Outlined for Speed

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A few of my friends have approached me recently about wanting to write books. Since they are primarily talking about nonfiction books, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the matter. Allow me to tell you a little story from my youth.

During my senior year in high school, we had to write a 20-page research paper with full documentation. Now, this was in the days before computers, so all my preliminary work was written by hand. VERY time-consuming. And no back-up copies.

As per the instructions of my teacher, I used an outline to organize my information. I marked my notes with Roman numerals, knowing each indentation on the outline was a new paragraph. It took me two weeks to write the paper once the research was completed, but finally, all that remained was to type the thing up from my hand-written “final draft” copy.

I was so relieved to have gotten that far that I trashed the outline and notes and headed off to school. There in the typing room (what would now be the computer lab), I opened my pee chee…AND SCREAMED!!! (The teacher monitoring may have spilled her coffee.) Before me lay my outline and notes–but no research paper! I had thrown out the wrong pile! (Remember, it was not saved on any thumb drive or hard drive.)

I ran to the office to call home (no cell phones in those days, either). Mom was sorry, but she’d taken the trash out because it was garbage collection day. My research paper–weeks’ worth of work–was on its way to the dump.

Tears streaming down my face, I barged into the classroom of the relevant teacher and explained my plight.

“Do you still have the outline and notes?”
“Yes,” I sobbed. “But not the paper.”
She smiled at me and said, “I’ll give you one extra day.”
“ONE?! But it took me two weeks to write it!”
“You can do it.”

And you know what?
I did.

I wrote it in one night, and typed it the next day. And I got an A- on it. One of the highest scores in the class.


The outline.

You see, I had already processed all the information several times: once by reading it, once by taking notes, and once again by placing it into the organized outline. Writing the paper was simply a matter of putting that information into coherent sentences in some semblance of order. The second time I wrote that paper taught me a life lesson I’ve used ever since:

An outline is a map.
Follow it, and writing a well-organized paper is a snap.

Before every college essay test I ever took, I sketched a quick outline. Fellow students thought I was nuts to burn valuable test time doing that. But I usually finished before they did–and with better results. Many fall into the camp of thinking pre-writing is a waste of time, but whether you use a formal outline with Roman numerals and letters, or a Venn diagram, a brainstorming bubble, or a simple list on a post-it note, taking the time to organize your thoughts first makes the whole process faster and clearer.


Now, this can work for fiction as well, but with a caution. There is a difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. Characters. Characters, unlike researched, documented facts, don’t always stay within the parameters you set for them. In fact, if they are worth anything, they don’t. Fiction-writers who choose to use outlines typically have to view their outline as more of a guideline than a rule, knowing that there will be detours along the way. This doesn’t mean the outline is worthless; it reminds the writer of the super-objective and provides a framework in which to explore the character’s growth arc, but that’s a post for another day…


For those of you who write nonfiction, what kinds of brainstorming / thought-organizing methods do you use?

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