R – reader or audience—the most important ingredient
I – idea or thesis—what you’re trying to say
Now, the Plan, or outline.
Creating an outline is the biggest favour you, as a writer, can do for yourself.
I know, there are a lot of writers who say they prefer writing “by the seat of their pants.” I’ve learned that approach wears out a lot of pant seats.
With an outline, you can make sure that you have covered everything you need to cover in your document, whether it’s a memo, a report or a novel. An outline is like a road-map: it helps you tell, at a glance, whether you’re getting toward your destination or resolution, what are the obstacles in the way, and whether there isn’t a better route to follow.
I have tried writing both with and without outlines. Once, I interviewed a very interesting typeface designer. I thought he was fascinating, and I even thought I had a great lead. So immediately after the interview was over, I turned on the computer and dove right in. I wrote about a thousand words when I realized I could not logically go any further, and I had not written anything important, or even readable, yet.
So, I deleted everything and started over. I wrote a new lead and another 400 to 500 words. Got stuck. Deleted. Started over again.
Eventually, I realized that I needed to figure out what I wanted to say with this article, and in what order. I moved away from the computer, took out a pen and a piece of paper (I know, I’m a cave-man) and wrote a thesis statement and an outline.
You don’t have to write down an outline; if you can remember a lot of different ideas in the right order, you can do it in your head. But you still need an outline. To put it another way:
The time required to write an outline plus a good document is less than the time required to write the same quality of document without an outline.
Why create an outline
An outline helps you:
- make sure you include everything you want/need
- organize your ideas
- make sure you leave out information or ideas that don’t belong.
How to create an outline
I start by gathering all the ideas, information, facts, quotes, research and whatever else I’ve gathered in my research, then jotting it down (on paper or on screen) in the order I think of it. Someone else a long time ago called this the “scratch outline.” You might call it brainstorming, except that it involves just one person (usually). Write everything down. Some of these ideas are gold, and you might lose them.
Don’t write whole sentences, yet. Just jot or type single words or short phrases. You’re trying to get the ideas down as quickly as possible, while they’re still fresh and hot in your mind.
Once you’ve run out of steam and can’t think of anything else to write down, start looking for links. Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together.” Look for similar ideas and linked facts, and for categories as well as items within those categories. You’ll probably need to make another list after this.
Once everything is grouped, start looking for a logical order to put them in. Here, you have a lot of choice: chronological (for an incident report, for example), or most important to least important (like a newspaper article). Proposals often use the “problem-solution” approach: describe a problem, explain why it’s a problem, the show the solution and its ultimate effects. Advertisements do this, too: “Does the opposite sex run away from your bad breath? You need Moosebreath Away!”
Word processors have outlining tools or views that make creating and rearranging your outline easier.
Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just try different arrangements of ideas and facts. Move them around and imagine the sentences you can craft around the short phrases in your outline. You can fill them in now, if you think of something particularly good.
Don’t be afraid to add new ideas that you realize you had left out, and be even less afraid of taking things out if it seems that they don’t belong.
It really helps if you already have a thesis statement written; however, I sometimes find the main point comes out once I start massaging all the information I have. But a complete thesis statement is a must for a finished outline. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES GO BEYOND WRITING YOUR OUTLINE UNTIL YOU HAVE DECIDED ON YOUR THESIS STATEMENT. Think of it this way: if your outline is your road map, then the thesis statement is your destination. You don’t start a journey without deciding where you’re going, do you? Okay, so do I, sometimes—but when it’s something as important as writing, don’t do it.
Start with knowing your goal, identifying your reader, and writing your thesis statement (although it may evolve)
- Make a scratch outline
- generate Lots of ideas
- jot down short phrases or single word
- Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together”
- group similar ideas
- look for general categories and specific items within categories
- Organize the ideas and information
- choose from logical, chronological, problem-solution, geographical, etc.
I firmly believe in using an outline to write fiction. You need to know your characters and setting, and you need to know where your story is going. Otherwise, it doesn’t go anywhere and your beautiful prose does nothing but bore the reader.