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Quick survey question: Who likes outlines?


5-31-07 (Photo credit: chrismaverick)

Something I’ve been thinking about lately (there’s backstory that has to do with a Composition Theory class I’m taking, but I know no one cares, so I’ll skip that).

When you’re writing something, do you use outlines? If so, how formal of an outline? If you don’t use outlines, do you do something else to organize your thoughts or do you just write and go?

For instance, for me, it varies. Cosmic Hellcat scripts for instance are way more like a very loose outline than a formal script, because Max and I work well that way, and it gives him room to insert concepts into the story that I didn’t write.

When I’m writing something academic, I tend to not do outlines. I draw mind maps on the white board in my office, and that helps me organize concepts I want to include, but I tend not to think of them linearly, so I can’t visualize them as an outline. As an undergrad, I always hated when a teacher asked me to turn in an outline for a paper. I ESPECIALLY hate when it happens in grad school. It’s always a lie. I don’t know organizational flow of a paper I’m writing until after I write it. Way after, in fact, because I tend to shift things around a LOT when I’m editing. It works far better for me to organize my thoughts as I’m writing. I *think* most people actually write like this, but I don’t really know, which is why I’m surveying.

My students say they like when I give them outline exercises to do. They tell me that when I have them do one, it helps them to organize their thoughts and gives them a better idea of what I am looking for in their papers. That said, students are full of shit. If I were in their place, I’d totally say something like that if my teacher asked just because I feel like it’s the right thing to say.

So instead I ask you oh wise and glorious internet full of people I have no authority to grade. Are outlines helpful at all? And if not, what is?


37 comments for “Quick survey question: Who likes outlines?

  1. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I think outlines can be useful so long as they are flexible. The outline you start with does not necessarily describe the final shape of your paper – though I know in school I would reverse engineer my outlines so that they did. In K-12 teaching we use a lot of different organizers, some of which are nonhierarchical or nonsequential. I think it’s important to teach that not everyone organizes their thoughts in the same way. Jotting down a list of stuff you want to mention could be considered planning a paper – as could crossing out half of it when you realize it doesn’t fit in there.

    somewhat OT: Does anyone ever plan their characters and plots for writing fiction before writing? I have always thought that was completely bogus.

  2. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    When I was writing fiction I would write about 2x in support materials what I actually ended up writing for each story. Sometimes this was outlines, backstory, timelines, character profile information … all sort of stuff. I didn’t have a rigid set of materials I created, it depended on the story. For example, I started (but never finished) a time travel story when I had a detailed timeline of when things happened and when people time-traveled to. For another story, I had a detailed bio for each character, because the backstories were important. All in all, I feel like you have all these different tools available to you, and you decide which ones will get a particular job done. With fiction, there are two general “camps” on how to write stories: outlining, and revision. I don’t know that I ever really fell into either of those camps, I just used whichever method seemed to be helping me get the current story done.

  3. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Look how someone answered my question just as I asked it.

  4. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Katherine Wren I’m in your head … reading your thoughts …

  5. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    Since I read this backwards, I just saw your “bogus” comment … I’m curious, how would you write a complex time-travel story that stands up to any scrutiny without making some sort of timeline? I mean, maybe there are people who could keep track of all the character arcs, the different behavioral nuances of each character, and all the other things that you have to keep accurate to have good characters … in their head … but not me.

  6. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Sometimes. Usually, I write straight through, and then maybe shift bits around. But sometimes, I’m writing, and then I’m like “Hold on; I gotta explain this whole other thing before this part can make sense,” and then I go back and do a rough outline. Darn it, you reminded me I haven’t actually written anything in almost a year.

  7. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Bill Moran, I would write it poorly. I would probably draft it, make a horrible mess of it, and then try to untangle it later, perhaps without much success. I’m the sort of person who thinks of an idea and wants to write it, not plan it. Planning that sort of story is probably very useful, but it’s also a specific case, and I was speaking more generally.

  8. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    So I have two separate ideas here to comment on. As to what you’re referring to, writing most basic academic style papers, I’m with you, no outlines at all. Perhaps it’s due in part to my background writing poetry, perhaps it’s because outlines were never really stressed in my academic background, but I prefer to write very organically. I’ll just simply sit at the computer and type, rambling on initially until I’ve made every point I want to make, then edit it into something more coherent, but that still has a good and natural rhythmic flow to it. If I were to write a paper of substantial length and complexity I can definitely see making use of a list of bullet points to hit and perhaps even some connections (effectively what I imagine your white boarding to be), but I still write more easily if I just ramble on like I were having a conversation filled with tangents. Much like I ramble on the internet, only with editing afterwards.

