Oh! Outlining!

For years (years!) teachers have been telling me to outline things. They’ve been telling me to plan ahead. They’ve been telling me to break things down into smaller pieces. They’ve been telling me to spend lots of time on the outline and, consequently, writing the paper itself will be easier. For years I’ve heard this. I heard it in grade school, I heard it in high school, I heard it in college, and I even heard in graduate school (even my creative writing courses). For years I’ve been told to do this thing and I’d always tried (I really did), but it never worked out for me. It was painful (read: boring) and it never seemed to make the writing process easier for me. The problem was that I’d get new ideas before writing even the first small chunk of my paper. Those would irrevocably alter the rest of the outline and *prove* that outlining was a wasteful process.

For years I wondered how other students employed the outline so effortlessly. They’d sketch out what they wanted to write, research just those things, and write just what they outlined without issue. At the same time, I’d be researching everything I could, writing sections and throwing them away, rewriting completely new sections, throwing those away too, and eventually cutting up each section of everything I wrote and arranging it on the wall with tape and a cork board. Those of you who effectively used outlines your whole life are probably laughing at me. This is how I’ve written papers since I was born. Now, while working on my dissertation, I’ve finally found the value of it. Sure, it took me a long time, but I’ve finally got there (at least I think I have). Bottom line for those who are like me: try an outline, but treat it as a meaningless exercise. Sort of let yourself think through your paper on paper (with pencil or pen). Then, when you begin writing, you have broad somethings to write about. I’m certain I’ll bring this up again. It’s amazing to find out your teachers were always right.