Outlines are an old-fashioned but very useful tool of writing. Unfortunately, they are nowadays somewhat out of fashion, replaced by “spontaneous writing”, encouraging writers to go with the flow rather than to follow a pre-defined structure. Though I practice and recommend “spontaneous writing” as a way to overcome “the writer’s block”, I have recently re-assessed the indispensable role of outlines in producing good writing.
Why do we need writing outlines? Because the old truth that we cannot simultaneously do something and decide what to do also applies to writing. Normally you cannot write and decide what to write about (not only in your text in general, but also in a particular section or paragraph). Outlines separate making hard choices about writing from writing itself. Thus, they enable free writing flow by placing hard constraints on this flow much like solid river banks define its meandering.
I usually prepare an outline for any substantial (i.e. more than a couple of paragraphs) piece of writing that requires any prior thought. For example, this post was outlined before it was actually written. Many learn this common sense approach already in high school. However, over the years I learned that this use of outlining is frustratingly inefficient, so much so that at one point I almost abandoned outlines altogether, considering them a waste of time. The problem is that initial outlines are rarely followed because writing normally assumes its own logic. Thus, I used to abandon the initial outline and never come back to it. The final text would barely resemble the outline: so why woud I bother to outline in the first place?
The book “Professors as writers” changed the way I view and use outlines. Nowadays I work with outlines throughout the writing process, not only at its initial stages. I prepare an initial outline, print it out (or display it on my second screen) and write the first draft, trying to follow the outline, but not religiously. After the first draft is written, I read it and come back to my outline in order to (a) change it to reflect what I’ve actually written and (b) improve the organization further (often through some serious shortening or shifting the pieces of text around). Thus, I end up with a second draft of the outline, which guides the second draft of the text. In some cases I even repeat this procedure one more time. Thus, to follow the three drafts rule outlines are needed not only for the first, “down” draft, but also for the second “up” draft.
I always discuss outlines with my co-authors. It is not uncommon for my students to hear that I can’t advise them on their early drafts before I see their outlines. Yet, make no mistake, outlines are necessary but not sufficient for good writing. My PhD advisor once told me: “I’m not a big fan of outlines. Bring me your writing!” He was right. Outlines are writers’ to-do lists. To-do lists are important but they are no substitute for the actual products. So make your to-do list and then do the work. Make your outline and then write.