My teachers were right, outlines help, but maybe not how I was taught

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.

[From Rediscovering Outlines As a Productivity Tool ]

outline.pngI 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.

Will uses Omni Outliner while I tend to use the built-in outlining and organizational tools that Scrivener provides, but both have the same end goal: put your thoughts in order.

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 can’t.

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.

Six_Easy_Blogging_Projects_-_Chapter_9-1.png

Comments

  1. says

    Never used the corkboard, but after reading this went back to have a look and decided to give it a go for meta-management!
    I do reorganise all the time though and totally agree with you – start where you will, write the bits that you want, then reorganise and fill in until you have what you need.
    I still get myself confused though, and repeat on myself a lot. That’s what I’m going to try and use the corkboard to avoid. In Scrivener of course!

    • says

      The corkboard is fantastic, but I do wish that you could drill down into subsections. That said, being able to move cards around that represent pages and pages of text is awesome.

  2. says

    Never used the corkboard, but after reading this went back to have a look and decided to give it a go for meta-management!
    I do reorganise all the time though and totally agree with you – start where you will, write the bits that you want, then reorganise and fill in until you have what you need.
    I still get myself confused though, and repeat on myself a lot. That’s what I’m going to try and use the corkboard to avoid. In Scrivener of course!

    • says

      The corkboard is fantastic, but I do wish that you could drill down into subsections. That said, being able to move cards around that represent pages and pages of text is awesome.

  3. Hobie Swan says

    Thanks for these thoughts, Tris (how are you, by the way? :o) I share these same feelings about outlines. I use them like crazy now–but never thought I would again after college. One thing we talk alot about at the company that makes ConceptDraw MINDMAP (who I do work for now) is the importance of brainstorming in project planning, writing, etc. I think it’s fair to say that people tend to not put enough importance on thinking very openly at the start of any kind of project. There is almost a magic moment at the start when our minds are open to not doing the next thing just like we did the last one. We have a moment to ask ourselves what we learned, what we wanted to do differently, what struck us about the way the end differed from what we imagined. Capturing these thoughts, like building an outline, is something I find more easily done it I don’t have to think linearly. Mapping is cool the way it lets you focus on capturing ideas as fast as they come. Once you’ve grabbed these insights, then you can start dragging and dropping them into a coherent plan, book outline, agenda…whatever. So yes, Tris…index cards, outliners, mindmaps–whatever helps you get creative before you get going.

    • says

      Hey Hobie! You were the one who got me hooked on mind mapping in the first place. Yes, I don’t know very many people in this space who are linear thinkers. I don’t think you can really work in this space and only work in a single dimension at once. I need at least three, or more, tracks at once to grapple with a topic. Just being able to say “no, wait this need to go here and that there…” is extremely critical to me making something make sense in the long run.

  4. Hobie Swan says

    Thanks for these thoughts, Tris (how are you, by the way? :o) I share these same feelings about outlines. I use them like crazy now–but never thought I would again after college. One thing we talk alot about at the company that makes ConceptDraw MINDMAP (who I do work for now) is the importance of brainstorming in project planning, writing, etc. I think it’s fair to say that people tend to not put enough importance on thinking very openly at the start of any kind of project. There is almost a magic moment at the start when our minds are open to not doing the next thing just like we did the last one. We have a moment to ask ourselves what we learned, what we wanted to do differently, what struck us about the way the end differed from what we imagined. Capturing these thoughts, like building an outline, is something I find more easily done it I don’t have to think linearly. Mapping is cool the way it lets you focus on capturing ideas as fast as they come. Once you’ve grabbed these insights, then you can start dragging and dropping them into a coherent plan, book outline, agenda…whatever. So yes, Tris…index cards, outliners, mindmaps–whatever helps you get creative before you get going.

    • says

      Hey Hobie! You were the one who got me hooked on mind mapping in the first place. Yes, I don’t know very many people in this space who are linear thinkers. I don’t think you can really work in this space and only work in a single dimension at once. I need at least three, or more, tracks at once to grapple with a topic. Just being able to say “no, wait this need to go here and that there…” is extremely critical to me making something make sense in the long run.

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