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Are Outlines for You?

September 9, 2008

For the past few weeks I’ve been stuck in the beginning stages of writing. Not only am I taking part in a quasi-experimental fiction collaboration, I also have two youngsters who, as new middle school students, are learning how to plan and write more complex essays, and a fiancee who is headed back to college and doing the same as the kids, though on a higher level.

Suddenly, I’m the expert in demand around my domicile. Everyone wants to know the shortcuts, the tricks, the advice about writer’s block…So I’ve spent a good amount of time in the past weeks beating the drum about outlining.

I’m not a big proponent of outlines in fiction. My own fiction is generally more fluid and I don’t like the restrictions of an outline. Of course, my fiction also tends not to be very strong in the area of plot. I have found myself using outlines to great effect for some of my more technically-challenging short stories.

For other forms of writing, particularly essays I’ve always found outlines to be a great help. Not only do they help you organize your thoughts into a persuasive argument, but when writer’s block is stifling your progress, you can use the outline to build the essay (albeit in a heavy-handed way).

For someone whose revision skills are not up to snuff, writing to an outline can produce rather clinical, technical style of writing—a style often fine for academic work, but a little clinical and flat for a more creative style.

Of course, I’ve also seen the reverse, where a good outline frees up an author to worry less about plot, because they have a vague road map going into their story. They feel that this gives them the freedom to explore the characters and setting without getting too far of course.

Unfortunately, there is no magic way to determine whether you’re an outline kind of writer or not, other than just experimenting. Give it a try next time you’re beating your head against writer’s block.

2 Comments
  1. September 9, 2008 7:38 am

    I’ve found that projects that go long term I have to write an outline, otherwise I forget where I was going with it. Often times the plot is redeveloped and improved upon, but at least there is some indication of what ideas were in my head when I began. For technical or informative writing, I generally have to just sit down and write. Each to their own.

  2. September 9, 2008 9:48 am

    For long term projects, I typically have a sketchy outline. But for short term projects, I usually write on the fly and let my thoughts flow.

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