Sunday, October 23, 2011

I Beg to Differ: Outlining is not a Killer

The Blog Quips & Tips for Successful Writers says in this entry that we should not outline because, briefly:

It kills creativity.
It dulls the urge to tell a story.
It makes writing a duty rather than fun.
It organizes (rather than inspires) your writing.
It leads to "dull, stale writing."

Eh. Well. Yes and no. Or perhaps just maybe. It depends, first of all, on the individual. For shorter pieces, such as blog entries, I do not sit down and write out a formal outline. I don't even jot down ideas. But I have a mental outline. What do I have to say on the subject? What points do I want to use to support my argument? It isn't fancy or detailed, but it is there, because it is a guidepost to try to keep me from going too far off the rails.

I need it because I very much have a tendency to go off the rails. So I have to have something that tells me, "Hey! Get back on topic!" An outline, for longer pieces, does that for me.

One point mentioned above is that outlining dulls the urge to tell a good story. The blogger writes, "Probably the worst aspect of outlining is that, by its nature, it emphasizes the importance of fact over story." Now, I can take that in at least two ways. What I think the blogger means is that we do not want to have our writing become dull and dry, like the history books we had in high school, because we are concentrating too much on marshaling facts than on making the prose readable. But as a historian, I have to be sure my facts are straight, that they are properly sourced, and that my argument is logical and supports my thesis. Without the plan of an outline, I cannot be sure that these criteria will be met.

Will outlining dull my prose? Not a bit of it. Because I will not allow that. The writer must not give up responsibility for the clarity and flow of her or his prose. That is our responsibility. My responsibility. One review of my first book, Booking Hawaii Five-0 said that my prose is "crisp and elegant." It did not get that way on its own. I worked at it. I polished it. I rewrote, revised, and edited until I was blue in the face. Writing very often is more work than fun; it is the nature of the beast.  So, yes, sometimes it does seem more like a duty than a lark.  That's the real world, dearie.  Cope.

I see nothing wrong with writing being organized.  I prefer to read organized prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, than disorganized nonsense.  I really do not see that organization and inspiration are mutually exclusive.  Organize first, then open yourself to that inspiration.  Frankly, I think it works easier that way. 

The blogger in question is promoting mind mapping, a technique of loose association, which she says will lead more surely to the "Aha!" moment than any outlining could possibly think of providing.  For some people, I am sure that is so.  However, I find that most of my "Aha!" moments come when I'm in the research phase, when I'm discovering the facts and making my notes and reading documents and thinking -- all the time, day or night (and staying awake longer than I need to) -- about my project in all sorts of ways.  Maybe what is happening there is that I am doing my "mind mapping" internally rather than externally.  I can accept that, embrace it, even.  So by the time I get to the outline, I have usually had a whole bunch of "Aha!" moments, and I find as well that as I am outlining and marshaling my thoughts and facts, I can check again for associations which might be new discoveries, more "Aha!" moments, and see that this all logically hangs together.

So there are those of us who can do better with outlining, who find that it does not harm our writing in the least.  As we used to say in the 1960s, do your own thing!

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