Remember those days in high school when you were learning how to write term papers? My very well-meaning teachers tried to get us to use notecards and create outlines, anything to help us write better organized papers with the correct citation in the bibliography.
And I hated and chafed at every, single moment of it. While having notecards is actually a good organizational tool, my nascent writer’s brain couldn’t latch on to them as anything more than a royal pain. Even then, and probably more so than now, my chaotic, in-the-data-cloud brain couldn’t deal with something so–orderly. I know I wasn’t the only one who had the same issues, Will Kelly wrote about this very frustration…
Through high school and college, I used to rail against having to use outlines because I saw them as stifling my creativity. It wasn’t until years later, as more of my own consulting work grew past just straight up technical writing of user documentation, that I rediscovered outlines as a productivity tool, enabling me to quickly make plans, organize ideas and structure information. Now I consider them an important part of my project planning arsenal.
I can’t really blame my teachers though, the technology that let me absorb and grok outlines didn’t exist yet. When I tried to write out an outline on paper, each thing I wrote became fixed and something that was fixed in the infosphere became something to work around. Thankfully I only had to write one term paper using the time-honoured long-hand/typewriter combo. My family’s Apple IIe arrived shortly after my D- on my first high school term paper. In spite of the fact that I turned in “typewritten” first drafts (probably much to my teachers’ pleasure given my infamous handwriting), I still had to contend with the notecard and paper outline strictures, which didn’t help matters.
It wasn’t until many years later that I finally got it. It wasn’t until I was introduced to mind mapping did I learn that writing could be a lot easier, which is how I’ve been able to finish one book, start another, and map out a third. I don’t mind map as many documents now, but I do work off outlines for most things longer than a page or two.
Yes, this is confusing and seemingly diametrically opposed, but the difference is that when I work with a mind map or within Scrivener I can move the elements around. There is no inertia to moving something (hmm a mental frictionless plane…) around. I’ve moved whole sections to new chapters, changed the order of chapters, split, combined… Fine you get the idea.
This is the key and essential difference between what I learned 25 years ago is the flexibility that electronic tools offer that paper just doesn’t. It makes me wonder if my kids’ teachers are using tools like mind mapping or Scrivener or Omni Outliner to help kids grasp organization. If you are creating an outline on paper there is an inherent assumption that you have everything structured in your head already, or that you can think like that.
I don’t even try anymore. I start working on a document and know that I will go back an move, realign, and adjust the outline before it’s done. Even once its “done” I still can move things around. So what is chapter 5 now was chapter 3 before. My advice to you is that if you struggle with the blank page syndrome, feeling like you don’t know where to begin, look at tools where it doesn’t matter where you start because what you enter first doesn’t have to remain first.
And by the way … I actually use Scrivener’s notecard-corkboard interface a lot.