Who are you talking to?

One side effect of being called as Young Men’s President is that I get to spend a lot more time dealing with young adults. Which is kind of a good thing since I’m working on a young adult novel… it has also gotten me thinking about audience, audience expectations, and telling your audiences apart.

When you get down to it as a Young Men’s President I have at least five audiences I might be speaking to depending on the situation:

  1. The bishop and other leaders
  2. The parents of the boys
  3. The older boys, a 16+ year old dating and driving crowd
  4. A middle group of boys, who have responsibilities and are branching out, but aren’t old enough to drive
  5. A 13 and younger group who are often new to the young men’s program and rarely even get to go to church dances yet

In practice it’s even more complex than that. Some boys are called to be youth leaders and fall into the boy and leader groups. Some adult leaders are also parents. One of those adult leaders is also my wife. And there are things like the special needs some boys happen to have…

So, I have to ask… Who am I talking to?

It’s important to know

Sometimes you get lucky. I know adults who like YA novels.  But, make sure you’re talking to the right audience even when you’re lucky. Not all adults or young adults want a fantasy novel. Some might want a mystery (or both).

Those adults who like YA novels might want more out of a history book that a 9th grader would…

Talking to my parents and 16-year-olds in the same terms might work, but assuming an only child who just turned 12 and the 47-year-old, middle child, father of five have the same experiences will probably get me in trouble.

Figuring out who your audience is helps you know how to get their attention. It helps you figure out what examples to use and how to phrase that call to action.

The initial writing of this post happened at a local restaurant. To one side of me there was a counter culture family and on the other side I found an elderly conservative couple. The conversations at both tables were about the same kinds of things, but they’re using different words. Even though they had some of the same values, they use different words to describe them.

But there were also values that differed.

And those differences can create flash points. There are reasons the woman with the “refugees welcome” tee-shirt might not be happy to see that Immigration officer walking in the door…

And the older gentleman at the next table might greet him as a fellow military vet…

Understanding who you’re talking to, and acting on that information, can make or break an interaction. Understanding your audience and speaking/writing/acting appropriately can determine whether you sell books, get ‘likes’, or end up with spittle in your burger…

If you’re really good, you can bring separate groups together.

If you don’t pay attention, you can create a dumpster fire

So… How do you know what to say?

To quote one of my favorite fictional investigators… “The best way to know about women is to know them.” The same applies to just about any audience dear reader.

With my boys and their parents and leaders it means watching how they interact with each other and interacting with them myself. It means listening to what they say and how they say (or don’t say) it.

It means getting to know their interests, values, and concerns, and how they talk about those things. It might mean checking out a little social media. It might mean doing a little reading (gasp!).

Getting to know your audience might just mean getting out of your shell (gasp again), but if you want people to read your book (or blog or whatever…), buy what you’re selling, get your order right at the burger hut, or get a tip when you’re working at the burger hut understanding your audience: who they are, how they communicate, and what they want, is vital to success.

Sometimes getting to know your audience it hard. It takes effort to get to know people who aren’t like you.

Sometimes getting to know your audience is easy. If you happen to be a widget collector and are writing an article or blog post for widget collectors, you have a leg up already. But you still have to learn your audience and make sure you’re reaching them…

That’s it for this one dear reader. Dinner is done and the teens are texting.

Good luck understanding your audience, and I’ll see you next post.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled…

We’ve all got skills and ideas. We all have stuff we can make and do. If we’re really smart we can turn those things into new (and sometimes awesome!) things.

Somewhere along the line somebody realized you can use chainmail (you know, the stuff the knights wore) for scrubbing cast iron pans. Earlier this year I realized I could combine my skills as a writer with my knowledge of chainmail to create an instruction set for those wanting to make their own chainmail scrubber (or, you know, fight off barbarian hordes or something…) and so…

Today I’m announcing the release my chainmail scrubber instructions, and a kit that includes the rings to make a scrubber of your own. It’s right here in my ETSY store!

Yes, you could buy some sweatshop made scrubber. But, what if you want two or three? What if you want one in an unusual size? What if you want to change the shape just a little? Why buy a sweatshop scrubber when you can learn (and then teach) a skill?

