Behold the power of the outline

At a chamber fellowship meeting, I was once asked to share my top editing tip. Didn’t have to think long about it: outline.

Snowflake can identify your chapter breaks based on scene length.
Snowflake can identify your chapter breaks based on scene length.

I resisted outlining for many years, because it reeked of term papers and therefore seemed uncreative. Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Pro software convinced me otherwise. Designed for novel-writing, it takes you from premise to outline in nine steps. When you’re done, it will compile your entries into a proposal.

Once I realized the power of outlining to organize my novels, it became obvious that the same power could be harnessed for any writing task. And should be. I have seen repeatedly in both fiction and non-fiction that omitting an outline results in disorganized work.

Many outlining tools are available. If you’re mainly blogging or writing articles, you may need no more than the outlining capabilities of Microsoft Word. If you need to organize more extensive items, especially across multiple topic areas, you may need an app that’s more of a note organizer. Here are some options for that:

  • Evernote — available for Mac, Windows, and multiple mobile platforms
  • Notebook — Mac, iPad
  • OneNote — Windows, multiple mobile platforms

I’ve used both Evernote and Notebook and find them useful in different ways. Evernote is best for tracking online research. It’s clipper browser plugin makes it easy to grab articles from websites. You can also e-mail information to your Evernote account. Tags and a powerful search function make finding clippings easy. Notebook is best for capturing and organizing my thoughts. Its outlining mode is great for fiction and nonfiction. I often use it for lesson planning because it has a large number of outline levels. I don’t use OneNote myself, but my colleague Keven Newsome wrote this article on using OneNote to write a novel.

Hiveword's scene sorter is great if you need to shuffle scenes around.
Hiveword’s scene sorter is great if you need to shuffle scenes around.

In addition to Snowflake Pro, I also use Hiveword, which may be a better option for visual learners. It’s similar to Snowflake Pro but  adds a “scene sorter” view that’s like virtual index cards. This could prove very handy for re-organizing. The downside to Hiveword is it’s totally web-based. If you are offline, you have no access to your outline. The upside is, it’s free.

Other writing software I have yet to try:

Each of these has a demo version available, so I intend to try out the two that have Mac versions. When I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Regardless of what software you use, even if your outline is just five items on a Post-It note, or two items in your head, have one. The longer and more complex your work (hello, novelists), the more you need an outline.

Many fiction writers resist outlining. Ingermanson discussed with Larry Brooks how even writers who prefer to work by the seat of their pants can be helped by judicious use of structure.

An outline is not a constraint. It is a guideline and a set of goals. It doesn’t hamper your creativity, it gives you a pathway to completion.

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