    The second point would be the one time (not counting giving speeches, those are a separate monster) that I did use an outline (that I really need to fill in one day). But that wasn’t for an academic paper. Years ago an old partner of mine and I got into a short lived tv drama about our industry that we both watched faithfully despite the fact that we both found it full of technical mistakes and terrible stereotypes. This inspired us to do better. We came up with things we’d do differently, character archetypes then actual characters, some basic season 1 over arching plot lines, then created a scene by scene outline for the pilot. But by it’s nature I think screenwriting lends itself better to that outlining nature, filling in the details later, much like you mention with Hellcats.

  9. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    I want write whole book now.

  10. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Katherine Wren I can see that. It sounds like the revision vs. outlining debate. Personally, most of the stuff I wrote was done closer to revisionist than outlined, and the support materials at the end were older revisions that I’d saved to refer back to. The big planning only came in to play (for me) when I started trying to get more depth into my stories by building more complex characters or more elaborate plots.

  11. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    I outline everything. First a clusterfuck list of everything i wanna include, then break it down into clusterfuck paragraphs or ideas. Then write it in order, edit and print lol. All my outlines have to be handwritten though

  12. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    As much as I hated doing them in college, for longer pieces outlines of some form are helpful, at least to me.

  13. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    I find outlines to be helpful, if ONLY to help me determine what is an important point that has other aspects, or simply a point that I am fixated on that is not really a top level idea.

  14. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Never liked doing outlines. I just sit and write. Read it over OUT LOUD. Go over errors, correct my errors. Read it again. Leave it and come back. Usually I do my best once I sit at that computer and start moving my fingers. If I was allowed to do just that without having to turn in some damn outline I’d have done a lot better in class and realized earlier that I can write and that I love to write.

  15. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    I tend to have a rough mental outline, sort of an internal model of what things are going to look like, but I have trouble writing out a formal outline in most cases because I don’t really have names for things. My high school teachers were not satisfied when a paragraph would just have a name like “The part where I argue that showing individual moments of depth contradicts the idea that a character is shallow.” They always wanted me to have a different sort of name and then have more details inside, but I never had more details inside because I hadn’t written it yet. The only times I got good grades on outlines were when I wrote a draft before writing out the outline. But then, a bunch of my writing instruction was all done with the “burger” model which is a good way to write extremely mediocre and stilted prose.

    When I have a large enough paper to write, I will sometimes sketch out a rough outline on a whiteboard, just to make sure that things seem like they’re going to flow well and have it to make sure I don’t forget to include anything when I actually write it. But in doing this, I don’t have to make my naming of things meaningful to anyone else so that’s much, much easier. For the above example, I would just write something like “moments of depth” because I know what I mean by that. So, yes, I do sometimes use outlines, but mine are pretty sketchy (usually no more than 10 items for a 15 page paper) and I don’t give the items names that others will understand or feel obligated to stick to it in the actual writing process. If, when I go to write, I find that something feels awkward, I’ll rearrange without bothering to change my outline. I do usually use it as a guide for what I’m likely to write and as a checklist, though.

  16. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    For my fiction I’m more of a “Discovery Writer”. No outlines. Depending on the project (my current second book in my Arthurian series), I do have a lot of notes simply because it’s a complex project. I usually have scenes or ideas to work toward, but they are very fluid. If I did more actual academic writing (which I probably need to do), I would probably force myself to make more outlines, just to deal with references and that sort of thing.

  17. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Katherine: I definitely plan out my characters and plots before writing. For me there’s always a difference between the story (characters and plots) and the way I want to express it. I don’t always write those things out, but I always have them in mind before I begin the writing. Now, I might find, as I express the story that there are bits that I overlooked or bits that don’t feel right and I might change things, but I always have a plan going in.

  18. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    For me it’s been a combination of planning and organic writing. I like to cross-link the heck out of things and individually track details about plots (so I can see a summary of how they unfold scene-by-scene). My characters tend to grow opportunistically based on whatever whim or hunch I want to follow, but I track every detail I can about them as well for consistency. I’m probably a bit OCD about it but I find all this a tremendous memory aid.

    Oh and I wrote a program to yank out all my TODO items from Scrivener so I can browse them, count them, categorize and prioritize them.

    Did I mention I was a little OCD about it?

  19. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 7:32 pm

    For academic writing I find them to be useless waists of time. They were stressed a lot in my middle school and high school and I never ended up using them for actually writing. I think that strategy works for the ‘5 paragraph essay.’ But for anything more advanced or just different it doesn’t really do anything other than waist time. I always write the introduction. Then I just start writing and make short notes on lines below it as I come up with ideas for paragraphs. I find that this is an almost outline, but it lets me actually see what fits better together and how to transition. It also doesn’t take hours to set up.

