If writing is like building a house, constructing an outline is like framing. You can't hang sheetrock, install insulation, or paint the siding if there are no studs. Once the frame is in place the rest of the house can be built, and it won't all fall apart when you lay shingles on the roof or attach gutters.
Many writers and teachers insist that you can't write anything without a physical outline. This isn't strictly true, as some of the world's great writers have worked entirely from outlines constructed and held together in their minds. Yet the point remains that, even in these situations, the writer is still using an outline of some kind.
Good outlines can be as detailed or basic as the author requires. For beginning students and writers, erring on the side of too much detail is better than not including enough. One of the hardest parts of writing is thinking about and planning what you're going to say, and your outline represents exactly this element of the process.
For those of us who spent any amount of time in public school, we may or may not have learned how to compose an outline, with the Roman numerals, the numbers, and the lowercase letters, but chances are that even if we did learn about outlines we had no real understanding of what they're for after we'd patched one together.
At their most basic, outlines help us determine the most important ideas in an essay or paper, how we want to arrange them, and how we want to phrase each major and minor thought. Once an outline is drafted doesn't mean it's been etched in stone, though, and one of the worst mistakes anyone can make is to become a slave to their outline.
In fact, outlines can be quite fluid. You don't always know everything you want to say right off, and once you've put down several points on a page you might notice something you left out, or you may want to re-word something, or you may decide you need to take out a few points.
The points on an outline are the studs used to support the rest of the building. Builders regularly make mistakes or forget to account for discrepancies in plans, and must rework the frame; writers have much the same experience with outlines, reworking them over and over till the basic structures are sound enough to begin hanging more elements on them.
Understanding the importance of outlines and how to create them is one of the most useful things any aspiring student or writer can learn. It will help at every stage (from choosing a topic, to focusing on an idea or theme, to maintaining consistency), and will make all the difference between a clear and entertaining essay, and a vague and confusing one.
Here is a free downloadable two-page introduction to outlining.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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