A Writing Surprise – outlines

outline (ˈaʊtˌlaɪn)


1. a preliminary or schematic plan, draft, account, etc

Outlines – I hate them. I struggled with them as a student. I struggled to get 3rd and 4th graders to see why they needed them. I just didn’t see the need for them in the work I was doing and either did my students. ( I do think I was a bad influence on them.)

The stories I have been writing are really an intermediate picture book. The stories are not that long and I have done a first draft in one sitting. Then it is years of editing and playing with words. (They still are not ready to send out to the public but that is another story.) Bottom line I didn’t need to outline.

Writers don’t need outlines they just write!

Well, that was all well and good until this summer. I have started a story that just keeps adding to itself. It is clear this book needs to have chapters. The ideas keep popping up, there is research that needs to happen and information is all over the place. I am not sure what I should put where.

  • What should happen first?
  • Are we looking back at the fire or is that the beginning of our story?
  • When is it best for the male character to enter?
  • What does each of my characters want and need in this story?

Questions and questions and ideas and ideas –

All of a sudden I found myself creating an OUTLINE to help me organize my thoughts. I needed an outline of chapters to know what order things were happening in, and where to put the research information I had found but had not used in my writing yet. I needed an outline to see where the thread of the story was going. I needed an outline.

Outlines make sense when we need them. I sat this morning thinking about when else did I find making an outline helpful.

It was the year my students took notes on how to take a good picture. We had a photographer come and talk to us. He gave us lots of great information but our notes were crazy. After he left we realized we needed to sort through what he said and create an outline to help us remember

  • what we do when we take pictures
  • what were the parts of the camera
  • what makes good composition of a image

An outline helps us organize information we collect, or ideas that we create. Yeah, I know that.  I have taught that to kids. I get it, I can make one but it was not until now when I am swimming it the details of a fictional world that I feel the joy and relief when I started to build that chapter outline. I had a place to put those ideas, or that fact about flowers, or the climate information that looks like it should go in chapter 2.

I know that this outline will change a million times before the story is fully written but for now I can relax a bit as the ideas move around and the characters help me write the story.

I return each time I write to the outline to help me see where I am going. I return to the outline when my story thread is not making sense. I am finding joy and peace with outlines!

How about you? Do you use outlines when you are writing fiction?



About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, help in schools and write. Life is good!
This entry was posted in Reflection, Teaching, writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Writing Surprise – outlines

  1. arjeha says:

    I admit that I am and always have been an outline person. I can get off track so easily otherwise and then I just start to ramble. an outline helps me stay focused.

  2. mayawoodall says:

    Donald Murray says that 85% of our writing time should be spent in prewriting. That’s so much time—isn’t that crazy? http://www.willamette.edu/gse/owp/docs/TeachWritingasaProcessNotProduct.pdf

    Of course, prewriting can be those ideas you get in the shower, the envisioning and such. What a great story of how you took yourself from drafting to outlining—that really speaks to the true nature of the writing process.

    Crazy that non-linear writing process, isn’t it?

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