With my instructions and kit you can get a scrubber and learn a useful skill. (Seriously this stuff isn’t just for fighting the horde anymore, people are making chainmail jewelry out there. And house hold goods… And…).

You can learn to make something useful that really works and really lasts. And, you can customize it to your style and needs.

Right now they’re available in stainless steel, and aluminum (light weight for you hikers and campers out there…). I’m also considering putting together kits with bronze rings (The color is different and they tie in with a story I’m working on…). The bronze ones aren’t part of the first wave, but if there’s enough interest they’ll be out by the end of the year.

If you want to, you could get really creative and mix metals to create a scrubber with your own custom pattern!

The scrubbers really do work wonders with stuck on food (especially on good cast iron that you don’t want to use dish soap on…). And, you can say you made it yourself! (And modify it so it’s uniquely suited to you!)

If you’re interested in learning, or just have some cast iron to clean check them out in the ETSY store.

If you’d like to talk, or hear, about writing instruction sets, leave a comment or send an email.

Either way, see you next post!

Reading and writing

Well, I had planned to do a software thing this week… But, as it happens the new technology is kind of being a pain in the rear. So… We’ll talk about some old technology instead.

Woven in-between the other things on my schedule I am almost finished reading Steven King’s On Writing. For any of you who haven’t met the book it is a bit of a memoir, but a lot more of a how to write well book than a “when I was five we moved to…” sort of book. It is definitely worth a read.

One of the things Steven talks about is the relationship between reading and writing. I actually agree with him very much, to paraphrase his words “If you’re not reading you shouldn’t be writing either.”

We read for a lot of reason:

  1. We read to gain information
  2. We read for entertainment
  3. We read for inspiration
  4. We read to find good examples
  5. We read to find bad examples and to learn from other’s mistakes
  6. We… Well, you can run the list out as long as you like. The point is that there are a lot of reasons to read

Reading and writing are two different sides of an exchange of ideas. If you are going to do the writing side well, then you have to understand what the project looks like from the reading side including format, language use, punctuation, voice, etc. The way you learn about what things look like from the reading side is to read.

Reading shapes writing

It does. You pick up bits and pieces while reading that will show up in your writing (or will be kept out of your writing because you learned to avoid the mistakes…). But that doesn’t mean that your writing has to echo someone else’s too closely (that would be plagiarism…). No, reading shaping writing works best (and most ethically) as a process in which you pick up bits and pieces here and there and “try them on” in the process of finding your own voice and your own story.

I might pick up an arcane detail here, a formatting style there. I think I picked up my preference for using a polyphonic structure in large stories from George R.R. Martin, but some of my thoughts on how magic works are heavily influenced my David Eddings.

It’s a process that works over time. The stuff you read will influence how you write, but you really do need to draw in the bits you like and work on your own style (a while back I looked at some of my earlier stuff (like my first finished book length manuscript) and immediately decided I have to rewrite it before I put it out (can you say Tolkien much… And, that’s not even counting the fact that I hadn’t really figured out how to write female characters yet…)).

Don’t limit your reading

Don’t. I know you might want to write in a given genre, and you need to read a lot in that genre if you’re going to learn and write it well. But, it will help if you read outside your genre too. You might even want to jump the tracks and read some nonfiction (or read some fiction if you’re a nonfiction writer).

Reading outside of your area of specialization helps bring in fresh and interesting ideas. It can help sweep out the cliché’s and help you write things differently.

When I’m in my ‘normal’ work mode I usually have two or three books going at the same time. Usually I’m reading a novel or memoir (something where story is king), a nonfiction book about a subject I’m interested in or researching (coins, guns, history, psychology, geology (pretty much any of the ‘ologies’ really), or anything else I want or need to know more about, and one ‘worky icky’ book, one that is about writing, publishing, or marketing (you know the books that you don’t necessarily want to read but you need to in order to succeed in your craft).

One of the reasons I cycle between books is that I know the limits of my attention span, and I know how fast I can read. If I read too much of the same thing for too long my efficiency drops and it takes me longer to finish a book. Reading and rotating actually helps me pay attention and read more books in a given amount of time (your mileage may vary).  One of the keys is to make the books different. Reading three of the same kind of book at the same time would be more confusing than reading in three separate areas at the same time.

