Outlines: It is written! But not really…

Outlines are one of those tools that people like to push on writers, students, and others who work with ideas and symbols. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. There seems to be two main factors that will significantly predict the successful use of outlines: the project and the person or persons doing the writing.

I have to admit sometimes for some projects outlines have helped me. But, that’s depended on the project in question and how I have used the outline. For a really ‘good’ outline (the kind my high school teachers liked) the best procedure seems to be: take something already written; read it; and then write the outline based on what you read. That’s what we did in my AP computer class and occasionally in English… Writing things first and then doing the outline.

It really does work, if your purpose is for someone to grade you based on your outline. If you’re actually going to use your outline as a writing tool, then you’re probably going to want to do things the other way around (unless you’re doing a rewrite…). And, you’re probably going to want to understand what an outline really is.

But we already know what an outline is…

You might. People who read this blog are usually pretty smart. If you have some good ideas on using outlines then how about leaving a comment?  Of course you might also want to know a little more about outlines and how to use them. And that’s why we’re here today…

The simple, simple definition is that an outline is a frame or skeleton around which you write what you’re planning to write. A better definition states that an outline is a theoretical framework or structure around which you write what you’re planning to write. I stress that it is a theoretical structure because many a time the outline you create in the beginning has changed, or needs to be changed, by the time you’re done.

When you are creating an outline for something you intend to write (or rewrite) you are thinking about what you intend to write, and creating the framework for it as you think it will go. It can help you get started and stay on course. It can help you to make sure not to forget anything. It can also lead you astray.

As you are doing the actual writing you may learn things about what you are writing. If you’re writing fiction you learn about your characters. Occasionally you realize your hero (or villain, or sidekick, or…) would do thing in a different way than you had planned in the outline. If you’re writing nonfiction you occasionally realize that you need to add something else, or to change the order of things in the text. When you find yourself in a place where you need to change things (usually between page 50 and 2xx…) you have two choices: plug along by our original outline even though you know it’s wrong, or you can rethink your outline.

Some might argue that you should throw out the outline entirely. Often those folks are the same ones that didn’t want to do an outline in the first place. I encourage you to modify the outline (or build a new one), but don’t just throw it out and ‘wing it’. The point of an outline (like a business plan or budget) is to get you to think about what you’re doing. If you revise the outline, and look at what the change will impact elsewhere in the outline, you have a real chance to stay on course and create a superior product. If you plug along with an obviously flawed plan you will end up with an obviously flawed product (if you finish at all…). If you toss the outline without replacing who knows where you’ll end up (‘pantser’ games is another post).

The key is to stay flexible

There isn’t anyone who is going to grade you on how you stuck to your initial outline (unless this is a class project maybe). The point is to create a good product. Often that means changing your outline along the way. You’re still thinking about what you’re doing, but you’re also reacting to your increased knowledge and understanding. If something needs to be changed change it.

Often people that dislike outlines, and those who blame a writing failure on the outline, are those who consider the outline a carved in stone, law of the land, fact. In practice if you understand that the outline is only a tool, a guideline and thought experiment, it can be really helpful.

So, yes, I do recommend outlines. And, I recommend revising them as needed.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Planning tools are here to help you, use them! See you next post.

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