Back in July I bought a Garmin watch that tracks steps and heart rate. More importantly, it offers training plans for beginning and intermediate runners. I clicked on a beginner’s plan because I hadn’t run regularly for years, and started following the instructions each day.
Now, I tend to wing things in general. More often than not, I jump in and make decisions on the fly with just about everything. I like freedom and hate being fenced in or forced to do things. Too much structure and I’m ready to bust out the walls.
But for some reason, I responded well to the structure of this training program. If it told me to do intervals, I’d head down the road and run intervals. If it said to run hills, I found the hilliest hills in the mostly flat city where I live.
I enjoyed the choices within the parameters of the plan. I could choose where to run and I could choose to skip a stage of the plan. But I loved how the plan organized my workouts so I don’t have to stand at the end of my driveway trying to figure out what to do each day, inventing from scratch.
So while my personality might be the type to look at structure as a curse, I think it might be…a gift.
A Writer’s Gift
Outlines are to a writer what a Garmin training plan is to a runner: a gift, not a curse.
During the years when I taught composition to high school students, the most naturally creative students resisted outlines. They hated the idea of slamming structure into what could be an organic process of discovery. And I sympathized with them—that’s how I tend to feel.
So some of them they respectfully requested that they try it their way. But because I was teaching composition, I had to teach outlines. And because this was a group of compliant homeschoolers, they did it my way.
Even the student who participated in NaNoWriMo every year as a pantser—flying by the seat of her pants as she completed a novel in the month of November with very little structure—even she agreed to outline for the big research paper assigned for the second semester.
When they finished researching and their outlines shifted based on new information they gleaned, they sorted their 3×5 cards into the outline and even the biggest doubters who thought outlining was annoying and a curse found it was a brilliant time-saver. With ease and speed and efficiency, they wrote organized drafts that reflected a logical structure and flow.
Even my NaNoWriMo student conceded that the outline-approach worked. She said in the future she would likely drop the step of taking notes on 3×5 cards, but the outline would be part of her writing life—at least for academic papers.
While I don’t spend as much time discussing the art of fiction, I’ve seen plenty of general outlines that a novelist could use to give a general form and remind the writer of key elements and beats to hit along the way.
We don’t have to use outlines, but they can provide a starting point. They offer structure and support as we brainstorm and produce our first draft. And they help us write faster than ever.
Isn’t that a gift?
My son participates In a speech and debate club where I serve as a parent-volunteer. Another mom teaches various speaking principles and the past few weeks we’ve reviewed how to outline a platform speech.
But she also presents a series of outlines to the students that they can use in their impromptu speeches.
Impromptu speeches are not planned in advance. The competitor enters a room, selects a piece of paper listing two topics, and in two minutes, plans a five-minute speech based on one of the two topics.
You can imagine how the student’s mind reacts to this pressure. It can go blank. It can spin off in a million directions.
We empower our club members by giving them these outlines—these gifts.
Students sit down with the scratch paper available, and write out an outline. Then they add their main ideas and examples, develop a quick thesis to serve as their big idea, and think up an engaging opener they can refer back to at the end. They they take a mental picture of that paper.
Then they stand in front of their judges and deliver a speech. More often than not, practicing the use of outlines allows even novice students to produce thoughtful, organizing impromptu speeches that impress adults who can’t imagine producing something coherent in two minutes of prep time.
Outlines for Writing
The outlines like those we use for impromptu can be used for any communication, any speech, and I think for any writing.
They create organization and structure when you have no idea where to start. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down to draft a new piece. Just pick an outline that would suit the topic and let that create parameters. Plug in your own creative choices and you’ll end up with an article or chapter or essay that’s completely yours.
Plus, you’ll likely save time by producing a respectable draft that needs far less editing or reorganization.
One of the outlines that can work well for a lot of projects is the “Past-Present-Future” outline.
It’s pretty obvious how you’d use this as a basic structure when planning an article, book, essay—maybe even a poem.
The past-present-future can reflect a personal journey, drive an analysis of cultural change, or form the structure of a company’s About page on their website.
