Writing teachers, experts, and editors—most of them, anyway—push writing with an outline, or, more accurately, using an outline even prior to beginning to write. The rationale is that it helps a writer be organized and being organized means communicating effectively. I tend to disagree with the party line on that.
Yes, disorganization can decrease effectiveness in communicating, but being organized does not guarantee effective communication. A piece of writing can be perfectly organized and perfectly obtuse. Requiring a writer to create an outline—or to proceed in any prescribed way—can be detrimental if it’s not natural for that writer. It interferes with that writer’s ability to write.
I do a lot of the “prewriting activities” in my head before and as I get started. I also edit as I write, and my first draft is pretty much my completed work. I know, I know, that’s not the “recommended” way of writing most experts espouse, and it’s certainly not the way we were taught to write in school, but there are plenty of us who work this way, the author of The Notebook being one.
Writing usually takes a while for me, which surprises people who know me because they think I’m such a good writer and being good must necessarily equate to being fast. Not true. I wouldn’t consider myself a fast writer, unless it’s something my brain has been “cooking” on for a while, or something I’m very passionate about and know well. In those cases, it’s like a floodgate being opened and within days I have tens of thousands of words written.
Rewriting and revising
Because my work comes out finished or nearly finished, I don’t have to spend much time rewriting or revising. My high school English/Newspaper teacher hated that fact. She wanted me to follow this set procedure:
- Do the research.
- Take notes.
- Put each note on a different note card, with all the bibliographical information on each note card.
- Organize the note cards.
- Create an outline from the note cards and ditch anything that didn’t fit into a nice, neat outline.
- Then, and only then, begin writing.
- Do a rough draft, using the notecards.
- Edit it and chop it up and throw away most of it.
- Write a second draft, the same way.
- Tweak it.
- Write a final draft.
She (and nearly every other English and Writing teacher I ever had) wanted me to turn in three papers for every writing assignment (and often a stack of notecards with them).
Right brained writers
My brain didn’t work that way then, and it still doesn’t now. I was a little too right-brained for that (I’m balanced between left-and right-brained, but to write that way, I think it takes a strong left-brain leaning. It also takes a willingness to waste a lot of time and paper). I usually wrote the paper and then wrote the outline. Sometimes the outline made me realize there were “holes” in the paper, and if so, I’d tweak the paper to make it match a good outline. I sort of did them both together, and it worked much better that way. An outline is a left-brained tool, and it had its purpose. I used it, just not in the way (or sequence) in which teachers wanted me to.
I turned in one paper, maybe two, for an assignment, and when I did turn in two, they weren’t that dissimilar—I may have made a few changes from one to the other. After my high school teacher kept giving me grief about it, I asked her, “Do you want me purposefully to write crap for the rough draft so I can do ‘rewrites’ for you, and waste time and kill trees—or do you want me to do a good job in the first place?” She just stared at me, so I said, “I don’t think a newspaper or magazine editor is going to want a writer to turn in junk; they’re going to want the real deal the first time. They don’t have time to deal with three drafts of something.” She got the point and never asked me for a rough draft again. Some of us just do the writing and rewriting as we go along.
Needing to do a rough draft and rewrites isn’t wrong, and neither is this way. Writing to an outline isn’t wrong. Writing without an outline isn’t wrong, either. With all writing, the goal is to communicate effectively. Do whatever helps you do that. Maybe you just need to get used to using an outline. Maybe an outline is better for some projects, and mind-mapping or some other organizational technique will work better for other projects.
Writing with an outline—teacher insists
If you have to put up with a writing teacher or editor who requires writing with an outline and other procedures like I described above, and it doesn’t work for you, you might have to put up with it for a while and get away from that person when you can. Not every teacher will back down when confronted like mine did. If they require an outline, you might choose to do like I did and write the paper first, create an outline from it, and turn in the outline when it’s due. Do what you have to in order to get through it and then you can write in a way that works better for your brain. 😉
Take an idea you have, and try organizing the information in different ways, and see what works for you.