mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Robert's Rules of Writing #24: Map That Route

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Let's talk about outlining.

With rule #24, Masello argues in favor of outlining one's work before beginning to write. He notes that outlining has gotten a bad rep, primarily because people think of an outline as something their middle school teachers forced them to do, with a lot of roman numerals and capital letters scattered everywhere. But that's not what a story outline is. It's a map, a guide, a plan for the journey. And he says he's seen many writers stumble in the middle of their work because they didn't plan it out ahead of time.

Some writers argue in favor of outlining; others just as vehemently argue against it. I think most of us tend to fall in the middle, advising other writers to just do what works for them. (And come to think of it, in Masello's next rule, he says -- ah, but I'll get to that next time.) But for myself, I find that outlining is very helpful. In fact, although most writers think of outlines as something to use for longer works, such as novels, I've used them even with some of my shortest stories. And so I'll tend to recommend using an outline more often than not. Here's my method.

I'll sit down at my computer, with a blank document up on the screen, and I'll start writing out the plot of the story in a kind of narrative summary. Sometimes I'll open another document for jotting down notes about characters, and even another one for random sentences and pieces of dialogue that flit through my mind and demand to be recorded before I lose them. But in general, I'll stay with the plot document as I'm outlining. Sometimes I'll number the scenes, just like a writer might number the chapters. I'll take note of what I want happening to each character, what each scene must do so it logically leads into the next scene. (A good analogy would be to think of this as a set of interlocking chains; each scene must link to the next.) If I think of something that needs to happen later on, I'll insert those asterisks I use (remember them?) and note the event further along in the document. Eventually, I have a series of paragraphs that lay out the basic plot of the story, piece by piece -- or, in other words, I have my outline.

And once I have the outline, writing becomes a lot easier. I don't have to strain to think of what comes next when I'm actually sitting down and composing pay copy. I already know what has to come next -- and, given my nonlinear style of writing, I can even choose to write a scene in the middle or at the end before I write the ones at the start.

FInally, outlining also works with nonfiction, even for short essays such as this one. My outline for this post was three sentences: Introduce rule. Note both sides of argument. Explain my own method.

And now I have.

And if anyone wants to share their own perspective or some advice on outlining, please do.
Tags: personal, roberts-rules, writing-advice

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