Outlining: The Way to Escape the Idea Jungle!

You did what I suggested and brainstormed ideas for your book. Now what? If you read my last post then you’ll know the next step is outlining.

What is outlining?

Outlining is simply a way to get your ideas into some sort of order, to organize the chaos! You wouldn’t want to read a book that starts in the middle of nowhere, has the end in the middle and the beginning at the end. Likewise, that’s not something your readers want either!

For non-fiction, there are essentially two types of outlines: a topic outline and a sentence outline. Both have a hierarchical structure, but essentially, a topic outline is shorter since it’s more to the point, using a few key words instead of whole sentences. Typically, the outline will look something like this:


1)      First main idea

a)      First point supporting main idea

i)        Details, supporting evidence, images

ii)       Details, supporting evidence, images

b)      Second point supporting main idea

i)        Details, supporting evidence, images

ii)       Details, supporting evidence, images

iii)     Details, supporting evidence, images

2)      Second main idea

a)      First point supporting main idea

i)        Details, supporting evidence, images

ii)       Details, supporting evidence, images

b)      Second point supporting main idea

i)        Details, supporting evidence, images

ii)       Details, supporting evidence, images


For fiction, outlines can be chapter based or plot based. My fiction outlines tend to be chapter based, where I am figuring out what needs to happen in each chapter to move the story forward. What happened to the main character, what were they thinking, where were they, who were they with? A plot based outline focuses more on what is happening in the story and when. Yeah, they’re similar, I know! But you don’t have to worry about making a distinction!

The kind of outline you use isn’t as important as using something that works for you.


Why is outlining important?

You want to know the larger purpose of your writing before you even begin. Knowing what you want to achieve before you start writing goes a long way to achieving a quality product. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction.


How do you outline?

If you’ve followed the advice I gave in my earlier post about just writing down everything that comes to mind, you may have a page that looks like this:


Nice jumble, right? So how do you organize this?

The process I follow is:

  1. Message
  2. Facts
  3. Structure
  4. Details
  5. Review



First, figure out your core message. What is it you want people to learn or take away from your non-fiction article? What benefit did you want to provide? For a work of fiction, what is the conflict your protagonist will face? Your goal is to rearrange the information you have (from your sheet of ideas) into something that best supports the message that you want to get across.


Next, you’ll work on facts. This would be all the things you have on your sheet. Organize the facts by grouping similar items together.  You can group your items by:

  • Rewriting the information to post-it notes and arranging the notes in relevant groups, with main ideas at the top and supporting ideas under each main idea in a columnar format
  • Cutting the information from your main sheet (gasp! Yes, cut up that masterpiece!) and arrange the same way as for the post-it notes (so you don’t have to rewrite)
  • Taking your sheet and adding numbers for the main points and the number with a letter for sub-points; even less work!

I must point out though that the less work you do getting from your jumble to the pieces of the puzzle, the more confusing it could be as you try and fit the pieces together without moving them. Also, using the last approach I mentioned leaves you at risk of inadvertently losing some information if your paper is loaded with ideas. My recommendation would be to get all the ideas onto separate pieces of paper or type them up in a word processor so they can be moved more easily.

Once you’ve sorted your facts into basic groups, sit back and assess what you have. Are any of the categories repeated? Are any of them redundant? When you do this, you will find your topics and sub-topics for non-fiction or your plot and sub-plot points for fiction.


Now that you have all the facts sorted, it’s time for structure. Look at what you have and try and put the various main points (or categories) into a coherent order. Keep fine-tuning the structure until you have something that flows logically and suits the purpose you hope to accomplish.


Working with your basic structure, you’ll now add the details. Taking each of your main points or categories, add relevant content. Supporting information for your main point comes in many forms, including examples, graphs or images, facts or theories, anecdotes and/or quotes for non-fiction. For fiction, you need to assess what it is that you want to accomplish in that chapter. There’s no point having a whole lot of writing there that doesn’t move the story forward. Take the opportunity to develop the main character’s personality, present/increase or resolve the conflict, add in supporting characters or give details relevant to the plotline.


Finally, as with writing of any kind, take some time to review what you have. Does the story flow? Does your non-fiction article progress logically? Is there anything you’ve forgotten or anything that needs to be removed? It is vital that you make sure your outline meets your needs before you begin writing. Skimp on your outline and you’ll end up wasting time later on.


Benefits of outlining

If you’re still on the fence about outlining, consider these benefits:

  • Productivity: an outline gives you a clear picture of where you’re going, allowing you to write faster, making you more productive
  • Relevance: Setting a goal helps you determine what information is important and what’s superfluous
  • Time: Since you already have a plan of how you want to proceed, you will spend less time revising and rewriting
  • Flow: Outlines ensure your ideas connect with one another in a way that flows, making it easier for the reader to grasp the information and make the necessary connections
  • Completeness: Gaps in your work or faults with your arguments become evident when you have an outline. It’s easier to check whether you’re giving enough attention to the areas that need it. Do you have enough facts to back your allegations or support your theory? Is enough information given to readers of fiction so that they have enough clues to solve the puzzle? You don’t want to be pulling an unrealistic solution out of thin air!
  • Meeting expectations: an outline is an easy way to check that you’ve achieved your objective before you even start on the real writing. Your objective would be to meet a need/provide a benefit for non-fiction works and to develop the character and/or resolve the conflict for works of fiction. (Not to say that these are the only expectations that your reader may have! Just make sure that whatever expectations you’ve created, are answered in your outline)

Okay, if I haven’t convinced you by now that outlining is a good thing, it’s not going to happen! Good luck escaping the idea jungle without that outline:-)

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