Miss Whitebread Was Wrong

“Always make an outline before you start writing.” Isn’t that what your fifth grade teacher told you? Well, I’m sorry to break this to you, but Miss Whitebread was wrong. In my continuing series of Stupid Things You Were Taught in School (see here and here), let me deconstruct this bad boy.

First, it is impossible to make an outline before you start. How can you outline something when you don’t even know what you want to say, haven’t starting thinking about what you want to say, or don’t have any research or notes on what you want to say? You can’t. Plain and simple.

Thinking is a messy business. You start with random, maybe disconnected ideas and facts and opinions and, yes, feelings. Perhaps you have a general notion of what you want to write about, but that’s it.

Maybe you are the sort who can work things out in your head before your write. But even then your first step is not outlining. It’s thinking. So step one is definitely not to create an outline.

Step one may be to just start writing. You take one idea and see where that takes you. If it goes nowhere, you ditch it and try another idea. If it goes somewhere, you keep writing.

But that is not the only possible step one. Another step one could be to collect scraps and bits of information and stories and guesses. You store these in your head, or you write these down on a sheet of paper or in a word processing document or even (if you are very old school) on 3 x 5 cards. You then follow up some of these notions by talking to friends, reading, reflecting, remembering and taking more notes.

Then you take a shower, and as you are washing your hair, a related idea pops in your head and you write that down (after you get out of the shower). More reading. More note taking. More musing.

Along the way you may start writing random, disconnected paragraphs about stuff you’ve collected, playing with some of the things you’ve written down, trying to develop them a bit. Eventually you gain some momentum and paragraphs begin to link to each other, pages follow, and you’re on a roll.

Then you see what you’ve got and start revising, adding and organizing—yes, organizing (maybe into an outline, maybe not) after you’ve written. You begin to see what facts and guesses and stories fit and which don’t.

You may discover that the anecdote that triggered the whole thing suddenly doesn’t fit at all, and with deep sadness you must exile it to the land of “To Be Used Later.” Or it may fit and make a beautiful opening or a grand conclusion.

You may find that you have collected seventeen points and realize that you only need or have room for four of them. So you work with those. More rearranging, more revising, more adding, more subtracting. At some point an outline may emerge and then you fill it in and round it out.

So when did you outline? Maybe in the middle, maybe at the end, maybe (if you’re writing a blog) never. But when you do create an outline, it’s not primarily for you and certainly not for a teacher. It’s for your reader.

Miss Whitebread meant well, you see. It’s just too bad she believed what she was taught in school.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

16 thoughts on “Miss Whitebread Was Wrong”

  1. Outlines represent organization, which you have included as a later step in the writing process. The problem with so much writing today is that it isn’t organized. The free-flowing, blog-like writing style is taking over in areas where it should not exist (in students’ research papers, for example).

  2. This has irked me for a while too. Roughly since Aristotle there have been five “Canons of Rhetoric” or a rough outline of how to develop a work to persuade someone else. The early rhetors were much more concerned with speech, but note where they start:

    1. Invention (This would include everything discussed above)
    2. Arrangement (Organization for the best impact, outlining)
    3. Style (Tweaking wording for artistry and clarity)
    4. Memory
    5. Delivery

    For writing, you could of course ditch the last two; amazing that Aristotle thought more clearly than our reductionistic education.

  3. i wonder if miss whitebread has realized she could get rid of her last name by getting married?

    A. if she hasn’t…
    1. how’d she miss the stage when girls sign their names with a new last name?
    2. should we tell her?

    B. if she has…
    1. does she like the last name?
    a. is she racist?
    b. does she have something against wheat bread?
    2. does she have a bad personality?
    3. is she ugly?
    4. has she simply not yet written dating into her outline?

  4. “Sounds like sermon prep. to me!”

    Regrettably, it does sound like a lot of the sermon prep we hear from our pulpits. Free flowing train wreck.

  5. Moses is exactly right.

    I’m currently teaching a class of 8th and 9th graders the first three steps of Aristotle’s method — which in the particular curriculum we use is more circular than linear, really; the students do each step numerous times as they slowly build their thesis papers. Both they and I have found it incredibly valuable, aiding in clarity, flow, organization, and strength of argument.

