“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.