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Jan 162013
 

Back in high school, I remember arguing with my teachers about how to take notes and outline papers. I get it now that they were just trying to teach me a method of organizing my thoughts and I really shouldn’t blame them for not realizing that my brain doesn’t work in the standard outline form. I made it through high school and on into college where the professors no longer cared how I took notes just so long as my papers were organized and I could answer all my test questions. That is when I learned how to take notes in the way that my mind actually processed things, and suddenly school became a lot easier.

Then I started taking my writing seriously. I went to workshops and read books about writing and I was back to being told that I had to write an outline. I struggled and struggled with those damned outlines. I still hated them and I still didn’t find them useful in the least, but that was what you had to do to be a real writer, so I struggled on. I went back to my old high school notes. More importantly the margin comments from my teachers, looking to learn what I had fought so hard to learn when I was actually in their classes. I actually became quite proficient at listing all the points in my stories in standard outline format. You know the one:

I.

A.

1)

2)

B.

1)

2)

II.

A.

1)

2)

B.

1)

2)

Etc.

The only problem, I couldn’t write the outline until I was done writing the story. If I tried writing the outline first I couldn’t write that story. Either I was completely blocked or I would just take the characters and write something else, so I would go back and rewrite the outline. If this sounds stupid to you, it is.

It wasn’t until I learned that the Writer’s Rules were suggestions that looked back at my attempts to outline and realize that they were just a waste of my time. The thing is, as with all the Writer’s Rules, they are merely suggestions based on educated guesses by people who are trying to help. Much like my teachers back in high school. The Writer’s Rules aren’t a one size fits all proposition even though they have a tendency to get told in a way that makes them seem that way. So let’s take this one apart and find the nugget of truth buried deep inside.

I’ll start with the assumption that there is something worthwhile about outlines. It’s a safe assumption considering how many people use them, even if I’m not among their number. What is it that outlines provide? The simple answer is structure. More than that, it can help organize all the little details so a writer can see where they all need to be. Which is great if you already know what all the details are. They are also a good way to see where you need to come up with details. An outline will show you if your chapters are evenly weighted with content or if you need to break them up differently. You’ll notice that a lot of these uses are equally powerful if you outline before or after writing the first draft.

That’s right folks, one of the things they don’t tell you when expounding on the need to outline is that outlining after the fact still has wonderful benefits for the editing process. It’s one of the many things that aren’t included in the general advice to outline that you might miss. Things like the standard outline form I showed above isn’t the only way to outline. You could bubble map your story.

double bubble map

Or use the plot diagrams that you learned to hate in English class.

plot diagram

Or any other schematic that makes sense to you. Since that’s what it’s all about. It’s about making your story make sense for you so that you can make it clear for your readers. It’s there to help you keep your thoughts in order. If it’s not doing that, don’t use it. Just like any other advice – if it doesn’t work for you, don’t follow it.

I use outlines sometimes when I am trying to track down a problem in a story, or I need to make sure that a complex scene stays true to it’s purpose. I almost never use that standard form any more. It still doesn’t suit me any better than it did back in high school. Just like graduating from high school gave me the freedom to find my own way to take notes, learning when to ignore well intentioned advice as given me the freedom to organize my stories in my own way. May you find the same freedom.

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