Putting it on the page

I’m a writer and an editor. I think a lot of the people who read this blog are writers, editors, and other sorts of folks involved in putting words on the screen or page. When we are reading, at least one of the things we are doing is learning about the writing process. We need to ask ourselves some questions about the stuff we’re reading and actually use our answers in the stuff we’re writing and editing.

Is that arcane fact interesting for some reason? How can you use it in your own work?

Is that opening effective? Is the writer conveying his/her meaning well? Is that an aspect you can borrow?

If the scene you just read sucks, then why does it suck? Are you guilty of the same mistake?

When we analyze the stuff we read, and then apply that analysis to our own writing, we develop our writing style and we are on the way to making ourselves better writers (you know, the ones who can write better, sell more, and actually make a dollar doing this stuff…).

It is important to put stuff into the system by reading and experiencing the world around us. And, if we want to be writers, we need to take that stuff we’ve put into the system and put it out in our own way, in our own words, and in our own works.

If you want to be a writer you’ve got to write. If you want to learn how to write better, you need to examine the written word, and that means reading.

There’s lots of other things to do (experiencing life and people is important too), but reading is a key to being a good writer (even a great one). And, of course, writing is kind of what the job is; it’s taking the knowledge and tools that we’ve gathered and using them in a satisfying and effective way. And that’s kind of what this is all about.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If you’re looking for something to read between this post and the next one, give On Writing a try, or take a look at a couple of posts here and at my other blog Words Mean Stuff (last week we actually talked about meaning, and next week we’re talking context). And… I’ll see you next post!

Lessons learned from editing and commentary

Yep, I’ve been quiet on the blog for a little longer that I intended, but things have been busy…

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been working hard on helping a client get his doctoral dissertation into shape for his defense and for eventual publication. It’s been hard enough going that I even slowed down on some of my other writing and editing projects to give that one more attention.

I’ve also recently reconnected with the cartoon series Galaxy Rangers, something that I loved when it originally aired, but hadn’t seen for a while.

I have learned something about my own writing, and the writing of others, in both of these processes.

One of the reasons that we as writers should share with others, and one of the reasons we should actively partake in the genres we work in, is that we learn things as we are seeing and reading the work of others. In working on my client’s stuff I recognized that he occasionally has the same issues I do with making nonfiction stuff too wordy and ‘hemming and hawing’ at parts he’s uncomfortable with. Recognizing these behaviors in his writing makes me more conscious and aware of the same problems in my own work. Helping him figure out his issues helps me work on my own.

The same thing happened with Galaxy Rangers… I realized one of the flaws in my old favorite series was that they kind of rushed things and expanded the universe, and the cast, too quickly. It’s ok to have ideas for a vast universe, but if you’re spitting them out there before you can finish figuring them out that can lead to problems. And, even if you have them completely figured out you might want to pace things so that your reader/viewer has time to learn and get invested.

Now, that’s not to say that you need to move at a snail’s pace! In both cases it is about reader expectations. Whether you are doing fiction or non-fiction you need to work on pacing that works for your reader and you want to develop a voice that is confident where your reader wants/needs confidence, and is speculative when the time is right for speculation.

I can do these things dear reader. You can do these things dear reader! One of the best tools we have to develop these talents and figure out how to meet the challenges in our own writing is to help other people edit there stuff, and to analyze the work that other writers and directors have done and learn from their achievements and mistakes.

Writing isn’t usually done in a vacuum. Successful writing isn’t generally just done for the author her/himself. Because our writing is intended to reach and communicate with other people it helps us to look at the writing and communicating others do. It helps if we really analyze that writing and communication and learn what it has to teach us.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Get out there and read, write, learn, and live… And I’ll see you next post!

Well dear reader we’re at one of those ‘fun’ points in the universe. And this time it really is going to be fun.

Within the last week or two I’ve finished a major editing pass on my second novel (it’s out for other people to chew on as we speak…); I’m finding myself in a new and exciting world of equipment maintenance (Yes I can actually replace a hard drive… But now I have this weird little nylon buffer that sort of decided to be a three piece set…), and I’ve been asked to be an assistant den leader for the local Cub scout pack. It is a time of finishing old projects and picking up new ones (including a few projects I’ve tabled for one reason or another).

