Learning to outline (and evaluate that outline)

By Posted on 4 min read
Results or excuses: getting up early as planned
Results or excuses: I had to plan ahead and set the alarm to get up early enough to have a final glimpse of Murcia. I wandered through the city for an hour before going to have breakfast at one of the earlier opening bakeries.
May, 2019.

Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter letter.”

And Blaise Pascal wrote, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Which translates as, “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

And various other people at various other times said something similar. And it’s all bullshit.

It’s an excuse.

What it means is that the writers leapt right in

They felt rushed and therefore didn’t pause to think about what it was they were going to write before they wrote it. Long-winded writing (which is something I excel at) comes from poor planning.

I have been studying writing now for a while, and the biggest factor contributing to long-windedness, without doubt, is in how well I outline. In this brief article, I will write about my outlining review process, which does assume I have already created an outline.

Why do I care so much about avoiding bloated articles?

When I was voicing my distress at my article length getting out of hand someone asked why this was a problem. There are benefits to long articles, such as in appearing in search results, and many people find putting together a short article much easier than writing a long one. All this is irrelevant to me, I want to be able to sit down with the intention of writing 800 words, outline those 800 words, and come out with 800 words.

I want to be able to predict how much I need to write and how much time that’s going to take and get the prediction right.

So, when I’m outlining, I review my outline against my prediction

The question I first ask is have I chosen the right word count for the subject matter? If the outline suggests that the article is going to be too long, which is a frequent occurrence for me, I split the article into separate outlines there and then. Before I’ve written a sentence.

A quick look through an outline can give a good sense of whether it’s about to spiral out of control. If the points I’ve outlined are vague, it’s going to spiral. If I’m too emotional about what I’m writing, it’s going to spiral. If it’s a topic I lack confidence on, it’s going to spiral.

But how does one stop an article spiralling across too many pages?

The question I ask myself is whether each point marked out in the outline is going to require more than one paragraph to explain. An ideal paragraph contains a single idea which you develop within that paragraph. If my idea will overflow my paragraph, then I need to break that idea down into its respective points at the outlining stage.

If you’ve got readers on mobile devices, then you might feel compelled to create super short paragraphs

Personally, I love long sentences and long paragraphs (assuming they are eloquently punctuated). I love beautiful writing. But on my phone, lengthy blocks of text are more challenging to consume. To keep my paragraphs short, I break-up some of the longer paragraphs and excessive sentences during my edit.

You’ll learn from practice how long your paragraphs tend to be. And from this, you can approximate how many paragraphs you need for your desired word count.

Outlines might feel restrictive – you may instead believe writing should be a free activity

Ideas should pop out at great, fabled moments of inspiration. Words should fly from your fingertips in a natural progression. I don’t disagree. This is exactly how I write my diary, it’s how I write when I’m doing writing-therapy, it’s how I first put story ideas to paper. Some of my best ideas and phrases come like this. But the gods forbid that I edit these ideas as they appeared in their raw form on the page. I’d lose days to it. I have lost days to it. Free-writing is great when you don’t have to then edit.

But what I’m trying to do it learn how to create consistent, strong content

One of the Mother’s phrases that she walloped into my head is that in life you have a choice between results and excuses. Not having enough time to write a short letter (i.e. not planning what it is you want to say) is an excuse.

It’s also inconsiderate to the reader. We’re all under constant information bombardment as it is. If you have something to say that’s worth someone else taking their precious time to listen to, presumably it’s also worth planning.

After all, if we´re being honest, to plan and write a short letter takes a whole lot less time than to write and edit a long one.