Writing Tip 4: An outline is your friend

Slowly, I am learning to separate the time to think about a writing project from the time to write the project. When I write, I want to focus on the words and images and people and not get lost with questions of structure. Now, I make an outline.

Writing Tip 4: An outline is your friend.

Outlines were, until recently, a novel idea for me. I made them, but then I did not use them. I wrote my dissertation around themes, ethnographic vignettes, explanations, and literature reviews. The analysis and theory came out of the writing, and the writing came out of my field notes. I wrote sections before I knew if they would fit. My arguments developed as I put words on a page. It took a lot of work. It took two-years.

There is another way: Separate conceptualization work from implementation work by making an outline before writing. A detailed outline liberates you from the big picture and lets you focus on the writing.

Some fiction writers swear against outlines—Stephen King tells readers of On Writing that he does not use them. Others use them—Vladimir Nabokov wrote with an elaborate index card system. What academics write, however, is not fiction: We can’t just make things up. Academic writing has much more in common with narrative nonfiction. While I think we can learn a lot about writing from writers of fiction, on technique I think we can learn a lot from writers of creative nonfiction.

Jack Hart’s Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction is a guide to how journalists craft long form journalism. Hart draws a lot on John McPhee, a master of narrative nonfiction. McPhee describes lying on a park bench early in his career with “no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing.” The image of a journalist overwhelmed by too much research resonated with how I wrote my dissertation. My 400-page dissertation distilled 2,000 pages of field notes, thousands of photographs, dozens of audio interviews, and a database of news articles compiled over months. My books has to be much shorter: Where to start? McPhee describes how he works out structure before he begins the text. Hart breaks it down into steps: how to tell a story, how to make a narrative arc, how to develop a character, and how build an argument. Storycraft is a gold mine on how to structure a piece of non-fiction.

An image from Writing Tip 3 is a film director. When the director comes on set, his or her job is to film a scene. By the time the cameras have started rolling, the script has been finished for months. The text might change in small ways, but the story won’t. An outline is like the script: When you sit down to write, you’re just shooting words.

Take the time to make a good outline, and take the time, as needed, to revise.

In January, I did not put aside enough time to revise my outline for Chapter 3. My outline for Chapter 1 worked so well I thought Chapter 3 would be just as easy. It wasn’t. Worse, I had committed to writing 1,000 words a day for #DiMoWriMo. This self-imposed goal meant I had no time to rethink the outline. Set aside time to plan, and time to revise the plan.

The next tip, how to write an outline.