Outlines: Helpful, Not Useless

Posted July 11, 2013 by Amanda Shofner in Editing / 2 Comments


Remember grade school English classes? I don’t know about you, but I always found the drafting process excruciating. I’m the type of person who sits down at the computer and writes. I’m too impatient to develop a detailed outline; I just want to dive in and write.

But there are a couple flaws in that kind of thinking: outlines are good and you don’t have to create one before you write.

Say what?

When I taught English composition, I had a student who told me he was unable to draft an outline before he started writing. I brought up this student’s situation to my colleagues. We got into a discussion about writing processes. The writing process taught in schools and universities is geared toward linear thinkers. But not everyone is a linear thinker, and those people struggle with the “traditional” writing process, like my student.

Crafting an outline before you start writing is still smart. But if that doesn’t work for you, crafting an outline after you finish a draft can benefit your writing too.

Outlines provide structure and ensure that your writing follows a logical order.

The drawback to writing without an outline is that it’s easy to stray off topic, include irrelevant information, or order your information illogically.

When I was writing an ebook, one of the sections was giving me fits. The information seemed to jump around and I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to make the section flow better.

Enter a very informal outline.

I grabbed a piece of paper, opened up my document, and wrote down the topic of each paragraph. When I did that, I was able to make connections between my paragraphs and I was able to find the problem with my order.

It can be that simple.

An outline doesn’t have to be long and detailed. The purpose of an outline is to reveal the internal structure of your writing. Because the internal structure, much like the meaning of your sentence, is instrumental in writing well.

Without structure–and without a point–your readers will walk away not sure what they were supposed to learn from your writing.

Are you an outliner? Why or why not?

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2 responses to “Outlines: Helpful, Not Useless

  1. I love this post! I am becoming more of an outliner as I get more into writing. Sometimes I’ll do a quick outline before writing a blog post and it definitely helps out. With my novel, however, it felt easier to write the first draft all in stream of consciousness land and then go back in and outline it out to bring the shape together.

    • It’s funny–for as organized as I am, I have trouble outlining before I write. I just want to sit down and write. Always. Even now. As I get into revision process, I’m starting to love outlining, though, because it snaps everything together for me.

      Then I can also have moments of “Oh, wow. I’m brilliant. This is awesome!” and I like those.

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