out vision, carefully executed.

On some level, we all know that. But we resist doing something about it -- we don't want to make the effort, we don't want to pay a financial planner, we don't want to be embarrassed in front of a financial planner, we're not sure we can find all the paperwork ... whatever, we don't do it.

And so we lurch through our financial lives with no clear sense of where we're going, and no clear strategy to get us there.

You know what? There's a better way, and it's embarrassment-free.

Financial planning for non-planners
In the new issue of the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter, lead advisor Robert Brokamp offers a great guide to do-it-yourself financial planning. The process is kind of like travel planning -- you gather information, figure out where you're going, figure out whether you're on the right path to getting there, and determine what you need to do.

If you think about it, you'll realize that it's not hard -- well, it's hard in the clean-your-garage sense, but not the make-a-huge-career-change sense. But here's the thing: Unlike cleaning your garage, every little improvement is a step in the right direction. You can do it in bits and pieces, over time, and gain with every little step.

And this is stuff you can do by yourself, right at home. And you should: Instead of a hodgepodge of uncoordinated efforts, imagine if you had all of your money working together, in line with a well-thought-out plan for increasing your assets and building a comfortable future.

If you'd like a jump-start on your efforts, I encourage you to take a look at Robert's article. Rule Your Retirement is a paid service, but you can see the article -- and dozens of other useful tools and features -- for free with a complimentary 30-day trial. There's no obligation to subscribe.

Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Ford. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation and American Express is an Inside Value recommendation. You can try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.