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Writers Talk About Writing

Five Reasons Why You Shouldn't Outline

When I was a sullen high school student, many of my teachers demanded that we submit outlines with every essay. Forty years later, I still remember how we fooled most of them by writing our essays first and creating the outlines afterwards.

One of our more devious teachers, however, insisted that we submit the outlines several weeks before sending in the essay. Talk about irritating! (Even a group of know-it-all teenagers couldn't figure out the clear solution was to do the whole damn project early enough to write the outline afterwards!)

All these years later, I believe I was correct in abhorring outlines. Here are the reasons why:

1) Outlines, which are linear and logical, force you to use the linear and logical part of your brain. What's so bad about logic, you ask? Well, nothing...except when you're trying to do something creative, like, say, writing. Then, logic is the last thing you want. Sure, when you're solving a math problem you need logic. Ditto for following a recipe or editing something. But when you're painting a picture or creating a song or writing an article you want your creative brain to be in charge. All of our brains have logical parts and creative parts. In my more fanciful moments, I like to imagine them as people in a car. But guess what? Only one part of your brain can be driver. If your logical brain is driving, your creative brain is asleep in the back seat. (Either that or really disgruntled about not controlling the wheel.)

2) Outlines mute rather than enhance the urge to tell stories. Probably the worst aspect of outlining is that, by its nature, it emphasizes the importance of fact over story. But as the writer Maya Angelou puts it: "There's a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth." Readers respond to stories, even in non-fiction. Stories keep them interested and engaged. Your writing needs stories as pizza needs cheese. I've never seen an outline that includes enough stories.

3) Outlines turn writing into a duty rather than something that's fun. Consider an outline you produced in the past. Did it fill your heart with joy? Did it make writing a pleasure? Did it make your writing seem urgent and important? If it did any of these things you are the exception proving the rule. Outlines generally turn writing into just another "to do" task that causes you to feel worn out and dispirited.

4) Outlines organize. I say this somewhat sadly because I'm exuberant about the benefits of being well organized. I like nothing better than a thoroughly clean desk, a tidy closet and even a tax return that's submitted a few days early. But when it comes to writing, I most definitely don't want to be organized. Instead, I want to be inspired. Outlines simply aren't capable of that task.

5) Outlines lead to dull, stale writing. Here's what happens when you get organized and logical: you suck the life out of your writing. You stop taking risks. You stop being interesting. You stop making discoveries. In the end, you're left with the same product as a person who has completed a paint-by-numbers piece of art. It may look "perfect" -- but it's also perfectly predictable.

Instead of outlining, I urge writers to rely on mindmapping. All of my coaching and teaching uses mindmapping at its core. (And if you want to receive a free booklet on mindmapping, you can sign up for my weekly newsletter, which is also free.)

Mindmapping is a highly creative process that gives you access to the deep recesses of your mind. It will help you find stories to tell. It will make writing fun instead of a chore. It will liberate your writing.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 10th 2011, 3:39 AM
Comment by: Steve L. (Hastings New Zealand)
'I tried to write it short but it was too hard so I wrote it long'
Monday October 10th 2011, 7:22 AM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
I agree with you up to a point. I outline speeches because they are collaborative and it's important to agree to a general map, but I only outline articles when they involve multiple parts.

One of my side jobs is editing a blog that has many contributors with varying skills. I often ask writers to send me rough outlines of their proposed posts; it's the best way I've found to put bad ideas on a better track before any work is done.
Monday October 10th 2011, 8:10 AM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
From a writing teacher: There are different purposes for writing. If you are writing a creative narrative, the goals and process may be those you describe. If you are writing an argument in science, social studies, or literary criticism...if you are crafting a response to an MCAS question...if you are describing a process or giving instructions, creativity is still valued but the writing must be constructed in a particular way to be useful, comprehensible. (Teachers of writing now use a range of "graphic organizers" to support students' thinking; they don't work for everyone and they're not required.)

My freshman year in college, I, considered by my childhood teachers, to be a fine creative writer, got a "D" in my first paper. Mr. Tribble taught me how make my thinking and my reasoning clear, and he was my mentor through college, and I, his A+ student. It didn't require writing an outline, but it did require organizing my thoughts according to the genre of the writing.
Monday October 10th 2011, 8:12 AM
Comment by: Andrea D. (Cambridge, MA)
From a writing teacher: There are different purposes for writing. If you are writing a creative narrative, the goals and process may be those you describe. If you are writing an argument in science, social studies, or literary criticism...if you are crafting a response to an MCAS question...if you are describing a process or giving instructions, creativity is still valued but the writing must be constructed in a particular way to be useful, comprehensible. (Teachers of writing now use a range of "graphic organizers" to support students' thinking; they don't work for everyone and they're not required.)

