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The Power of the Outline: How to View It as an Empowering Ally, Rather Than a Constricting Nuisance

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In the course of a day, I use outlines in so many helpful ways that the practice has become second nature to me. Therefore I am always surprised by the alarm and resistance outlines can trigger in others. Recently I witnessed the outline-panic phenomenon once again during a discussion with a publisher about a new-product brochure. When I asked whether she had used an outline to create her rough draft, she reacted as if I’d just offered her a two-week vacation in hell!

Here are some ways to think positively about using outlines so you’ll be sure to get all the benefits they can bring you. As an outline ambassador, I ask that the skeptical read this piece with open minds. For those who are not outline resistant, my intent is to offer some new ideas and perspectives, as well as friendly reminders.

The Outline, Defined

To me, the best outlines are a quick take on something–whether it’s a chapter of a book, my plan for the day, or the structure of a presentation or meeting. Basically, an outline is an overview of your major points. It includes enough detail to be meaningful, but not so much that you get bogged down.

Working on the computer, I like to use a simple outline format with a hierarchy of three levels: numbers–1, 2, 3, etc.–for items in Level One; small letters–a, b, c, etc.–for items in Level Two; and numbers in parentheses–(1), (2), (3), etc.–for items in Level Three. I don’t always use all three levels, but they’re in my scheme of things in case I need them. That I don’t use Roman numerals reflects the informality in my approach. With simplicity in mind, I recommend using only a word, a phrase, or a sentence at each level–nothing more. Sometimes, such as with a pros-and-cons outline, I set up two columns. Also, occasionally on deadline, my outline is only a mental picture, not something I’ve typed up or written down.

You might prefer other outlining methods. Some people jot their points on notecards, limiting content for each card to one idea. With notecards, changing the order is as easy as reshuffling the deck. If you want to group related points or use levels, colored notecards can fill the bill. Or mindmapping might appeal to you. Here you scribble your main idea in a circle at the center of a piece of paper, sketch spokes out to related items, and then draw branches to a third level of ideas. (For an example of a mindmap, go to www.jcu.edu.au/studying/services/studyskills/mindmap/moreabout.html.)

In any case, the goal is to provide yourself with the big picture, plus the major pieces of the puzzle you’re currently trying to solve.

A flexible friend.I suspect that a major cause of outline phobia is a fear of being obligated to follow a rigid plan. Actually, there have been times when I’ve abandoned the flow of my outline completely (such as during a meeting). And I also regularly add relevant items that surface along the way, for instance during a talk or when writing a book chapter.

Truth be told, the beauty of an outline is that it can be revised as often as you’d like, and at any stage as you progress. It’s much easier to redo an outline than a detailed description of whatever you’re dealing with, or the entire thing itself.

A clarifier.Developing an outline gives you an opportunity to think things through. What do you want to accomplish with this piece of writing or this activity? If you’ll be writing or speaking, what points will be most relevant to your audience? If you’re trying to make a decision, what are the most critical factors? What do you want to leave in, take out, or move around in the outline? Where are the connections between your points? Are you ready to go for it with this outline, or do you want to take some time for your thoughts to brew and then rework the outline first?

An organizer. Outlines are known for keeping people organized and their ideas or goals clear. As you develop your outline, ask yourself which order or priority makes the most sense. Helpful organizing principles are: (1) chronological, (2) thematic, (3) general to specific, (4) pros and cons, (5) compare and contrast, (6) free flow without editing, and so on. Remember that your outline can be adapted to another format later if you want to rethink your approach.

A time conserver.These days, having enough time is a challenge for most of us. An outline can save you minutes, hours, and even days. You’ll know where you’re going and how you want to get there so you’ll be less likely to get caught up by unimportant tangents. Gazing at the big picture that an outline provides makes it easier to see what to eliminate. Responsibilities can feel less burdensome, because an outline provides a strong sense of your priorities.

A motivator.On those hard-to-get-going days, outlining a particular project or an attack plan for your overall activities will give you a sense of forward motion. As evidence of your productivity, the outline will inspire you. And you don’t have to resort to this motivational strategy just at the beginning of a project. Outlining at different stages allows you to get psyched about what’s before you once again. Plus you can gleefully check off items on the outline as you move through it.

A life-saver.So the next time you feel as though you might drown in an ocean of words, ideas, options, or responsibilities, consider reaching for an outline as your life preserver. A powerful and buoyant outline has kept me padding ahead on course time after time. Soon, with the insights you gain by outlining, life will be in focus once again, and you’ll be back in control.

Since 1991, Robin Quinn has provided writing and editing services for publishers, authors, and experts. Through Brainstorm Editorial, she offers ghostwriting and collaboration for books. Her Quinn’s Word for Word supplies editing and copywriting services. One of Robin’s editing projects, Divorced Dads, won both the Best New Voice and Best First Book prizes at PMA’s 2003 Ben Franklin Awards. For more info, visit www.writingandediting.biz.

12 Ways Outlines Can Make a Publisher’s Day

  • Planning your agenda for a sales meeting
  • Evaluating proposals and manuscripts for their mix of strengths and weaknesses
  • Preparing a presentation to your staff
  • Creating handouts for your presentations and meetings
  • Plotting out your own writing–from a bio to a book manuscript
  • Supervising writing you assign to others, using the writer’s outline, your own, or a collaborative version
  • Thinking through an important memo or letter
  • Organizing your day/week/month/year
  • Evaluating the scope of a project or checking in on its progress
  • Creating a job description
  • Organizing your thoughts before an important negotiation
  • Brainstorming new projects and directions

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