First Write, Then Create the Outline

The value of a good outline is obvious to most writers, and for many of us it’s the best place to start a new piece. Today, there are some great outlining tools to help you create a well-structured, clean-looking outline that’s easy to edit.

Why are outlines so widely used by writers? There are clear practical benefits. An outline gives you the structure of your piece at a glance, with headings, subheadings, and bullet points. It shows the sequence of your ideas, distills your concepts into nuggets, and provides the all-important arc that will carry your reader from beginning to end.

But there’s more. The outline also plays a psychological role. It brings comfort to the anxious scribe! Instead of a blank screen, you’re looking at a road map. The outline gives you instructions:  just follow along, and your piece will get completed. Usually, this is reassuring.

Usually, but not always.

Free Your Mind

Sometimes, starting with an outline is harder than actually writing. You sit down to build the outline and find you don’t know how to organize your thoughts. You can’t distill your vague notions into bullet points. You haven’t figured out what comes before what. Now you have a real problem. You’re stuck on the outline, and you feel you shouldn’t begin writing until it’s done.

This is when it’s time to break the rules! Instead of beginning with an outline, just write.

Forget the plan. Let your writing flow, just as it comes — in any order, in any tone, in any way it wants to appear. Don’t worry about how it will read, or whether it makes sense, or if it’s well organized. Don’t be concerned if you leave things out, or spend too much or too little time on different points. All you’re doing is creating a mass of raw material. Think of this as brick-making rather than building.

Meet TextBreaker

The next step will help you turn that pile of bricks into a fabulous mansion. And this is where you need Braincat. There’s a hidden widget in Braincat that kicks in when you use the COPY & PASTE function. It’s called TextBreakerTM. Here’s what happens. You take that raw material you’ve just created, and drop it all into the window labeled COPY & PASTE. Braincat literally breaks your writing into phrases. These phrases then appear as a vertical list of notes.

Now you categorize the newly created notes. You look at each phrase and ask yourself, “What kind of thing is this?” or “What bucket should I put this into?”  At first, you’re creating one new category after another. Soon, you’re reusing the categories you’ve made. Notice they’re uniquely your categories — not someone else’s. This is the magic of the Braincat process. By categorizing, you discover the natural, hidden organization in your own ideas.

At the end of the process, you might end up with ten or fifteen categories. That’s a lot less to deal with than a mass of text!

Add More Clarity

The next step is another moment of magic. You sequence the categories. You decide what comes before what.  Instead of trying to organize 1,000 words of jumbled writing, you’re playing with a few pieces, and you can keep them all in view at the same time. (For brain nerds: you’re giving your working memory an easy ride!).

One more step gets you even closer to your goal. You ask yourself: “What does this all boil down to?”  And you record the answer in two or three words as your Big Idea. This might even give you a title.

Now you’re ready to create the outline you thought you needed at the start. Only there’s nothing for you to do except click OUTLINE — and there it is. Now you’re ready to pen your piece!

Must you follow the outline you’ve made exactly? Of course not: as you write, you may find better ways to place things. But the basics are laid out in front of you, with minimal effort on your part.

Write-Outline-Write

What you’re seeing here is a different sequence from the norm. Instead of the steps…

1: Outline

2: Write

…you take this easier path:

1: Write

2: Outline

3: Write

It’s easier because the first step is freewriting, without concern for structure and sequence. And the outline emerges naturally from the process instead of being forced into shape.

There’s an extra touch of magic here. You’ll discover that the process of categorizing and sequencing your ideas gives you mental mastery over your material. When you come to write, you’ll know it inside out. You may only need to refer to the outline for a moment or two. That sense of mastery will help your words flow like never before.