You’ve carefully outlined your book, separating ideas into chapters and subheads. Now what will you do with it?
When I started my first book, I was under contract. I had submitted the outline to the publisher and more or less had to stay on track. However, I looked at the outline and the notation that I had promised three hundred pages and felt totally overwhelmed. Three hundred pages! To a columnist used to writing a thousand words or so at a time, that seemed overwhelming.
As I stared at my outline, I began to notice that I’m rather fond of subheadings—those headings throughout chapters that break up the page and help you find what you’re looking for. While they help a reader located specific information, they can also help the writer focus his writing. I often write three-or-four part articles on a specific subject. As I counted out the subheads, I realized that if I pretended each subhead was a three or four part article, I would end up with enough pages. Three-part articles don’t scare me.
I copied my outline into my official manuscript. Then I pushed everything down to the next page, out of sight, except the heading I was going to start with. I simply ignore that there were a hundred or so other topics waiting for me out of sight, and wrote on the topic at hand. When I finished, I pulled up the subhead and went right on, as if it, too, were a standalone article.
This did require a bit of editing when I finished the book, to make sure the topics flowed properly. But in general, I wrote more efficiently and effectively this way.
Another benefit of using the outline was to prevent writer’s block. Often when I finish a section of writing, my mind simply shuts down and I don’t know what to do next. With the outline before me, I always knew what was next. I pulled up the next headline and simply continued on, without the usual panic of “What’s next?”
In the past, when I’d tried to write a book, I worked without an outline. Often I discovered, part way into the book, I’d wandered far afield. My mind operates in odd, random ways sometimes, even usually. One thought leads to another and the next thing you know, you’re writing a book on daisies instead of homeschooling. Then I’d panic, decide it would be too hard to go back and unravel the strange paths my manuscript was taking, and toss the book. Outlining forced me to stay on topic, and kept my random brain under control.
Not all authors choose to outline. Some prefer not to limit their thoughts or to be restricted. What I found, for myself, was that the outline actually freed me. I was free to focus on style, personality, and other aspects of the book because the structure was taken care of. I did change the outline here and there, as new ideas came to me, or in response to requests from editors, but in general, I followed the plan. While I am not as structured in my current attempt to write fiction, for a nonfiction book, I find outlining essential.
What do you think? Look to the right of this article, under the features box, and click on forum. Tell us how you feel about outlines!