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Writing Advice: Outline This

Writing Advice: Outline This

This is another kind of outline.

Dear Nancy,

Should I outline?

H.M., Brooklyn.

Dear H.M.,

In a word, yes.

I don’t know anything about you or your writing but in general, I’m pro-outlining, with some caveats.

I know I’m going against the whole “intuitionist” school of writing by saying this – you know, the one that says you should “discover” the plot and characters as you go along. I use those scare quotes with love, though, as I’m not against intuition. Far from it. I think it’s essential. Without some writerly instincts to guide you, your writing might well turn into leaden prose.

But the thing about intuition is that it’s not always reliable. It doesn’t always show up when you need it, and it doesn’t always guide you in the right direction. A scene that might have seemed brilliant when you were drafting it turns out to break the flow of your story – the pacing is off, or the character comes out of nowhere, or the scene is lacking context. Of course, these are all things you can go back and fix on revision, but wouldn’t it just be simpler if you have at least a hint of where you were going before you sat down to compose?

The intuitionists sometimes get outraged at this idea. They flat out refuse to outline. They talk about their creativity being stifled. They say they “can’t” outline. They don’t know how. It’s adorable.

Truth is, there are many different kinds of outlines – this is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Some writers I work with have very complete and comprehensive outlines that track every single plot point in their novel. Some have sketchy ones that at least cover the main narrative points. Sometimes I force my clients and students to come up with outlines that pick out the archetypal moments in their stories. Some of them fight like hell against doing this, but I think it’s always useful to know the protagonist’s desire, the conflict to that desire, the point of crisis, and the resolution. And if their work doesn’t have those elements, we can talk about why not, or if they might be in there but hiding in subtle ways, or if they are even necessary anyway. It’s always a useful discussion, no matter the outcome.

One kind of outline that I often assign – useful for fiction writer and nonfiction writers alike – is the three sentence summary. It goes like this: For each chapter, write 1-3 sentences about the content, the “what happens.” Then write 1-3 sentences about what that content means, why it’s important. The benefit of this kind of outline is that it forces you to be concise, but it also forces you to think. Does the plot flow? Do all the events link up? And, equally important, is the progression in emotion and meaning clear and linear? Is it intrinsically tied to the plot points on the “content” side of the outline?

This might all sound dreadfully formulaic, but an outline isn’t supposed to be a straight jacket. You can change it. In fact, producing an outline is one way to figure out if the plot does need to change in some way. I advocate that you create your outline using post-it notes and/or index cards for this reason – they enable you to keep things flexible. If a chapter needs to change, just throw away that index card and pull out a fresh one. Suddenly, a plot that was rigid can gain a wonderful manipulability.

So yes, H.M., I say outline, write, change your outline, write some more, and repeat, ad infinitum.

Here’s bestselling nonfiction Mary Roach, saying pretty much the same thing. This was taken from an interview on Media Bistro:

I write outlines, and I abandon them. I write another outline, and I abandon it. And I keep thinking along the way, “Now I’ve got it.” But I get more information, and I’m like, “No, I don’t have it.” It’s getting there. I’m much closer than I was before, but it’s really agony. The end result, though, if you beat yourself long enough and stick with it, is that it will work, and it will be good. And people think, “Hey, this reads like you just sat down, and it all came out.”

And isn’t that the aim, H.M? To wow the reader with the effortlessness of your work? It’s just a shame that getting to the appearance of effortlessness requires so much effort, and perhaps, an outline.

I hope this helps.


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