One of the projects I’m starting on is a book about making your own ‘beach’ glass and using it in art projects. And…I’m asking you to join me!

Here’s the plan… I’m writing most of the book and making a bunch of cool glass in the process. What I’m asking you to do is accept some of the glass and try making something with it. The glass and the something are yours to keep, all I’m asking in return are a few pictures and answers to a couple of easy questions.

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Basically the last chapter of the book is a show and tell chapter where the stuff you make can be showcased and some of your thoughts and experiences can be expressed (naturally you get credit for all of your creations!).

This is the offer dear reader, you get some pretties, the chance to play, and the chance to show off what you made. I get to finish my book and the opportunity to share some of the goodies piling up in my workshop.

As far as kinds of projects…I’m open to anything: Jewelry, mixed media art, painted glass, diorama/miniature stuff, or anything else you want to try using some of this glass with. It’s all on the table dear reader.

If you’re interested, if you like playing with stuff and want some pretties to play with, contact me at Forevermountainpub@gmail.com and we’ll go over the specifics.

Play is a good thing dear reader, and I’m offering you a chance to join in my play.

If you want to play shoot me an email. Either way I’m going to have some fun! And, I’ll see you next post.

Keyboards and pruning shears

Some people might not see how yard work ties in with the writing process, but it does. It’s not just in some strange scene or subgenre, and it’s not because I’m more or less always thinking about writing.

Step one planning and prep.

Sometimes you get really really lucky and a plant or story grows where you want it to without you having to do anything. But, in a lot of those case the ‘volunteer’ plant or story happens a side effect of what you or some other living creature has already done.

It happens but it’s not something that can be counted on to happen as often as we might like.

Usually we have to do some planning, to decide what we want to plant (or write) and how we want to go about it, both step wise and organization wise. This can include sketches, story boards, outlines, or whatever other planning tools you see fit. What matters is you figure out what you want to put where and have a plan that makes it possible.

It is also a good idea to do some fertilization. In the yard that means getting needed nutrients into the ground. In writing it means doing some reading and research. In either case it means you’re making sure your seed (story or plant) has what it needs to grow.

Sometimes you get lucky and a cool plant or story ‘just happens’. Most of the time you have to put in the initial work before the ‘magic’ really happens.

Step two growth

Hopefully our prework has gone well and our little seed starts to take off. The job at this point has a lot to do with making sure our seedling continues to have what it needs. In this first phase of growth (that’s a first draft for your fiction and nonfiction writing) a lot of what we are doing is trying to get the seedling to grow big and strong enough that we can start shaping it the way we want it, shaping it so that it can grow into what we want and start producing for us.

Usually we don’t’ want to do too much tinkering at this point, but the time is coming!

Step three training and pruning

And then the day comes that our first draft is finished. Our seedling story or plant is ready to start the process of being shaped and managed into what it needs to be in order to achieve the maximal, most beautiful and productive, success.

There is a lot going on at this point. We need to be filling holes caused by pesky gophers or plot points we missed; adding more fertilizer, protective chemicals, and other needed things (researching that one arcane point that’s suddenly important); and, possibly most scary, pruning.

Pruning isn’t a whole lot of fun. My roses have thorns that just love to stick me when I’m trimming. It hurts just as bad to accept that I need to trim out that bit of text or side character that I really like.

The truth is, if the bit doesn’t belong there or is going to cause problems it is best to cut it. Pruning helps get rid of sick, dying or otherwise problematic material that hinders the growth and productivity of our plants and our stories.

But, we don’t want to just trim willy-nilly. We need to put real thought into what to cut and what to keep. We don’t want to kill the best growth to get at one wonky stick…

Often when you’re working on the roses you need to get near and far views before you cut. This applies in writing as well: there comes a point where you need distance. Often in writing this distance comes from someone on the outside, someone who isn’t the writer (or even the main editor), someone who can read the thing and give you feedback to help you know if you are achieving the effect you want.

A bountiful harvest

Hopefully the plants and stories we nurture will reward us for our labors. They may do this with beauty, fruits and veggies, prestige, or even good old cash money. If this is what we want (and you know it is…) we have to put in work before the seed hits the soil or the pen hits the paper. And then we have to continue the process right up to the moment of harvest (and even do the finish work after…).

