I’ve always hated outlines. For big writing projects, that was always the directive: make an outline. Start with your thesis…then flesh it out with evidence. List all the important events in the piece in the right order. Open with conflict…then include key scenes to develop it.
When the instructor didn’t assign an outline, I felt I should use one anyway. It seemed a necessary step on the way to an achieved goal, like letting the dough rise or gassing up the car before a journey. If I skipped outlining, the image of a dull paper covered in red pen plagued me. So like a good doobie, I outlined. I made a list with Roman numerals, capital letters, and numbers. My outline was a beautiful thing, and one to which I rarely returned.
Farewell to Outlines Haiku
I will not ever
use a Roman numeral
in writing again
Since drafting this piece, I discovered that two writers I know and admire—Bethany Carlson and Dan Willingham—are Old-School Outliners. I’m sure there are others as well, but truly, this piece is not for them. It’s for all the other people—people who, like me, don’t know all that you’ll write before you begin.
After producing many lovely and ignored outlines, I’ve learned to let go of the old way and see my process differently. Writing—even logical, systematic writing, like I do for my research job—is a creative process. I can’t show up at work at 9am and write until 5pm, and I can’t produce an outline and then follow it mechanically to its finish. There are too many unknowns on the way to a finished piece, and they emerge in their own due time. Not by an imposed schedule or anything as regular and top-down as an outline.
Sure, I might know my topic when I start, and I might even have a few things I want to say about it. But! There are invariably insights that arise as I’m writing, thoughts I wasn’t going to think until I wrote the sentence…that I just wrote. (For example, having just written the previous sentence, I thought of the word, emergent. Emergent thoughts, by definition, can’t be known ahead of time. The web tells me that emergent means “in the process of coming into being or becoming prominent.”)
It’s that “in the process” that I love. À la Don Fry, who wrote “Writing Your Way,” I’ve learned to use outlines my way. I use them in the middle of my process. Instead of an outline, that process begins with thinking off the page, contemplation on walks and while washing dishes and at other times when my mind is empty of deliberate input. I might jot some notes down to jog my memory later, like the note for this post I made on July 17: Outlines are not useless…or something to explain how using an outline to get started is only a start, [you] don’t need to stick to it.
At some point after in-the-mind marinating, I’ll write for a bit. Then, when the writing tide ebbs, maybe I’ll make an outline. It might even have a bullet point, but I avoid numerals. Too inevitable. Brainstorming with my writing group is pure fun. At other times, my outline is a diagram, like screenwriters use for movie plots. Or, I’ll use the Comment feature in Microsoft Word Review tab to describe the goal of each paragraph after it’s drafted. An outline that becomes prominent after the writing has commenced honors my personal process in a satisfying, bottom-up way that I don’t experience with the traditional outline.
Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned since my early indoctrination is that there’s no place for “should” in my writing process. Like an old-fashioned outline, “should” makes me feel constrained to rigid sequence, with its mechanical headers and sub-headers and bullet points, and that’s not where my creativity lives.
Instead, I find my creativity in the process, and that’s right where I want my outline. In the middle of the mess and the emergence, it can do its job of guiding, signaling, and organizing.*
*Side note that wouldn’t be in any outline: I’ve heard the best leaders are more like coaches than like bosses—they’re focused less on the product and more on the process. Maybe that means my beef with outlines is really a problem with authority…
–C. E. Cameron