Outlines are often used for planning how to structure a piece before writing. However, I find outlining helpful not just for prewriting, but also for post-writing, analyzing, and revising. What do I mean?
Constructing an outline after writing a draft is helpful in the revising process. A post-draft outline enables me to see what I actually wrote on the page, not what I planned to write or think I wrote. I number the paragraphs in chronological order, then write brief descriptions of each paragraph’s main idea. The headings are the book chapters or article sections; the subheadings are the paragraph descriptions.
What gets revealed is the flow of ideas. I can see where I carried on for too many paragraphs about X, but glossed over Y with one skimpy paragraph. I see holes where I made unexplained leaps in logic from A to D—holes that will confuse readers. Hmm, there’s a tangent that belongs nowhere, an example that doesn’t explain. Ah, here I need to expand, provide a transition, increase the tension, spread out the clues, tighten the focus, or move pieces around.
Now I have a guide for revising!
Outlining helps me in preparing critiques of others’ writing. I may have vague feelings that certain spots of a manuscript aren’t working, but outlining gives me information about where and why it’s not working, and also what questions and suggestions I might offer.
Outlining mentor texts helps me figure out how they are structured, providing insights I can use to help in my own writing. For example, I wanted to write an article on honoring my ancestors at their graves in China, hoping it would lead to finally breaking into Highlights magazine. I looked through back issues and discovered an article one author wrote about her family’s Mexican Day of the Dead celebration. I outlined it paragraph by paragraph, picking up tips about structure and information that would capture the interest and understanding of young readers. “Remembering Our Ancestors” became my first publication in Highlights!
Sometimes rewriting involves radical restructuring. One editor suggested combining my drafts of two similar chapters. I tried several different ways without success until I outlined one chapter on the left side of a piece of paper, and outlined the other chapter on the right side. With their structures laid bare in parallel, finally I saw how and where the two chapters could be interwoven.
Outlining can be a simple but powerful tool for multiple stages of writing: pre-, post-, and mid-writing. Are there ways outlining has worked for you?
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