You Cannot Truly Outline a Paper Until You Know What You Want to Say and You Cannot Truly Know What You Want to Say It Until You Have Actually Said It

February 8, 2010

I have discovered that you cannot start a book with intention, calculation. You start writing before you know what you want to write or what you are doing.
• E.L. Doctorow

I have made a bold statement with my title and now I must explain it. I shall proceed so that you will understand that I do not believe that no thought precedes writing. Instead, I am trying to be honest about the messy writing processes I use. I’ve read about—and talked to—enough other writers to know that many of them are not as organized as you might imagine. Perhaps you will find comfort in my words as you find your own writer’s ways.

There is much advice about outlining provided in books and online forums: “Each heading and subheading should preserve parallel structure.” “All the information contained in heading 1 should have the same significance as the information contained in heading 2.” “The information in the headings should be more general while the information in the subheadings should be more specific.” (Thanks to owl.english.purdue.edu where you can find much more if your mind works this way. Honestly, I’m not writing this for you. I applaud you. I congratulate you. There are days when I wish I was—or is it were—you. I must look that up as I can never recall which word is correct in which context.)

I cannot write this kind of well-organized outline until I have finished writing. I am paralyzed by it. Is this heading information, I ask myself, or does it belong in a subheading? What do I do when a section doesn’t have enough subheadings yet? Do I use a capital letter or a Roman numeral here? What comes next? I used to ponder these imponderables endlessly, procrastinating instead of writing. Then I went to work in a job that required writing on a deadline.

There’s no time to craft careful outlines when a deadline is looming and a column or article is due. You have to start writing something, no matter how imperfect. In those pre-computer days, I wrote by hand first so that I could see where changes needed to be made. I still write by hand to capture thoughts and notes on the fly that might be useful for a paper or a project, filing them appropriately until they’re needed.

If you’re a typical student, you usually won’t have the luxury of working on one project at a time. You’re juggling multiple papers and/or projects. Devising a system to capture your ongoing thoughts on each is useful. I use 3×5 cards in my pocket since they’re easy to organize when I’m ready to start. What I have before I begin writing or designing a presentation is not an outline. It’s all those notes I’ve made. Lots of them. My thoughts need to ripen before I pluck them. I try to organize the notes before I start, but I don’t worry if I can’t do it perfectly.

How different the world of writing is now that we’re using computers and can cut and paste and delete and add and create new files for new versions and hopscotch around our writing at will. Now my beginnings are just that. I get started writing. Sometimes what I write first ends up at the end. Sometimes in the middle. Sometimes it gets thrown out as witty and clever and completely inappropriate for the purposes of whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish.

If I’m working on something really challenging, sometimes I write everything out of my head and onto the screen, print it, and literally cut and paste, moving paragraphs or ideas around until they make sense since I can’t see the whole paper at once on-screen. If you do this, number your paragraphs before you start messing around with them. If I know I’m going to employ this technique, I number them on-screen before I print. It facilitates the electronic cut-and-paste that follows.

Often I realize that what I’ve written has huge gaps that need additional information. This is why I believe you should start drafting materials early so there’s still time to fill the gaps in your thinking. I suspect that the rigid outline formats students are sometimes still taught are relics of the days of typewriters when you needed to be pretty sure where you were going before you began writing. Otherwise, you faced the painful prospect of redoing major chunks of your work. I know. I got my undergraduate degree as an English major using a typewriter. No fun.

I once taught high school. I remember the day when the senior English teachers were gathered in the auditorium with all of the seniors to introduce the dreaded Senior Project. The department chair asked someone to describe outlining as it was detailed in the Senior Project Handbook. We looked at one another and, as the pause lengthened, began one by one to confess that we didn’t use those neatly-organized techniques and didn’t want to talk about them. Instead, like a meeting of former substance abusers confessing our sins, we stood up one by one and revealed our shameful writing process secrets. It was one of the best and most honest moments of my high school teaching collaboration.

What are your actual, true, useful writing processes?

I take dictation from that place within my mind that knows what to say. I think most good writers do. There’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration. The idea of “diagramming” an essay in advance, as we are taught in school, may be useful to students, but is foolishness for any practicing writer. The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.
• Roger Ebert


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