This is part of a short series that we’re calling Thoughtwrestler Toolkit. We’re going to describe a series of tools that you can use to help wrestle your thoughts to the ground, solve problems, and bring your great ideas to life.
This is an introduction to each of these tools. There are hundreds if not thousands of blog posts, articles, or other publications which describe these topics in much more detail. We plan to do deeper dives into these tools on Thoughtwrestling but, for now, we’re just going to help you get acquainted with them.
Today’s article is about outlines.
What is outlining?
Most of us remember writing school reports or essays that require outlines. You start with your main theme or subject of your report. From there, you divide the topic into sections. Sometimes you’re working from a template that you have to follow. Other times you’ll have the freedom to do what you want in terms of headings.
For larger reports you have to develop sections with sections. You’ll want or need to do that if your sections have a lot of detail in them. If you have ten important points within a section to describe and it takes more than a paragraph to describe each point, each point should be a subheading within the section.
Why use outlines?
There are three main reasons why we use outlines in written work:
When we have to
Outlining feels restrictive at times. However, there are times when we don’t get a choice. Que sera, sera.
To make it easier to organize your thoughts
Some people prefer to sit down and just write. Some famous writers work this way, mainly because they are starting with a key idea or concept and they don’t know the details yet: they prefer to let the story reveal itself gradually without constraining it.
That doesn’t work well for less experienced writers. Structure makes us more productive by providing organization, a roadmap, and milestones to reach. Otherwise, we get lost and are unproductive.
To make it easier for the reader to understand
Ever notice that books (fiction and non-fiction) have tables of contents? Why is that? They have tables of contents because they provide a means to navigate through a book and find our way to specific points. They provide the milestones we need to make our way through the book while keeping in mind the objectives.
Outlines are critically important with larger works, especially non-fiction books and reports. They provide the necessary structure and background information to understand longer and more complicated writing.
The possible pitfall of outlines
There’s one thing about outlines that can cause problems: a lack of flexibility. If you have an outline that’s already defined with sections and specific points within those sections, it can induce anxiety and stress if it doesn’t feel natural.
Also, the existence of the outline can lead to stress because we become afraid to change it. We feel that we’re breaking the rules and losing the plot if we deviate.
But what if, instead if helping us, the outline is fencing us in?
Flexible outlines: the best of both worlds
It’s simple. Use your original outline as a starting point. Complete your first draft. As you revise your draft, revise the outline at the same time. If the structure flows and works well, that’s great. If it doesn’t and you find a better way to organize the information, then change the outline!
What to do with an inflexible outline?
There is a possible solution to handling an outline that you can’t change: defer. Maybe all you need to do is get past the first draft of your piece. Therefore, as long as you’ve got the time to do so, ignore the outline. Just get it down in writing in whatever way you can. Then revise the heck out of your material until it fits the outline.
Do you use outlines?
We have a theory that most people don’t use outlines, at least not on the first draft. We think that they can help writers but it might not always work for everyone.
Do you have experience with using outlines? Do you love them? Hate them? Do you use any cool variations on the basic outline? What not share your thoughts in the comments section?
Image by kelly cree
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