How to Outline – for people who hate to outline

How to Outline – for people who hate to outline

How to Outline – for people who hate to outline

It’s easy to love the early stages of writing in which you’re generating ideas. The only rule of brainstorming is that all ideas are acceptable: this means that you can feel legitimately productive while cranking out line after line of crackpot schemes and off-the-wall rants. If the “cluster,” “web,” or “bubble” methods work for you, even better. You can place your crackpot schemes in spatial relation to each other until they look like some futuristic blueprint. No wonder we love this early stage. Even the name for this part of the process – invention – sounds cool.

It’s also easy to feel good about the writing process’s later stages: drafting, revision, and editing, although they might not generate the same enthusiasm as invention does. Many writers view these later stages as “real writing” because they’re actually putting words on a page in sentence and paragraph form. In other words, the writer has something intelligible to show for the blood, sweat, and tears he or she put into the project. Once a writer has a draft, the hard work seems “worth it.”

One stage of the writing process, however, seems to be perpetually left out in the cold. This stage is grudgingly completed and often ignored. It’s the stage we love to hate. It’s the planning stage. However, if we recalibrate the way we think about and use planning in our writing, planning can be a source of inspiration rather than dread.

I’ll say it again: I hate outlining, and I don’t do it at all if I can get away with it.

Why do we hate planning? For many of us, planning is synonymous with outlining, and therein lies much of the problem. Outlining, with its arcane rules and strict structure, seems to stifle ideas and creativity by forcing them into narrow, hierarchical boxes. This sense of inflexibility is why I hate outlining. Yes, I’ll say it again: I hate outlining, and I don’t do it at all if I can get away with it.

Depending on the pedagogical approach of your past writing instructors, you may also have a visceral aversion reaction to outlining. I have heard many a horror story about teachers who threatened to fail any outline that had a single roman numeral or lower-case letter in the wrong place. I don’t know if any of the stories I have heard are true, but there’s nothing like a big “F” in red ink – real or imagined – to make a person hate the planning stage.

Nevertheless, planning is important. By plotting out the direction in which you want your argument to proceed, you save yourself a lot of headache in the writing process’s later stages. When you have a plan, you’re writing with a sense of purpose, and you can therefore be much more productive. After all, a trip to the grocery store can be very efficient if you know the route. But if you get in the car without any idea where the grocery store is – or without knowing that you are in fact trying to go to the grocery store – you will be in for a much longer, more frustrating experience.

The good news is that there is much more to planning than outlining, and you can reap the benefits of planning without writing a single I or II. I propose that when we think of the planning stage, we no longer think of it as “death by outline.” Instead, let’s think of it as strategizing.

Don’t outline — strategize

Strategizing is high-level thinking about your writing’s goals. Are you writing to inform? To persuade? A combination of both? What, specifically, are you trying to get across? What message are you trying to communicate? Your strategy must also consider your plan of attack. What structure will your writing take: is it a narrative, an argument, an analysis, a description, or a combination? What is the most effective arrangement for your main points, given your overall goal? Against which counter-arguments will you need to defend, and how will you do it?

Once you have a clear sense of your writing’s purpose and optimal structure, coming up with an organized plan for your material is a much simpler undertaking, whether or not you ever write a formal outline. In Part 2, I’ll share some techniques to help you approach planning strategically.


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