The Universal Value of a Good Outline

Talking with my family over dinner one recent evening, the topic of conversation came around to outlines. They’re an integral part of writing, but I hadn’t realized just how useful a good outline is in completely different careers. I used to aspire to be a pantser (one who manages to sit down and write a book from their heart with minimal input) and now I’m very firmly a plotter, as I always have been. Aka, one who uses outlines.

Everyone should use outlines, really. Even people who plan on going off the rails in a future date and writing as it comes to them. Having a few notes helps everyone.

I’ve read a ton of blog posts about the benefits of outlining, and it usually comes down to this: Even if it’s the most painful thing, the more coherent the notes at the beginning, the more likely the end product will be coherent. Occasionally people get really lucky, but for the most part, if you don’t outline, your first draft will be a mess.

Conversely, these posts also tend to have dire warnings about depending too much on said outline. So it’s still important to see the outline as a starting point and as something flexible. Not final, ultimate law. Just something that makes life easier when someone else wants to read your work.

To drive this point home, the conversation I referenced at the beginning of this post centered around my dad’s frustration with some of his coworkers. He’s a technical writer, which means he’s the one who gets to write the manuals for things. The project he’s working on now was something that passed through the hands of half a dozen engineers, none of whom kept coherent notes. And if I remember correctly, someone else got a start on the documentation, but they didn’t have any kind of structure to their writing so now it’s a huge mess.

This reminded my brother of a course he took in college with a lot of redundant learning because a sloppy outline meant it was hard to tell what the course had already covered.

A decent outline keeps track of a story (or any writing) for yourself, and for others. It lets you pick up where you left off more easily, and if you need to show someone what you’re doing you can just point to that spot in the outline and they’ll be able to figure out at least something. Plus, knowing the bare bones of where you’re starting lets you create something that’s a lot more coherent.

Outlines are not always fun, but they help your brain organize, and that’s a good thing. Or at least, they help my brain.


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