We can do this, but it takes time and effort. With plants and pages we need to develop our skills: our ‘eye’ to see; our understanding of techniques and subject matter; our ability to do the work; and all the things that are needed for success. Developing these things is what separates the winners from the losers at the state fair and the best seller list.

We can do this dear reader. It takes effort. It takes study and thought. But, we can do this.

Now get out there and do! (and I’ll see you next post)

Be willing to be wrong

From the moment we are born (and some will argue even before that…) we are always learning, adjusting, and adapting….

Well, we are doing those things as long as we don’t mess it up for ourselves.

How do we do that? We’re human, we tend to invent new ways as we go. But, there are some pretty standard options. One of the most common is being afraid of being wrong.

Nobody likes to be wrong

It’s a general fact dear reader. We don’t usually like to be wrong.

Occasionally we are pleasantly surprised and something turns out better than we hoped, but for the most part being wrong isn’t fun.

It’s a matter of perception and perspective. We are generally invested in being right. We have put time and energy into learning, thinking, and believing a certain way. And being wrong means a loss.

We have put in the time and energy to learn, think and do and it turns out we didn’t get what we wanted. We were wrong.

And sometimes it’s more than just a little effort at stake. There can be cherished beliefs, love, money and possibly lifestyle at stake. And naturally we don’t want to lose any of it.

In fact, our opposition to the possibility of being wrong often increases with the perceived stakes. That’s why we’re darned tenacious when we think being wrong means loosing something important.

The more important things seem the more we will fight to be right. And that’s good… If we’re right.

Unfortunately we aren’t always right. Sometimes we’ve goofed and now we’re fighting to cling to an idea or belief that is wrong. We just can’t succeed that way.

But sometimes you have to be wrong to be right…

If we perceive being wrong as a loss we fight tooth and nail to avoid it, or at least to avoid accepting it.

But, sometimes we need to recognize that we were wrong so that we can change things and accept something better.

Sometimes dear reader, we are wrong and we are going to remain wrong until we do something to correct the situation.

Correcting the situation may mean a number of things: unlearning, relearning, accepting, adapting, or even (and people hate this one…) repenting.

No, I’m not going all religious on you here dear reader. The word repent has religious meaning, but it also has practical meaning. In a practical sense repentance means rethinking and behaving differently than you have in the past. In practice it means you stop being wrong and start being right.

Repentance is sometimes an unpleasant process. Being wrong is sometimes an unpleasant condition, but if we are willing to accept that we were wrong in the past and that we can choose to act and correct the situation; then we can take the necessary steps to be right in the present and in the future.

If we are not afraid to be wrong we can actually take the steps necessary to move from being wrong to being right.

It’s not easy, but it’s important

As I’ve said, a lot of the problem is actually perception. If we are afraid of being wrong we will fight against it.

If we see ourselves as striving to become better, and learning to be right, then the moment of wrongness and our  correction to overcome being wrong are just another step in achieving and becoming greater than we have been.

In practice any time we actually want to do something or be something greater than we are we have to accept the possibility of having been wrong. Then, if we focus less on having been wrong and more on becoming right, we can move forward and achieve.

If we recognize that we were wrong we can ultimately become right.

It is a question of perception and understanding dear reader. And for any of us out here in life there are many ways and times that we might be wrong. But for all of us it is necessary that we be willing to recognize when we are wrong and overcome our wrongness. It is then that we can succeed in our desires.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Until next time…

Be willing to learn and become right, even if it means being wrong for a little while…

Piecing it together…

One of the projects that is almost out the door is an instruction set I’m working on for how to make a chainmail belt.

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I have also been talking to people who are working (or want to work) on putting out some sewing and knitting patterns. I can promise you that as much thought and work needs to go into a pattern or instruction set as is needed for any other project (you know… If you want your instructions to be understandable instead of rage inducing…)

But there are differences between writing a pattern or instruction set and some of the other writing we talk about here…

Doing and writing

One of the things I’ve really noticed in the process or writing instructions is that it is a good idea to actually make or do whatever yours supposed to be writing about while you’re writing the instructions. This can be slow and awkward. You keep having to set one thing down to do the other. However, this is often one of the best ways to avoid forgetting those little details that crop up while you’re working. Doing and writing in a parallel mode helps you think more about what you’re actually doing, so that you can write your instructions correctly.