  20. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    Somehow I got through high school and college never having to do outlines. I only started in grad school at the suggestion of my advisor. I do find them useful usually in the later stages of writing, after I’ve gotten the important point down, as a way to check overall paper coherence and pare down the paper (I generally write too much).

  21. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 11:00 pm

    It organizes and structures thoughts. It’s like Top Down Design for writing.

  22. avatar
    October 9, 2014 at 11:25 pm

    I love outlines. But I don’t use them for everything, more when I have trouble getting going or when I’m revising a big collection of smaller pieces.

  23. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 8:52 am

    I do NOT use outlines. Ever. When forced to do them as a child, I made them up after the writing was done. I put points I need to make on a piece of paper, separated in space, add things to them, draw lines and arrows between them, and then see what sort of order I could most easily transition in. I taught this to freshmen for years. The ones tha outlines work for, they don’t need it. The people who think like me, it’s a godsend.

  24. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 8:54 am

    I should mention that I’m not only an academic but a poet.

  25. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 9:58 am

    I only ever use outlines for revision. Sometimes I’ll outline an argument as I wrote it originally, in order to figure out what I don’t like about the structure. More often, when I’m revising I’ll start an outline of how I want the revised essay to look and go until I feel like I have a direction, and then I just get back to writing. I almost never finish an outline.

    The only thing I sometimes do that resembles outlining when I’m starting to write is to do bulleted paragraphs (either by hand or on the computer) that work through the ideas I want to write about. But there it’s the working through the ideas that’s useful; I rarely stick to the order of ideas presented by the bullets. I think it’s just a way of writing that feels less formal than actually writing the essay, and so it’s easier to make myself do it, but it’s structured enough that I can feel a purpose to it (unlike free writing, which has always felt like a waste of time for me–though I completely get how it could be useful for someone else).

  26. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Anne, although I use outlines, I really wish Scrivener had such free-form diagramming capabilities. I have a feeling that in the future I’ll end up doing more free-form diagramming as you have described, even if it means resorting to paper.

  27. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:08 am

    The Mind Map apps might well work for this. But in related news, though I write academic drafts on the computer, all my notes and free form planning (and my creative writing drafts) are in pen and paper. i think through my body. So I need multi structured layers for planning (hence the free form diagrams), AND tactile sensation. In general, academia does not take people who learn and work like me into account. So we have to figure it out on our own.

  28. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Back to Chris — I do think that students benefit from being taught that there are different ways of working, and different needs, and being shown alternate ways to do things. I’m 60, so all anybody ever gave me was the effing outline from hell. And they meant well! But much of educational techniques point towards there being a “normal” way to do things. No.

  29. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:23 am

    Todd: 99% of the time I draw my diagrams on my whiteboard. That’s just how I roll! But the whole point of this post was what Anne just said… no “normal” way. Just what works for you. So if you need a digital version, I recommend MindNode, which I use on occasion if I need to make something readable by another human. It has iPad: and MacOS: versions.

  30. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Well, what I really want is the free-form quick-entry nature of the whiteboard mixed with digital editability and persistence. Mind maps aren’t what I want because they are fundamentally trying to be graphical outlines (a tree structure in radial form). Concept maps are closer to it. What I want is to drop ideas out, connect some, label relationships as easily as on a whiteboard, etc. Oh and since I use a PC, it needs to be available on Windows.

    I may give Scapple ( a try (it’s for Mac as well having come from the Scrivener folks), because it looks like basically what I want, but it’s not something I need right at this moment because I’m in the later stages of work and Scapple isn’t designed to work backwards and forwards with a Scrivener project.

  31. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:52 am

    Just for completeness sake, I will say Scrivener is literally the best thing ever. It is the entire reason computers exist at all.

  32. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:55 am

    I know I’m late to the party here but in the process of writing novels for Nanowrimo I’ve started with outlines and found that while they helped me organize my thinking, I also threw them away constantly as the plot seemed to want to veer in a different direction. I think of my outline as my first very rough draft of what I’m writing, subject to total revision.

  33. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Totally enjoying this very useful thread, Chris.

  34. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Me too! I haven’t felt the need to comment much at all, but I am reading everyone’s process and I find it pretty fascinating.

  35. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Todd is causing me to wonder whether there actually is some sort of software which would work for me. I do dearly love those three dimensions, though.

  36. avatar
    October 10, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    Bryon Gill, specifically for NaNoWriMo I only have the vaguest idea of a plot, which is to say where I’m starting at and where roughly I want to finish. I like my characters to be organic and if you’re too painted into the ending, they cannot surprise you.

  37. avatar
    October 12, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    What ever works for your writing. I usually just let my ideas flow and in the end this works for me.

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