    I am an unashamed outliner, but neither I nor the unfortunate Miss Whitebread think you should outline before you’ve *thought*! You’ve set up outlining as a particularly strawish straw man in this diatribe.

  6. Hey fans

    Seems like I hit a nerve out there. (Oh, the baggage we carry from grade school!)

    I’m not against outlines, and definitely not against organization. Structure, clear structure, is essential to keep readers (and listeners) clued in to where you are and where you’re going. I’m just trying to help those outline neurotics out there who got the message that outlining is where you start.

    Outline in the middle of your process, fine. At the end, super. At the beginning, never.


  7. It seems to me that in any stage of the thinking/writing process, outlines can be particularly valuable for helping one start to see more clearly a coherence and a bigger picture in one’s message. It can be a very useful tool–one that ultimately serves the reader even more than the writer, for the reader craves coherence and the bigger picture in what she reads.

  8. There are outliners and there are pantsers (write by the seat of their pants). I believe there is a place for both.

    I am a true pantser, a story chaser, a “let’s see where this interesting curiosity takes me” kind of gal. Teachers (all trained outliners?) just about sunk my writerly boat. Glad I survived and kept writing anyway, learned about the likes of pantsers.

    Sounds like you might be a pantser too, Andy. If not, thanks for liking me — allowing room for me — anyway. 🙂

  9. I agree with Clay. Sounds exactly like my sermon prep. I actually do my thinking, reading, studying, note-taking and a good deal of writing, then, on the day our church secretary is ready to print out the bulletin, I send her an outline… that I made right then, in a big hurry, so there’s something in that sermon notes page of the bulletin for people to follow or take notes upon. Argh! I really dislike outlines.

  10. When I write a sermon, I always begin with an outline, taken from the biblical text I will be preaching from. But that is just to get started. I found out early on that if I forced myself to stay on the outline, I wound up with a lifeless sermon. I always have a major point to make, and that usually stays the same – but as I write, new ideas come, and the sermon can easily take off into things I had not thought of but which need to be developed – so I develop them. Without an outline, I can’t get started – but with only an outline, I agonize and write dreadfully. Like fire, the outline is a useful tool, but a bad master.

  11. Andy, I largely agree with you with one caveat:

    Your opinion may be skewed a bit by the fact that you primarily are working with people who can write their way out of a wet paper bag. 😉 If someone can’t do that, they probably need ALL of the structural tools (outlines, note cards, first draft, etc) that we learned in school AND in the order that they were prescribed to be carried out.

    When someone is first learning to write (and some never get past this stage), they may actually need to outline first. They may need to know — first thing — where they are going and how they’re going to get there.

    I see the structural tools as training wheels. Eventually they are unneeded (by most, anyway), but even the most avant garde “pantser” (to use Charlene’s term) doesn’t remove ALL the wheels from his/her bike.

    Now, I’m definitely a pantser. Writing, for me, is a self-discovery process. If I write something of any decent length and it ends where I thought it would end, I’m usually disappointed in myself. 😉

  12. BTW, I went to Georgia Tech. We don’t do communication in ANY form all that well, so we were still having highly structured writing classes as college freshman. I found that the further I strayed from the prescribed method, the better my grade.

  13. These days, most writing teachers have their kids start out with a “brainstorming” session, wherein each student chooses a form of brainstorming that works well for him, whether it’s listing, webbing, freewriting, or whatever.

    So things have changed since Miss Whitebread retired.

    And Charlie, I like the training wheels analogy–may I use it? I’ve always compared writing to painting when the five-paragraph essay form seems stifling to kids. Learning to write is (usually) an acquired skill, as learning to water paint can be. A painting instructor would show you specific techniques/patterns that you might practice constantly until you felt comfortable with them. Once you were skillful with the techniques, you could confidently venture into new territory.

    Of course, if a student were already an advanced writer when he came to me, he would be welcome to fulfill the essay assignment as he saw fit.

Comments are closed.