Posted June 4, 2019
Outlining can be enormously helpful for writers, as it can help writers organize their thoughts and construct an effective, impactful piece. But perhaps the most important and most helpful element of outlining is that it helps writers struggling to work from a blank page. That blank page can be intimidating, even to those whose core function is writing. An outline can help bridge the gap between an empty page and a full draft.
However, you shouldn't start with an outline.
That might sound contradictory, but an outline requires writers to have some idea of what they want to say, and some plan for how they want to say it. In fact, trying to write an outline from a blank page can be just as challenging as trying to write a draft from a blank page.
Instead, it's more helpful to start with prewriting.
To be clear, we endorse outlining during the writing process, just not as the first step in producing a written work. That's because, to work with your ideas, you first have to have the ideas. And while outlining is an excellent tactic for organizing ideas, it's less effective at generating them.
What is prewriting?
Successful writing requires strategy. The writers must know what they want to say, and how and to whom they want to say it. Producing a successful draft requires that writers answer these questions and to go through a process where they figure out what the piece needs to accomplish and how to accomplish it. An outline simply isn’t the appropriate step to do that, but should follow that step.
So, what can you do before outlining?
- Brainstorming. On the surface, brainstorming is just about coming up with ideas, but most people don't brainstorm very effectively. For example, it's best if you brainstorm on paper and can be helpful to do it with colleagues. Be sure you don’t censor yourself or others as you brainstorm, as you never know where an idea may lead.
- Question-asking. The University of California at Berkeley recommends this approach: "This is one of the best and most useful approaches to get yourself started on writing a paper, especially if you really have no idea where to start." The tactic is to write down questions that are relevant to the topic, including those mentioned, and then answer them for yourself.
- Freewriting. Freewriting is a "brain dump" where the writer just lets the ideas flow. Freewriting is most effective if you just write continuously for at least 15 minutes. Freewriting may produce material that is worthless and unusable, but the importance of freewriting is not what ends up on the page; it’s more about helping your brain figure out what it wants to say.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.