Welcome to Teach Write! This column draws on my 20 years’ experience teaching writing to kids, university students, and adult learners. It includes ideas and exercises that teachers and students can use in the classroom, and creative writers can use to level up their process.
Here we are, well into another school year, and I’m betting quite a few of you are already grappling with writing assignments. So, it seemed like a good time to dust off the old Teach Write column.
I’ve been a writing instructor for more than 20 years now. Want to know the one thing I’ve had the most trouble getting students to do?
Outline before they start to write.
True story. Students — and many professional writers — absolutely HATE to outline. And yet, this one weird trick saves us more time in writing and revision than absolutely anything else. It also dramatically increases the likelihood that our readers — that audience I’ve harped about in many previous columns – will actually have a chance of following our train of thought and understanding what we’re trying to tell them. Which, if we’re students or professionals, is the whole reason we’re writing in the first place.
So, something for us and something for them. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons outlining helps everybody win.
Outlining for Your Reader
Writing is an act of communication – it’s about getting thoughts and ideas and stories out of our brains and into our reader’s. If our thoughts are presented in a logical order, one flowing smoothly into the next, the reading experience is immersive and almost effortless. If our thoughts are jumbled on the page, going back and forth or running in circles, the reader has to work a whole lot harder to understand what we’re trying to tell them. The harder they have to work, the more frustrated and irritated they’re going to get.
If your reader is your teacher, your grade has just dropped. If your reader paid money for the privilege of experiencing your work, the chance of a DNF* just increased. And worst case, they’ll tell their friends not to pay for your writing. Ouch.
I’ve read hundreds of student papers over the years, not to mention the thousands and thousands of other things I’ve read, in pretty much every genre and format there is. Hands down, the biggest barrier to a reader’s comprehension is poor organization. That’s so important, I’m going to say it again:
The biggest barrier to comprehension is poor organization.
Writing isn’t just about figuring out what your reader needs to know. It’s about understanding when they need to know it: at what point during their reading experience is that idea, fact, or dramatic incident going to make the most sense or have the most impact? And, by extension, at what point in the reading experience is that idea, fact, or dramatic incident going to be so confusing the reader tosses your work down in disgust? You know it happens – you’ve probably done it yourself.
So how do we ensure our writing is effectively organized? Well, we can stare at the first draft that we scribbled from the seat of our pants, trying to figure out how to cut, paste, reshuffle, reshape, and re-transition. Or, we can save ourselves a whole lot of time and outline.
Outlining for You
Here are just a few of the ways outlining saves the savvy writer time:
- It reveals gaps in your research, supporting evidence, or plot that you can plug before you start to write
- It helps you identify which parts of the material – factual or fantastical – you understand really well, and which ones you don’t. Because if you don’t understand something, you’re not ready to try to explain it to anyone else
- It helps you decide what’s essential and what needs to get tossed out before you waste time writing about it
- It helps you figure out the most effective organizational structure for your material (we’ll talk about the many options in a later column)
- It helps you plan transitions from one idea, concept, or scene to the next
If Outlining Is So Great, Why Do People Hate It?
The two most common reasons people give are:
- They had to write a formal, Roman-numeral-laden, three-level outline for school once and the experience was so traumatizing they swore never to outline again
- They’re worried that outlining will destroy opportunities for inspiration or creativity during the writing itself.
As to the first one, I’ve got good news. The Roman-numeral-trauma-outline is only one of the many ways to get organized before you write. I haven’t used that method since junior high, and in a future column, we’ll talk about the methods – yes, plural – that I rely on instead.
As to the second, set your mind at ease. An outline is not a contract, and there will be no consequences – except time spent – if you break it. You are allowed to change your mind as you go, and in fact, it’s encouraged! It’s a sign that writing is helping your ideas come into even greater focus, which can only be a good thing. If you’re worried, tell yourself this: your outline is the bones. Everything else the bird needs to fly? You’ll add that as you write. You don’t have to decide what colour the feathers will be until the very last draft.
Go Forth and Organize Your Writing
I hope I’ve convinced at least some of you pantsters to make outlining part of your writing process! We’ll come back to a lot of these ideas over the next few columns. In the meantime, I wish you clear thoughts and speedy fingers.
* That’s “Did not finish” in Goodreads speak
Hey, did you know I teach writing workshops? It’s true – I work with adult writers, teachers, and students of all ages. Contact me to learn more.