"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


The Outline: A Hidden Weapon in Any Global Strategy

July 23rd, 2016 by

I know from teaching for a while that many people have been taught in writing classes to outline their thoughts before they begin writing a paper or a speech. They don’t say that this strategy has worked for them or that they like it. They were just taught it, and they often seem to assume that it is a necessary stage in any writing they have to do.

By the time I got serious about writing in my early twenties, I’d long forgotten this high school training in what was supposed to be an invention tool. It had never worked for me, to be honest. I’d only written outlines because my teachers required them–the main reason most people do anything in a writing class. I always noticed, though, that I found myself deviating from the outlines I wrote into new ideas that would distort my outlines. These would be new discoveries that actually sounded sort of interesting. But I couldn’t pursue them, so I would keep them out of my paper.

The more writing I did, the more I learned to look for those digressions and unplanned discoveries. I learned that they mattered. I learned that outlining was best approached not as a final, rigid structure, but as a map, or better, a kind of grocery list that would get me through the store of my thinking but also a list I would allow myself to revise as I went along.

In graduate school, I found myself doing two or three kinds of writing. I would write research, but I would also do a lot of creative writing, which was more associational in structure. Or it would follow a narrative form. I learned to drop the outline altogether, except for some notes I might want to remember as I wrote. I learned to situate my ideas around the dramatic three act structure of many narratives. I stopped thinking of the outline as an important invention tool. As I became a compulsive reviser, I began to think of it in other ways. I began to think of it as a revision tool.

This week, my thinking about this came into heavy use. I found the need to write an outline of my novel–after the fourth draft. The outline I wrote proved to be freeing and generative.

I sat all afternoon with a legal pad, and as I went through each chapter, I wrote down one or two sentences for each. These began to suggest the plot. After I had accumulated two and a half pages of this, I came to the end of my draft. I then typed all of this on my laptop, adding transitions. And I began to think about what was there. This reflection led me to understand the global shape of my story in a way that I hadn’t seen when I was working on individual chapters and sections. Suddenly I could see over the whole thing and how I needed to add more scenes.

This came as a result of using an old tool, the outline, in a fresh way, not to plan but to revise. Getting a sense of the whole has been difficult when I am so close to the work. The revision outline gave me the chance to see the whole thing and what can change.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


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Comment by Ana P. R. on July 24, 2016 at 9:38 am

Great! I don’t use an outline since high school. But I might start creating one for my writing, especially because my ideas detour to other ideas. I see the whole picture in my mind too, but in can become oveewhelming. Thank you, this was very helpful.

Comment by Tom on July 24, 2016 at 10:05 am

Ana, I really find them useful after writing a draft. They help me to see what I’ve actually written and what I might add to it change.

Comment by Tom on July 25, 2016 at 8:45 am

Carla, I think your point that the outline proved useful in writing your dissertation needs to be made. In longer, more complicated and potentially digressive works, outlines are so necessary. I also drew up not one, but several, outlines in writing my dissertation. But I have to say that they were not the rigid outlines I was required to write in high school–with complete sentences that had to appear in the paper, for example, even before I’d drafted the paper and really knew what I was doing. Using the outline as a revision tool with my novel has really helped me to see where I need to add and delete scenes.

Comment by Carla McGill on July 25, 2016 at 8:21 am

I have had similar experiences, Tom, and I used to dread outlines, but as you point out, they can be surprisingly useful at times. The part of this post that resonates the most with me is the guilt we can feel for not doing things the way we feel they are supposed to be done. It was almost a shameful thing to me that I didn’t like outlines in high school and college! For my dissertation, I found them more useful. It sounds like a great strategy to use with your novel.

Comment by Lynn Maudlin on July 28, 2016 at 1:21 pm

I love this! We are so funny, we’re always looking for the rigid “here are the rules and if you follow them you’ll succeed” approach to so many things in life – but, as you observe, these aren’t rigid rules but useful tools. This actually reminds me of the way that Bible Study Fellowship approaches hermeneutics!

Comment by Tom on July 28, 2016 at 1:37 pm

Thank you, Lynn. I am especially tired of that rules approach. Our writing is always so much more alive and sophisticated than the rules we learn.

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