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Why Do I Need an Outline?

by Cheryl Sloan Wray

When you think of the outlining process, what image comes to your mind? If you're like most people out there (writers and laymen alike), the image is not very enticing. It's probably one of a teacher similar to one I had not too many years ago; I'll call her Mrs. Fletcher.

Mrs. Fletcher seemed to revel in her ability to make us squirm in our tenth-grade seats. The surest way to make us squirm was to announce an upcoming research paper assignment.

Before any of us could get excited about the possibility of writing about an interesting topic, she'd announce the first part of the assignment. Her dreaded announcement?

"You will turn in a detailed outline on your topic in three days."

The outline, if not done in perfect Roman numeral style, would be mutilated by Mrs. Fletcher's red pen.

If you've had a similar experience, you may wonder why in the world you'd want to use outlines in your writing career now.

The answer is actually quite simple: Outlining for a magazine article can create an easier writing process and a better finished product.

It doesn't have to be the painful experience introduced to you by some sadistic English teacher. It can be an informal exercise -- even (imagine!) a creative one.

To Outline or Not to Outline?

The German philosopher and writer Arnold Schopenhaur once advised: "Write the way an architect builds, who first drafts his plan and designs every detail."

In building a house, a carpenter never goes into the project blind. He or she has a plan to consult; all of the parts -- the foundation, the walls, the supporting beams, the ceiling -- will work together because of this plan. Without a plan, ceilings might fall in and doorways might collapse.

A carpenter, in a sense, uses an outline.

In writing an article, a professional writer has a plan before he ever sits down in front of the computer to compose those first words. Chances are he has written an outline -- whether it's a traditional one or a cluster one -- that tells him exactly where he's going with the article. His article's doorways won't collapse.

I believe, then, that an outline is necessary to create a well-written article. Whatever type of writer you are -- whether you are a highly-organized one who writes formal, A-B-C-1-2-3 outlines or a let-me-do-my-work-in-my-pajamas writer who utilizes very informal outlines -- an outline will make you better prepared for the task of writing your article.

Should you use an outline, then? Yes, because: (1) they keep you organized, (2) they encourage thematic unity, and (3) they can inspire you.

Do I Have to Use Roman Numerals?

Mrs. Fletcher may have extolled the virtues of Roman numerals, but other methods certainly work better for me now.

I like to use what I call the 1-2-3 outline. I number the main topics I will cover in my article and briefly explain what I'm going to cover in that section of the article.

In doing an article for a regional magazine on the trend in and benefits of consignment shopping, I composed this 1-2-3 outline:

  1. Lead: anecdote of two mothers' different shopping methods

  2. Introduction of main idea: After learning the basics of consignment shopping, you can save a lot of money.

  3. What are the benefits of consignment shopping? (quotes from mothers, money management experts, and shop owners)

  4. Tips to be a good consignment shopper: Have a plan. Get to know shop owners. Don't buy something just because it's cheap. Put your own clothes on consignment.

  5. List of area's consignment shops

  6. Conclusion: anecdote to tie in with introduction

The 1-2-3 outline can come in a variety of forms. The type of articles a person writes, as well as his own writing style, will determine the fashion of his outline.

Outlining in Four Easy Steps

Outlining is really a process that begins from the moment you come up with an idea for an article. As you begin to think through your plan, the outlining process begins.

1. Gather information

To plan how your information will be organized and used in your article, you must first gather that information. The first step, then, in planning the structure of your article is to determine what type of information you will need to gather.

To decide what type of information you need, think through your article in as much detail as possible. Imagine you are a reader of the magazine and ask yourself what primary questions you would want the article to answer for you. What secondary questions would intrigue you? Write all of these questions down, then determine what type of information would provide answers to them. Do you need statistics? quotes from experts? quotes from real-life sources? interesting anecdotes?

Once you have gathered information, take a close look at all of your materials and evaluate their importance. Separate all of your information into items of primary and secondary importance. Set aside any items you have determined you will not use in your article. Then, put the items into some sort of manageable system. I like to transcribe my notes onto a computer file, dividing the notes into subtopics. This will make your notes neat and easy to read, as well as easily accessible.

2. Determine your article's thematic statement.

Once you have gathered and organized your information, ask yourself a question: "What is all of this information saying to me?"

In order for your article to have unity, it must have an overarching theme that pervades its every part. Sometimes, though, it's hard to find this theme.

To make it easier, start by asking that question of yourself. See if, after reading through your notes, anything jumps out at you. Is there a message in all the madness?

Once you have determined your theme, write it down as a single sentence. Write this thematic statement where you can see it well. Go back to the statement as often as you need to as you prepare to form an outline and write the article.

3. Determine your article's structure.

In its most basic sense, an outline is a blueprint of your article; it's your plan for how the article will be structured. This, then, is perhaps the most important step in organizing your outline.

To determine your article's structure, first look back at your thematic statement. Keep this statement in your mind -- and written somewhere tangibly in front of you -- as you make your plan.

Then: Come up with a way to introduce your topic and your theme in an interesting way. How can you write your lead so that it captures your reader's attention, and also tells accurately what the article will be about?

Next: Ask yourself how you will organize the information you've gathered into the body of the article. Are you going to write the article in a narrative fashion, explaining the facts as if you're telling a story? Or are you going to write the article using a topical approach, developing the story according to secondary topics or themes (often using subheads, bullets, or numbers to organize the topics)?

Finally: Devise a way to conclude the article in an interesting, effective way. You want to leave your reader with a good feeling after finishing the article. You want him to feel that he has been educated (or inspired or motivated).

4. Write the outline.

Select what approach feels comfortable to you and devise an outline for your article in that style. After you have written an outline, go back and make sure you have left nothing out. Is it organized in a way that seems logical to you? Is your thematic statement clear in all parts of the outline?

Remember, also, that as you write the article you can certainly veer from your path. An outline is simply a plan -- feel free to add or subtract from that plan if another idea works better.

Outlining can be a time-consuming experience; the process, however, is well worth any effort you put into it. Once you get comfortable with your own outlining process, you see that it is one of the best -- if not the best -- way to guarantee organized writing sessions and result in a well-structured, effective magazine article.

Mrs. Fletcher would be proud of you.

Related Articles:

The Outline Demystified, by Moira Allen
http://www.writing-world.com/basics/outline.shtml

To Outline or Not to Outline, by Timothy Hallinan
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/outline2.shtml

Your Story Outline: What It's All About, by Rekha Ambardar
http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/outlining.shtml

Copyright © 2001 Cheryl Sloan Wray.
This article originally appeared in Editor and Writer Magazine

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Cheryl Sloan Wray has written four books and more than 500 articles for a variety of magazines and newspapers. Her book, Writing for Magazines: A Beginner's Guide, was a Featured Selection of the Writer's Digest Book Club. Cheryl lives in Hueytown, Alabama, with her husband and two daughters.

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