Everybody hates outlining.
And I don’t blame them.
Though a few may find the structure liberating (staid English professors in their natty tweed smoking a pipe or analytical scientists in their white lab coats, perhaps?), most of us feel that outlining is hard work — dull, strenuous, and tedious. But it does have its benefits. It helps us stay organized, and makes it easier both to find where to make later additions, and where to pick back up after an interruption.
But don’t get me wrong. There is also something to be said for the organic style of producing copy, for just letting the words flow like water from a fountain filling the basin of the written page. In this method, the smooth flow of creative ideas is not constricted. Frustration is merely a distant ripple on the surface. And writer’s block? It’s hard to get blocked in your writing when you’re so submerged in writing blocks of copy that you rarely pause long enough to lift your head from beneath the flow and take a breath.
Those of us caught between the two extremes are the ones that get the most frustrated. We want the uninhibited flow of just skipping our pen along the path without a care in the world, but our analytical side desires the structure and organization, making us second-guess ourselves and we start to self-edit… and overthink…
And the flow gets choked off.
So what do we do if we see the merits in both methods? Struggle through, hating every minute? Resign ourselves to living in frustration? Give up?
I have found a better way. I’ve developed a sort of hybrid of the two styles that works quite well for me.
But don’t think of it as outlining.
Think of it as layering.
Like drywalling and painting a room.
I use the same steps in my writing that I’ve used numerous times in the past remodelling my house: plan and prepare, hang the sheetrock, tape the joints, apply the joint compound (called “mud” and “mudding” in drywallers’ parlance), put on a coat of primer, paint the room, and lastly, share it with your friends.
First, plan and prepare.
This is the initial brainstorming phase, the time to just let ideas flow and jot them down without any judgment or concern as to the relevance, structure, suitability, or organization. Whatever it is and whenever it comes, carry a pen and piece of paper, or have a quick access icon to your smartphone’s notes app so you can get it down quickly before it escapes and without disrupting the normal flow of the rest of your living.
Metaphorically speaking, this is where you decide what kind of sheetrock you want to use. Thick, or thin? Expensive, or economy? Regular, or water-resistant? In your piece, what are you going to use for the broad pieces that provide the base on which to place your words? Will this be a personal essay, thin on data but easy to handle? Or will it be an informative article, thick and sturdy with solid data?
How about the paint? How will it look when its done? Full of descriptive images painted with flowery words, like a room with walls painted several different but coordinating floral colors? Or will it be straightforward and no-nonsense, like a simple, goes-with-everything slate blue? Will the style be a formal cream color, or an informal purple?
Also gather the tools you’ll need. I’ve discovered a couple of editors for my computers that make indenting easier so I can better visualize the structure and organization as I go without having to use a traditional outline format. You may prefer pen and paper. (If you’re curious, I use Quoda on my smartphone and Notepad++ on my PC. I only transfer the piece to Microsoft Word for the final edits to help me catch misspellings and to format it for printing.)
If you don’t like the idea of indenting, don’t worry about it. It isn’t absolutely necessary. I use to just have a different page for each of my main points and list my subpoints on it, expanding and combining as I went. In the past I’ve also used index cards for each point, whether main or sub, so I had the tactile feel of pen and paper but could still easily rearrange points by changing the order in the stack.
Also, instead of the Roman numerals and Latin alphabet of traditional outlining, I use symbols for levels (“-“, “=”, “>”, etc) to make moving things around as the piece evolves less cumbersome. Traditional outlining is too confining, too rigid.
Keep in mind that this planning stage is still NOT the time to worry about spelling, structure, grammar, etc. As is monstrously obvious from the freakish words you can see on the examples I’ve included of this work as it progresses, I pay absolutely no attention to typos at the early stages. I’m just typing it in as hard and fast as I can, trying to keep up with my brain. It’s not until the final stages that I pay meticulous attention to the spelling.
Second, hang the sheetrock.
If you’ll remember, this is where you hang the broad pieces of the basic structure that will provide the basic foundation on which to build your words. Depending on how much you’ve done in your brainstorming, this may have only a few sentences that show the basic way the piece is going to flow, or it might be a little more fleshed out. The main point is not to worry too much about the details. Just get the basic structure boxed out.
Before you can “mud” the drywall, you have to tape the “joints” — the spaces between the sheets of drywall — to span the gaps and give the joint compound something to cling to. It also provides more stability.
Start expanding your main points, covering the gaps as much as possible, fixing weakness in the structure and organization as you go.
Now mud, you “mudder”!
Yes, that’s what they are actually called “in the biz”. Mudders are expert at laying down the mud in just the right amounts, layer by layer, letting it dry between coats, with a little sanding before the next, each time expanding the stripe of compound over the joints, making it a little broader, making it a little deeper, but using less and less while making it smoother and smoother with each additional layer.
For time’s sake, both in the writing and in the reading, these layers are presented as a list rather than as prose.
- 1st layer
Lay it on thick and heavy, filling in the joints to provide a smooth surface for the subsequent layers. Don’t worry much about relevance, redundancy, or wordiness at this point, and continue to ignore the spelling, typos, and such. Just put down words on paper in the places where they’re supposed to go. You’ll be sanding off the extraneous “mud” and filling in the pockmarks later, so just get it on.
The more experienced mudders know better what to put down and what not to put down so there’s less sanding to do later, but that comes with practice. Don’t worry about how much you might have to sand off later. That’s counterproductive and inhibiting. You’ll be too particular and fussy. It’s physically impossible to mud and sand at the same time. So just mud, you mudder!
