To Outline Or Not To Outline? That's the Writer's Question

You were probably forced to do it in high school and/or in college. You may have even gotten a grade for it. Some authors swear by it. Others break out in hives when they hear it referenced.

The Outline.

Why does this one little process provoke so much anxiety?

I recall the tedium of research papers. I loved the writing process itself, but hunting down exact quotations and ensuring that I was listing my sources always felt overwhelming. Not to mention structuring the outline that always accompanied these projects.

Remember being required to turn one in, not certain your thesis was even intact? Worrying your teacher was going to red mark up that sucker? I do. Pure fear shook me every time we entered a library. I felt like I was never doing it right and I didn’t even know what “it” was.

Then when I began teaching English, I had a revelation. Most of the authors I was teaching weren’t research savvy, college professors, or even 9 to 5ers. They were often marginalized outcasts who lived on the fringes of our society, barely hanging onto jobs with raging addictions and unfulfilled relationships.

And if you follow these upcoming simple steps, you can be one of those people, too! I’m just kidding.

My point in walking you through misanthrope land, is to let you know your story is the most important part of your task as a writer. Sure, all these other tools will assist you in building a better book or article, but first you need to have a drive and a passion for what you are writing about.

Stop thinking about an outline as a complicated requirement that must get done or you can’t move forward with the writing process. If you recall the basic structure of a 5 paragraph essay, you’ll note that the thesis statement was the most challenging part.

Guess what? Your thesis statement is YOU. No, not literally. But your theme or overall concept is what you’re after here. It’s about your life if you are writing memoir or your unique perspective if you are writing in another form.

Don’t adhere to rigid guidelines about structure even in the outlining process. For starters, you don’t have to have all the blanks filled in even if you choose a traditional outline. And second, you can always revise an outline as you go along.

I didn’t do much outlining when I first started my memoir. I had 20,000 words down before I realized that my book project was going to need more structure than I had originally intended.

My method for outlining?

  • I came up with my book’s theme first: Overcoming Fear

  • I made lists. Like my OCD mother before me, I put down a simple timeline for my memoir. For me this was between the years 2003-2011. Anything before or after that time was unusable.

  • I listed the biggest turning points in my life for that timeframe. Those turning points became makeshift chapter titles.

  • Under each chapter, I listed a rough sequence of events as I remembered them. This structure gave me an overview of what I was going to write about. It also allowed me to complete two specific tasks:

    • I could see each event within the context of the bigger picture. This meant I could easily identify which events drove the theme onward and which ones were irrelevant.

    • I could study each event in isolation. This meant I could work on a story from Chapter 20 before I even started Chapter 5.

  • I had created a series of vignettes that could later be strung together with transitions or extracted from the story altogether for use as a separate piece.

This ain’t your Comp 101 Research Paper Outline, but it definitely did the trick for me.

There are scores of different types of outlines, grids, Venn diagrams, and graphic organizers you can explore to map out a story. But for now, see if you can manage to just get a rough outline using this listing technique. It will allow you a bullet point kind of outline where you can skip over sections if needed to fill in completed scenes when and where it strikes you.  

Do you outline your work before you start writing? If so, what's your favorite outlining technique?