Past-present-future can be a simple format to use when collecting marketing testimonials:
Before using a product—in the past—my life was like X, then I started using a product and now my life is like Y. As I continue to use this product, I can only imagine how much more it will help my life and eventually it will be like Z!
So you see how past-present-future can organize a lot of different projects and serve as a gift to the writer.
I could have constructed this article as past-present-future by telling about my personal resistance to outlining as a writer in the past.
I was like the NaNoWriMo girl who had better results when I was winging it, even though it was a slow, disorganized approach. I wasted a lot of time and a lot of words by flopping ideas on the page and sorting them out.
Then I saw how effective they were with the students and began to experiment with using outlines in my own writing life. At first they felt constraining; I resisted and often abandoned my outline after going to the trouble of inventing one.
But over time I saw the flexibility of starting with a broad format, like past-present-future, and how I could find plenty of options within that structure to be creative. These days, I use them regularly.
As I continue to produce work, I believe the constraints serve me better than I imagined, so I intend to continue using them. They allow me to corral my pinging thoughts and plug ideas into a form at a zippier pace. Rather than restraining me, the structure of outlines actually serves me as a gift.
Relying more often on outlines, I hope to continue to produce more in less time and increase my body of work.
After all, the clock is ticking. Why waste it staring at a blank page? In the past, I might have sat for many minutes pondering what to write and how to tackle it. Now and in the future, I can, instead, pull up one of many outlines and if I have my idea, I can start—and finish—in record time.
See how past-present-future could have served as a form for this very article?
Constraints Lead to Creativity
It’s often said at writing and creative conferences that constraints lead to greater creativity.
We see that among poets who are famously constrained by space and form. And yet the restrictions placed on them often result in fascinating choices they might not have arrived at if they had total freedom.
In a Fast Company article, Belle Beth Cooper wrote:
Constraints can seem like the last thing you’d want for a creative project, but they’re actually beneficial when it comes to doing good work. If you’ve ever faced the common writer’s hurdle of the blank page, you’ll know what it’s like to be paralyzed by innumerable opportunities. What restrictions do is take away some of the choices available to us, and with them, the paralysis of choice that stops us from getting started.1
Outlines Serve Writers
I still believe in the power of freewriting to unlock and unblock many writers. But if you’re working on a project and feel frozen, unsure how to start or finish—paralyzed by limitless choices—try an outline.
By limiting at least some of the choices—in this case, restraining the form and structure of your piece—you free your creative mind to play within that space. You may find that the ideas you present, the examples you find, the stories you tell, and the words you select are more vibrant and engaging than if you wrote with no plan at all.
The outlines don’t need to be full of Roman numerals, A-B-Cs, and i, ii, iii’s, either. In broad strokes, like past-present-future, they can offer form to how you present your thoughts.
If you’ve never used outlines or you hated them in your past, looking at them as a curse, I urge you to try them again. Both now—and in the future—they may be your greatest gift.
- Fast Company article quoted in article, “Proof That Constraints Can Actually Make You More Creative“
- Fast Company article, “How Constraints Force Your Brain to Be More Creative“
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- Cooper, Belle Beth. “Proof That Constraints Can Actually Make You More Creative.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 2 May 2017, www.fastcompany.com/3027379/the-psychology-of-limitations-how-and-why-constraints-can-make-you-more-creative. (accessed 10 Oct 2019)
Amy Woods Butler says
Wonderful article, Ann. It reminds me of some writing advice I heard once: If you want to generate conflict, put three characters in an elevator. Constraints can work in all sorts of ways–meter in poetry, deadlines for writing projects, ticking clock drama…and on and on (I’d list more, but I’m constraining my list to three :)) I also like that you mention the benefits of free-writing. For me, a back-and-forth between free-writing and outlining often brings me to ideas and images far beyond what was initially bumping around in my conscious mind. This is a good reminder to use an effective tool. Thanks for sharing!
Ann Kroeker says
Thanks for reading and responding here, Amy! I appreciate hearing your success with the back-and-forth approach, toggling between outlining and freewriting. And your thoughts on constraints forcing creativity are inspiring!