I never cease to be surprised by the wounds that people have around their writing ability. And one source of the pain is a term I hardly use anymore—outlining.
When clients balk at that word, I get it. People get images of long strings of Roman numberals, letters, and numbers. These are strewn all over the page in multiple and meaningless levels of indentation.
I know people who would rather get a rectal exam than begin writing with such a template.
However, let us not forget the benefits of planning a big piece of writing. In his classic book Writing For Story, Jon Franklin nails it:
Thanks to my phobia about outlines, and my years-long, bullheaded attempts to write without them, I learned a lot about holding things in my head…. On a good day I can juggle four or five thousand words in my head without dropping a single one. But I can’t do it predictably, and the stuff I write that way doesn’t have the power it should have.
Besides, no matter how good you are, everybody’s got a limit. You add one more ball to the one you’re juggling, or cram one more piece of data into your formula, or crank in a side-image of a wet dog and . . . reality starts to bend and warp on you.
There’s only one thing that will save you when that happens: Glance up at the outline that you’ve tacked on the wall behind the typewriter. That will remind you where you are in your story, and restore a sense of perspective. Almost instantly, the intellectual vertigo will cease.
Here Franklin hits on the main advantage of outlining: It divides a long manuscript into manageable parts—smaller units that you can write one at a time without taxing your working memory.
As neuroscientists would say, the human brain is a serial processor—not a parallel one. We can focus only on one demanding task at a time.
Outlining allows us to focus on sequencing our ideas before translating those ideas into words. If you can separate these two tasks, you will overcome a major source of writer’s block.
Fortunately, there is a way to outline that bears no resemblance to the ancient method of torture described above. Done well, this alternative approach will yield clarity—and offer a seamless transition from planning to drafting.
Learn more here.