Most of us Americans seem to have an instinctively negative reaction to creating an outline for our writing projects. I strongly suspect that this is because from the time we were middle school students we were taught to hate outlines or hold them in contempt.
My own seventh grade English teacher, Miss Montesano, turned making an outline into a dreaded exercise. (She had a similar effect on my reading of A Tale of Two Cities and Johnny Tremain.) In Miss Montesano's class, outlines were merely another brand of hated homework assignment, composed in a cloud of confusion, submitted for grading in the same state, and received back with apparently random red marks sprinkled all through them. They seemed to have no relationship to actual finished writing projects, other than protracting their agony.
Throughout high school, the outlines I was compelled to use in English classes retained the same aura of mystery, if not meaninglessness. Then, in college, my film screenwriting professor, Mike Lawrence, dismissed the idea of an outline outright and actually said that getting mildly drunk before starting to write was a much better conduit for creativity. (Many of my classmates, all under legal drinking age, were happy to put his scholarly advice into practice. Personally, I stuck to writing sober, possibly explaining why I graduated Summa Cum Laude, and they didn't.)
Outlines Meet the Real World
Cranky and tired, I looked at the comments and arrows scrawled all over my script, then at the neat hand-written notes on my pad. A distinct wave of deja vu shimmered through me. This was Miss Montesano's outline!
Charmed, I tried using an outline for the next script I wrote. Not bad. I used outlines for magazine articles I authored. Decent. I tried an outline for the Star Wars novella I was attempting to write. That time it didn't work -- but neither did the novella -- so maybe that meant that the outline really had worked. It was actually telling me the truth when it looked me in the eye and said, "This stinks." Either way, I felt I was onto something.
So my first suggestion to my fellow American communicators out there is this: Ditch all your assumptions about outlines. If you're approaching outlining from an outsider's perspective, it might help to be aware that many of us have been duped. Here's the reality:
An outline is not an assignment. An outline is a present.
It's a present you give yourself. It's your own custom-made map to take you where you want to go. It's a compass that helps you stay on the path and out of the ditch. It's a menu for the buffet of your own imagination, telling you what's for dinner. It's a pickup truck that holds all the bulky building blocks of your thoughts so you can drive them around and deliver them where they belong. It's an aerial view of your journey, a satellite picture that shows you what's behind, what's ahead, and where you go from here.
Are you outline-challenged? I understand. I care. That's why I want you to do this before you go any further: reread that last paragraph. Pick whatever image works best for you. Then make that image your mascot as you continue to read. Got it? Great. Let's keep going.
Besides being practical, an outline's other main benefit is emotional. Many of us writers start to unravel about a third of the way into our writing. The clarity we thought we had has slipped away, replaced by stark anxiety. Like the fear of dementia that floods you when you can't find the car keys you just had in your hand, writers will often take a momentary concentration lapse and telescope it into a dire indicator that their talent has utterly deserted them, as they always suspected it would.
So, perhaps most important of all, an outline is an anxiety-reducer when a project starts to get murky or complicated. Once you have an outline, then no matter how you may feel in whatever stage of a project's development, you can retain the feeling that you're already halfway to the finished product. Just look at your outline, get your bearings and keep going.
Not Your Seventh-Grade Outline
I do feel the need to tell you that, for planning your own projects, you don't have to use the crazy outline format that many of us were taught. Roman numerals? Alternating letters and numbers? Capital, lower case, and strings of little i letters? Not needed. The thing is to find a way to sequence your information that works for you. Sometimes my best outlines are doodled flow charts with arrows, or strings of Post-It notes on a blank section of my office wall. I also like Word documents populated with text boxes or tables. Word's cut and paste shortcuts make it handier to outline on the computer, but if you are a pencil-to-paper type of thinker, by all means construct your outlines on a legal pad out on a park bench in the autumn sunshine.
An outline is an inspiration tool. It's the Navajo dream-catcher of literary devices.
The next time you're ready to give up on a writing project, don't give your fears the upper hand. Instead, go for a walk. Have a conversation with yourself about what the main idea is, and how you might illustrate it. When you feel ready, start capturing whatever thoughts seem most solid to you on paper or screen. After you record what you think will be the key points, start playing with the order. The pieces will fall into sequence soon enough, as you start to shape the big picture.
That's all there is to an outline. It's not a grit-your-teeth kind of thing -- whatever the Miss Montesanos in your life have told you to the contrary. It's a great way to find freedom within structure, and give yourself a solid platform upon which to practice your artistry.
Got an assignment that has your wheels spinning? Get yourself an outline. And remember, no alcohol is required!