There are times you need to write things up later, but this really can lead to memory problems and missing details. If you absolutely can’t write while doing, you might think about video or audio recording, or some other form of in vivo documentation to help you.

A picture is worth a thousand words

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” photographers tell me this all the time. As one with a few hundred thousand words under his belt I can say that this is one of the situations that they’re actually right about. Pictures, graphs and charts can show information more clearly and concisely than a verbal description; but only if you’ve put some thought into your pictures, graphs and charts! If you want to see the full spectrum of good and bad visual information head over to You Tube and watch some ‘instructional’ videos after you finish reading this post…

Often it won’t be enough to “snap a few pics” that you can insert into your instructions.  You need to think about what you’re showing, and from what angle, and with what kind of lighting and contrast. You might even want to get into some picture editing software and add some labels and text…

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Your pictures really do need to be as thought out as the rest of your instructions. And even then you’re not done!

Play testing!

It is virtually always a good idea to have someone else read what you write before you call it done (trust me, some of us have learned the hard way…). When you’re writing instructions or a pattern, it might not be enough to just have someone read over what you wrote. For patterns and instructions you might just want someone to actually try to do what you’re writing about.

In this case you can’t do it all yourself! You already know how to do what you’re writing about and you may well miss errors and confusing points that will be obvious to someone else trying to follow your instructions.

I know someone out there want’s to skip this step, but… Nope, you need to let someone else try to follow your instructions and then give you feedback. (note: fear of feedback shouldn’t be an excuse that stops you. If you’re seriously afraid of what people will say, then either you or your instructions aren’t ready yet…)

Instructions are a teaching tool. They are worthy of genuine thought and effort (and, based on how many knitting patterns my wife buys, they are sometimes fairly profitable…). In fact if you want to do them right you should give them as much attention (or more) than you would give any other writing project.

You also have to understand how your instruction projects are unique.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Next week…

Back to the long and the short of it!

Doing and observing

Back when I was an undergrad we had a guest speaker in my novel writing class. One of the first things he did was ask us “what are you doing here?” His thought was that if we wanted to be writers we should be out living life. I’ve thought about that over the years, and I think it’s not just living life, but rather learning life that we need to be doing.

Sure, there are lots of things that writers can learn in a classroom: Grammar, spelling, formatting, etc. It’s all important stuff, but there really are other things you need to learn. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction you need to get away from your writing desk, and actually into life.

Doing and observing

If you’re going to write convincingly about anything you need some experience. If you’re going to write a decent western you might want to at least hold a six shooter. And maybe even fire one! If you’re going to write about building a boat it might be helpful to actually build a boat.

But, what about the things you can’t do?

Right now I’m working on a novel where one of the two central characters is a 14 year old girl. Short of having a sex change and going back in time, how do I pull that off?

This is where observing comes in. Watch what people around you do. Maybe even talk to them about what they’re doing and why. Yes, this can be difficult. Even the physicists have learned that you can change behavior by measuring it. So, the trick is to learn how to observe without affecting behavior any more than you have to (and without crossing moral, ethical and legal lines hopefully…).

Even if you’re observing you have to live.

It’s true. Even if you’re observing you have to live. To write based on observation requires the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. It requires the ability to empathize.

Fortunately there are a lot of shared commonalities between people. Discovering and experiencing these commonalities is part of what allows us to “walk a mile in another’s moccasins” as we write.

I might never have been a 14 year old girl, but that doesn’t make my character Jamie a complete alien. We both want to be loved, desired, and appreciated. We both have people we value and experiences that are good, bad, embarrassing, or exhilarating.

As a writer you need to develop a breadth of experience that allows you to understand the things you observe and learn. This is part of what allows you to get into the minds of readers and characters, and to communicate what needs to be communicated.

So, dear reader, I’m not going to ask what you’re doing here, there is lots of ‘writer stuff’ to learn. But, I do encourage you to get ‘out there’ as well; because, there is a lot of life stuff to be learned in being a writer too.

That’s it for this one dear reader. See you next week.

Until then:

  • Choose life
  • Avoid death
  • Discover something unexpected

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.