You’ll also notice at this stage that some of your paragraphs will be starting to come together. For the most part, they’ll still be far from actual prose, but the majority of the raw material will be there waiting to be constructed into the real thing.
- 2nd layer
The drying time between coats is what professional writers call “letting it rest” between drafts. The term is borrowed from bakers and cooks. It’s what bakers do when they let their dough rise. Cooks do it when they let their roast sit for a few minutes before serving. Wine aficionados say they’re “letting it breathe”. It’s a time to pause… regain a calm center after the trauma of writing… or mixing… or cooking… or uncorking… before continuing on to the next step.
The amount of time to “let it rest” will vary from person to person, and even from piece to piece. Whatever you think is appropriate — a day, an hour, 10 minutes — only you can determine what’s necessary and feasible.
But never skip this part of the process, no matter how much pressure you’re under. It’s important. It gives your mind a chance to let go of all those words that have been bouncing around inside it and flowing through it. Then, when you return to your last draft, you can look at it with fresh eyes. Mistakes jump out. Holes in logic glare. Ill-sounding sentences blare. Without this rest, you just keep glossing over the same problems, mentally leaping over the same holes, again and again, blinded by weariness and familiarity. In drywalling, if you try to sand the mud while it’s even the slightest bit moist, you’ll wreck not only your sandpaper, but also all the hard work you put into that spot of that layer. It’s the same with writing.
When you feel ready to continue, sand the first layer. But just a little. Mostly only enough to be sure that the next time you see those words with the Frankenspelling on the outside you’ll be able to recognize the word it’s supposed to be on the inside. If not, sand off a little of the scar tissue to reveal more of the real word hiding in that ugly mass of letters.
On this second coat of mud, also watch for big holes in logic and organization that need filling. Blend together any confusing jumps in thought. Make sure the flow is smooth and easy, not choppy and jarring.
This is also a good time to look for metaphor opportunities.
- 3rd layer
Now its time for some aggressive sanding, but with a finer-grain sandpaper. By the time you’re done adding this layer of mud, its going to start looking like actual prose instead of an outline, and the extraneous, irrelevant residue will be smoothed out, removed, or replaced.
You’ll be adding a smaller quantity of new material in a wider but thinner layer. A broader scope of clarifying. A little more depth. Double-checking for good transitions and small holes in logic and filling them lightly as necessary. Making sure everything is relevant. Sanding off the mixed metaphors and replacing them with more accurate ones.
This layer’s primary focus is on starting to make it look pretty. Paragraphs and prose rather than points and subpoints. Engaging word choice. Varied sentence structure. Beautiful metaphors. Interesting symbols. Catchy similes. Foreshadowing. Whatever literary devices you feel inspired to use.
This is also the time to start making it sound less like a list of lists (unless that’s appropriate, like it is right now) and more like prose. A cadence that sounds like a list is one of the main weaknesses of writing from an outline instead of an organic flow and is something to be aware of and compensate for.
- 4th layer
On this layer, use an even finer grain sandpaper to avoid leaving deep scratches where you’re making the changes. The major changes should be pretty well done by now, so everything you do from here on should be minor. Don’t sand much off, don’t add much on. Only a very thin layer of new material. Many areas will not need any at all. Mostly just feather out the rough edges and prepare for the final touches.
Finalize everything: structure and flow; cadence and sentence structure; word choice and grammar; clarity and relevance; et cetera and et cetera.
Time to prime.
A final sanding with a very fine grain sandpaper — a final check to tweak spelling, grammar, word choice, transitions, white space, wordiness, and so on.
Finish with a couple coats of paint.
This is the final polish, the last line of defense. For the most part, just read, listening to how it sounds, keeping a finger on the pulse of the flow, giving it a light brushstroke of color as needed to bring it to its most presentable.
And now it’s party time!
Like a housewarming (roomwarming?) to share what you’ve done with friends, get it out there for others to read. It’s okay to show it off a little. After all, it was hard work. You <ita>should/ be proud of yourself… and of it.
And hopefully it’s a place your friends will like so well that they’ll visit it often, tell their friends about it, and also visit some of your other rooms as well!
And now the work is done. All the tools are put away, and the celebration is complete. Now it’s time to pause, rest, and reflect.
I’ve also heard writers refer to this process as being like sewing a quilt, piece by piece, square by square, section by section, stitching the sum into one big soul-warming whole. I can see that, but I have a harder time relating since I don’t have the practical experience. That’s why the drywalling analogy works better for me.
I’ve developed this system over years of experimentation and practice, and it works well for me. With the exception of the brainstorming portion, this whole process, starting from those few paragraphs of brainstormed ideas I already had done, all the way to the final coats of paint and the party, took me about a day. (It’s difficult to be accurate since I was interrupted several times, so I’m estimating about 9-10 hours total. Tops. Maybe less.)
I hope I’ve inspired you to draw from this and innovate some of your own ways of producing copy. If you do, let me know how it goes.
And whether what works best for you is sewing something for warmth, mudding something for habitation, or just letting it flow like water from a fountain, the result is the same — a beautiful, functional work of art to share with the world, offering comfort, help, and pleasure in the living of our lives.
And best of all, I no longer hate outlining!
Now back to mudding my next room. See you at the party!
Keys to Great Writing book by Stephen Wilbers.
Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer by James V. Smith, Jr.
If you liked this, you might also like “Why I Write: Literary Childbirth”.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, I invite you to check out what I think of as my best work on “My BYOB List (My Personal Favorites)”.