My freshman year in college, I, considered by my childhood teachers, to be a fine creative writer, got a "D" in my first paper. Mr. Tribble taught me how make my thinking and my reasoning clear, and he was my mentor through college, and I, his A+ student. It didn't require writing an outline, but it did require organizing my thoughts according to the genre of the writing.
Monday October 10th 2011, 8:14 AM
Comment by: James D. (Edmond, OK)
You wrote: "Forty years later, I still remember how we fooled most of them by writing our essays first and creating the outlines afterwards."

My response: "Or, did they fool you?!?" :)
Monday October 10th 2011, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
Like you, I am a fiend about mindmapping. I wish I had learned it before the early 80's when I was in graduate school. And just the other evening in a writing class, I taught the participants and one woman looked up in wonder after just 10 minutes of mindmapping and said, "Wow...this makes all the difference." She was so moved she could hardly speak. It was one of those teaching moments. I'm so glad you teach so many about mindmapping, Daphne. As always...love your columns!!

Meggin
www.meggin.com
Monday October 10th 2011, 9:58 AM
Comment by: David C. (Carrboro, NC)
First: Could we please ban the pointless rhetorical cliche "Guess what?" from our lives and writing?

Second: A writer always has to wrestle with order and materials. I think the value of the outline is its constructive influence. It observes basic architecture without excluding the improvisation and storytelling that makes writing do its imaginative work. Good writing is designed or shaped writing, but it has a voice that tells us the writer's observations in a timely, almost procedural way. An outline is about time, not craft: it helps us to plan when we reveal ourselves and what we say. It's not all inspiration; it's inspiration and construction, and contexts, and joinings, and completions. But an outline is most successful when it is invisible and -- here, the metaphor changes -- the writing eddies and flows with the sensibility of the writer. An outlined essay needs to move beyond its rafters, but it still needs them. Eventually, outlining disappears beneath the flooring. Both the hard carpentry and the inspired flow remain inherent in the writer's process, creating the tension that gives the reader a thrill.

Third: Outlining is not writing. Don't look for inspiration there.

Fourth: Ms. Gray-Grant is not writing about writing here, so much as she is writing about schooling and punctilious teaching. School will always be an artificial place, full of sanctimony and falsity, where nothing authentic is constructed except new ways to sacrifice the emerging lives of children.
Monday October 10th 2011, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Interesting thoughts! Michele, do you receive your outlines in outline form or do you just get a paragraph description? If I were one of your writers, I'd be more inclined to do the latter. Andrea, I agree writing -- especially if it's logical or argumentative writing -- must have clear thinking and reasoning but I'm glad your professors didn't insist on an outline. There is a big difference between creative writing and most non-fiction writing.

James, I don't know if I fooled them or if they fooled me but, clearly, someone was fooled! Thanks for your kind words, Meggin. David, I was not intending to write about school so much as I was writing about the way in which writing is taught. I share your passion for writing with "good architecture" but don't believe an outline is the best way to achieve it. Have you ever read the book Writing The Natural Way by Gabriele Lusser Rico? I think you might find it very interesting. (It was recently re-released in a 25th anniversary edition.)
Monday October 10th 2011, 4:38 PM
Comment by: paul B. (Lake Orion, MI)
I have been using Mindmaps for over 20 years and find it the best way for me to capture ideas. I still get odd comments from some when they see my notes. It is not for everyone!
Monday October 10th 2011, 7:46 PM
Comment by: Michele H. (Long Island City, NY)
Hi Daphne,

I get both -- narrative-style paragraph outlines and bullet-point outlines. What I never get and do not want is a detailed Harvard outline. They're not suitable for a simple blog post.

On the other hand, those detailed outlines have been extremely useful in getting approval for complex strategic white papers.
Monday October 10th 2011, 8:17 PM
Comment by: David C. (Carrboro, NC)
Daphne, thank you for referring me to the Rico book. I use "cognitive maps" when I structure my writing, using 11" x 17" graph paper, so I do get the non-outline, non-linear way to prepare. But the writer still has to construct related, linear passages, and the map needs to become a journey. Generate, think, assemble, map, construct, write. A writer who does these things sufficiently should be fearless.
Monday October 10th 2011, 9:02 PM
Comment by: Lori Weaver (Colorado Springs, CO)Top 10 Word Lister
I have taught writing at various levels (community college, 4 year university, high school) and have asked my students to simply consider holding off on outlining until they have a draft going -- if then. I cringe when they -- or other teachers -- want to outline in the exploration stage of the writing. How can they know what form it should take until they begin to get a sense of the content? Hmmm...maybe that is "form following function." Unless it is some sort of conventional kind of academic writing, the structure of the piece should rise up out of what the writer has to say to a particular audience. Then, if they get stuck in shaping it, I take them through some strategies to shape the writing. I just don't believe that we write well when we start with structure.

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