We learn to outline our writing in about the fifth grade. I loved the mechanics of it. How symmetrical the page looked with the alphabet and Roman numerals lined up in the left margin! Have I used that skill as a writer? Not really. So – no surprise here – I don’t require my university students to do it either.
In my business communication course, students craft a variety of content in myriad formats: Proposals, emails, blog posts, formal letters and presentations, to name a few. Unless you’re on staff at The Atlantic or have a book deal with Random House, these are the kinds of routine writing most people do. In my class, thesis statements are needed for major research projects. Drafts set mile markers for time management. But outlines would be … busywork. And something else for me to grade.
More useful than knowing how to set your software to format a page with letters and numerals is being able to plan and organize your writing. The starting point is so simple that students roll their eyes: Have a beginning, middle and end. But think about it. How often have you received an email that wanders endlessly, with no apparent point? How about the proposal that starts with the call to action, but with no reason or context? It happens often. We’re busy and we just want to get one. More. Email. Done. Today.
If simple is the starting point, stay there. And don’t re-invent process. Old-school reporters use who-what-where-when-why. And maybe how. Who are you writing to? What do you want them to know or to do? You get the idea.
Sometimes that’s not enough for the project in front of us. It’s complex. It’s unclear even to the you, writer. Too much or not enough? Is everything here that needs to be here, and no more? Then, it’s okay to look to the prolific magazine writer or storied authors of fiction for ideas.
John McPhee, long-time staff writer for The New Yorker and author of 32+ books, detailed several organizing tactics in Draft 4 – On the Writing Process. Some are predictably linear; others are curiously not. One looks like a meandering river. He deftly found that one size does not fit all writing and generously shares a variety of approaches.
I was hoping for similar advice from prolific, best-selling author Stephen King in On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. But here, King doesn’t talk about organizing as much as he talks about inspiration (“What if?”) and his toolbox of description and dialogue. Still useful in our everyday communication needs as storytelling is still a powerful influencer.
I hoped that, since my grade school days, we’d quit drilling on outlines. Apparently not. In a recent NPR interview with Kate DiCamillo, author of favorite children’s book Because of Winn-Dixie, she recounted answering questions during a school assembly. One youngster asked if she used outlines. She said no, why? Apparently, the child’s teacher emphatically required outlines for creative writing assignments. In a gentle dressing down of the instruction, DiCamillo disagreed with the requirement. After all, she said, how can you outline if you don’t yet know the ending?