Outlining in writing. To Outline or Not to Outline?
When I write these blogs, I’m often never quite sure what to write about. When I write anything, I’m never really sure where I’m gonna go with the project.
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Sure, I have a vague idea of what I want to say, the themes I want to discuss, the types of characters that would make a nice addition to whatever I’m working on. But I don’t sit down and map out the entire direction of the piece. I don’t feel most writers work this mechanically. Not that there’s anything truly wrong with it, just that it seems pointless and counterproductive.
There are some who do, but they are few and far between. In most interviews I’ve read (especially with poets), they let everything fall out and then meticulously edit – cutting out the things that don’t matter or improve it, trimming the fat to a nice, meaty core.
It’s a good way to work. Outlines seem like the process of television writers, who often work in groups. In this area, it makes sense to outline. You can’t have four or five people going off in their own separate directions. Even collaborative novels probably work best when the pair has a concise plan of action.
But I am not a screenwriter, and I’ve rarely collaborated with anyone, outside of a song or musical project (but that’s another discussion entirely). That’s the thing about poetry and prose. They’re a very isolated, lonely type of writing. This probably contributes to high rates of depression among writers.
It’s not that I abhor outlines. I’m not opposed to trying something new if it benefits the overall process. It’s just that I, like so many before me, prefer to dive right in. No waiting, no planning, no thinking. Get right to it.
I figure there’s a point where the serious, dedicated writer begins to view it all-around as no different from a regular job. And like most occupations, managers and supervisors urge you to jump right in and get to work.
When you’re a serious, disciplined writer (I don’t know if I’d call myself that, I’m still just as lazy as always), you have to become your own supervisor. No one is going to force you to do it. Heck, most people probably forget you are a writer.
That’s a little excessive, but it’s a sad thing. Most people don’t seem to remember writing is something we have to work at, as often as we can. It’s like a guitarist who doesn’t pick it up. They get rusty and need to work harder the next time they do go back to it. Writing is no different from any other pursuit.
Outlining does have its benefits though. A broader, less-specific outline can allow a writer to stay on track. I tend to do a minimal mental outline, myself. I make a note of how long I want a given piece to be, maybe how many characters, and a few of the points I want to address – and then, bam, just like that, I’m off. But I’m always open to going in a different direction than what I planned. Often I find it naturally goes like that.
I always found outlines helped with research papers when I was in college. Many times, professors require them (whether as a first step before the paper itself or as part of said paper). But not always. Regardless, I made plenty of them.
Research papers are a very gruelling style of writing, and I found they wore down on me to the point where being able to compartmentalize the points I was trying to address benefited me greatly. If you’re in college and you’re reading this right now, do outlines regardless of whether your professor requires them or not. You don’t know how helpful they are until you’ve used them. If you have used them, I hope you’ll agree.
So, should you use outlines, or are they pointless and counterproductive? To be fair, the choice is up to you. Just because many writers have done away with using them, for the most part, doesn’t mean they don’t have any use.
On top of that, creative writing is, well, creative. The process isn’t a scientific one (with some exceptions), so it’s really a “whatever works for you” situation. If you find your work is better with an outline, make one! At the end of the day, nobody is going to see how you started. It’s your writing, therefore, it’s your process. Above everything else, experiment. What works for one won’t necessarily work for everyone else. Happy travels!
Stephanie Knarr recently moved to Pittsburgh, PA from the Harrisburg, PA area. Her writing appears in Harrisburg’s local magazine, The Burg, and her work will soon appear in Unwinnable and Five:2: One. Her favourite drink is RC Cola, and her favourite band is probably Animal Collective.