Hidden Emphasis

A Fine Line

The Unexpected Benefits of Writing Outlines

Today’s readers prefer well-thought-out pieces over mass-market paperblogs that overload them with information. But how do we write so that it’s worthwhile to read? Everything begins with an outline, even if you had hoped to get around it.

Illustration of a wavy line that splits like a thread to represent an outline.

At the beginning of my writing career, I thought I was immune to outlines. I never had trouble concatenating sentences without stopping for a moment to think about them. I was sure that others needed outlines, but certainly not me. Moreover, I loathed the idea of writing them. Outlines seemed like just another hurdle that prevented me from doing what I loved.

However, when I was preparing my first book, there was no longer a way around outlines. You can’t possibly wing writing 1,000 pages without having a clue what you’re doing. Readers can bear quite a lot, but they won’t sit and watch an author stray off their line of thought.

Our responsibility as authors is to write something that has an impact on our readers. It needn’t be pretty, but it should be coherent, comprehensible, and convincing. An outline will help you achieve that and much more if you give it the chance to surprise you.

Organize for peace of mind

Very few writers can create something worthwhile out of a mess. And we’ll never know what they’d have achieved if they'd been more organized. Your outline will be the neatly-arranged desk you never thought you’d need – until you realize that creativity blossoms in order, not in chaos.

  1. Motivation: At the beginning of the writing process, there’s this magical spark of motivation that keeps you afloat like a life vest. Nothing can drown you. Unfortunately, this feeling won’t last forever. There’s a good chance, though, it will help you through the entire outline, significantly reducing the motivation necessary to finish the piece.
  2. Intimidation: Writing a book or even an extensive article can feel intimidating, especially if you don’t know much about the topic you’d like to research. Once you’ve sliced and diced everything into easily digestible pieces, you’ll find writing a book much more manageable.
  3. Schedule: The most productive thing you can do with your outline is to use it as a schedule. Assess how much time you’ll need to finish the individual parts and mark each section with a date to indicate when you want to tackle it.
  4. Categorization: If you make your points up while you’re writing, there is a good chance you’ll have to restructure your work again and again. By categorizing the main points, you make sure that every argument will be at least roughly in place. And by organizing the paragraphs, you achieve a logical flow of your ideas.
  5. Direction: One unknown variable can make writing torturous: Which direction will your book go in? Unless you’ve settled on a particular course to follow and an opinion to express, the uncertainty of the book’s feasibility won’t go away until you’ve finished it. Don’t be so hard on yourself; write an outline.
  6. Connection: Do your ideas connect to each other? By writing an outline, you can identify weak spots or unrelated, fuzzy arguments much more quickly. You’ll see if some points need more support or rearrangement.
  7. Research: Writing an outline saves time during multiple phases, one of which is research. If you don’t know where you're heading, no book, study, or article will substantiate your points. Make sure you know what you’re researching before you research.

Write with confidence

An outline is like the map of a city you’re not familiar with. The routes you take will ultimately be much more efficient if you have a plan. Your outline serves the same purpose.

  1. Focus: You’ve undoubtedly read countless articles and books in which the writer is just babbling and not making a point. You feel like they have something to say, but you, as the reader, can’t pinpoint what it is. An outline would’ve helped this author to focus on the relevant parts of his book and make it understandable.
  2. Emphasis: You can emphasize the critical parts of your book by fleshing them out more than the less significant sections. But how will you know which ideas are important and which aren’t? You need to know all parts of the whole to determine their relative importance. Impossible without an outline.
  3. Corner: While writer’s block is an urban myth, you can still get stuck during the writing process. An outline can prevent you from writing yourself into a corner. You know well in advance where you’re traveling – and drive accordingly.
  4. Complexity: Even if you’re a prolific writer, it’s challenging to mentally organize a long piece. By writing down each idea and determining the structure before the writing process, you’ll significantly reduce the piece’s complexity.
  5. Efficiency: An outline saves you a lot of time during the writing phase. A lack of overview and focus will set you back many hours in the long run. And during the revision phase, you’ll save time again by polishing rather than restructuring. As a side note: Authors have had to destroy and rewrite countless finished articles and even books because they were incoherent. They’ll never again say that writing an outline is a waste of time.
  6. Goals: When will you know you’ve finished? After writing the outline, define the length of the piece and divide it by the amount and importance of the individual sections. With a concrete word goal in mind, you’ll always know what to aim for. Extra tip: Account for at least 20% more words than you want to end up with – the revision phase should chop off at least ⅕ of your first draft.
  7. Creativity: You may think that an outline might prevent you from being creative by forcing your work into pre-defined drawers. Yet, the opposite is true. By not constantly thinking about structure, you’ll free your mind from the chains of aimlessness and make creativity possible in the first place. And no one ever said that you couldn’t deviate from your outline. It’s like the advice of a good friend: You don’t need to follow it, but you’ll be glad you heard it.

Keep an eye on your readers

Writing is a labor endured by the author and performed for the reader. There’s no way to describe the disappointment felt by an author when their writing doesn’t resonate with their audience. Don’t be miserable; write an outline.

  1. Coherence: There are many reasons why your work might get bad reviews. Lack of coherence is the worst of them. Even if your writing style is spellbinding, and your idea is staggering, you’ll lose your readers if you don’t deliver your message uniquely and coherently. By having an outline, you’ll make sure that your piece makes sense. That should be every writer’s priority.
  2. Reasoning: Imagine you’re in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and you take just one bone out of a dinosaur’s skeleton. Chances are, the entire thing will break down and bury you. It’s the same with arguments. If you omit a step in reasoning, readers won’t find your points convincing. Please don’t make them crawl out from under a dinosaur because you forgot a bone.
  3. Meaning: With every piece of writing, you want to invoke something in the reader. Sometimes it’s emotions. Other times, it’s a change of opinion or the acknowledgment of a different perspective. Without an outline, your piece might not achieve the desired result because your intentions aren’t apparent to the reader.
  4. Knowledge: The most substantial difference between you and your readers will be the amount of expertise you have about your topic. An outline can help you to identify your readers’ possible knowledge gaps and make sure they won’t need to buy an additional book to understand your points.

You might be inclined to think that writing an outline won’t make your work any (or at least significantly) better. Maybe you consider yourself a naturally-talented writer. Or you’ve received a lot of praise that leaves no fertile soil for doubts to grow.

But let me ask you this: If you never write outlines, what makes you so sure?