How-to: outlines

Much of writing is about organizing. You’ve done your research, found your focus, and now you have to put the words together in a compelling order. That brings us to the dreaded “O” word: outline.

I want to tell you a secret. Lots of writers don’t use them. I don’t. Every time I’ve tried, it squeezes out every bit of creativity I have. Instead, I make lists. I start with lists of questions I need to answer before I can write the story. Then, when I’ve finished the research, I decide on the main idea and make a list of everything that has to go in there somewhere to support it – facts, quotes, images, impressions – in just enough detail to remember where to find them in my notes. Then I start writing and let the developing article or story dictate the order each appears.

That may not work for you. If you like outlines, write them. Author John Grisham won’t write the first word of a novel until he’s outlined the whole book – and his outlines run 50 pages. Writing teacher and author Roy Peter Clark writes a first draft and then creates an outline from the story to see how well it flows. suggests a method somewhere in between:

  1. List each item you need to discuss in your memo, report or article.
  2. Order them from most to least important.
  3. Try to summarize the whole thing in three sentences. That’s your first paragraph.
  4. Expand on each item in your list.
  5. Restate the action needed in the last paragraph.

Every writer has his own approach. Experiment and choose the one that makes you want to keep writing – you’ve found the way you write best.

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