Outlining as a first draft

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What if an outline weren't a chore, but the first draft on your path to fine writing?

Recently, my technical writing class was discussing outlining, when I was surprised to discover how many of my classmates hate the practice. But I shouldn't have been caught off guard, because I was in the same camp until only a few years ago.

Life before outlining

Sometimes you hear something enough that you can't help wondering if there might be something to it. And so was the case when I heard that the key to good writing is rewriting.

The idea that great writers rewrite goes against our romantic visions of the wordsmiths we admire. We like to picture our favorite authors as able to sit down at the typewriter or laptop, clang their fingers on the keys for a bit, and churn out great stories with no sweat or profanity.

But no, that's not how this writing thing works. You put some words on the page. You read over them and you scratch some out, and you move some around, and you fill in the holes in your prose until you hammer out something serviceable.

The wisdom about rewriting lodged itself deeper into my brain every time I heard it. And so began my acceptance that my writing needed a bit more work, opening the door for my eventual outlining practice.

Enter outlining

I owe giving outlining a shot to a bit of writer's block. I was stuck on a short story, unable to make the story's events fall into place. So I put aside what I had already written and started working on a barebones outlining. By taking a step backward, I was able to move forward and finish the story.

While I don't always start with an outline, I no longer avoid them as I once did. Outlines are the no-pressure way to start your writing project. You barf all your ideas into the outline, and you move things around or expand upon them. Or maybe you see that you don't have enough material for your project and you move on.

No matter the result, outlining is a great exercise.

An outline is a first draft

I now see an outline as a first draft—a bland, dry first draft. The outline is a first draft focused only on the skeleton, the crucial elements.

The next draft is where you can sprinkle on the flavor. Perhaps it helps to think of the second draft as the creative draft.

Projects require no set number of drafts, but it's a safe bet you'll need at least one more pass for spelling, grammar, and general sense making. So that puts you at three drafts, with the outlining being the first.

What all can I outline?

What all does outlining work for? So many projects, including:

Basically, any project that benefits from clear communication is a great candidate for an outline.