Posted in: Writing

Fun with Outlines

Originally posted by Heather Lee on February 4, 2013.

Last week I read a great post by Aaron Hamburger on reverse outlining. We all know the outline process isn’t always as helpful as it should be; outside of a thesis or a proposal, trying to force an idea into an orderly skeleton can require a jumbo mental shoehorn. Fortunately for us, we have more than one way to work an outline. Knowing how you prefer to write will help you develop your own successful process. Which of these guys describes you best? 
  • The Mapper knows exactly what he wants to say and maps the document accordingly before committing text to paper. He builds an outline first and holds firmly to it as he proceeds.
  • The Spackler daubs information here and there as it comes into his brain and likes to organize as he goes along. He might start with a loose outline and move things around to suit the evolving idea.
  • The Sprayer dumps all his ideas into a big textual quagmire and organizes it afterwards. He tries to cover every possible information angle before he puts a sense of order to the document and rarely, if ever, starts with an outline.
For example, I tend to be a Spackler because of my twitchy thought processes. If I don’t set down each idea as it occurs to me, the next quantum brain jump takes me somewhere else and I forget where I was going. Understanding this tendency helps me take advantage of it when I need to outline for something more structured, like a proposal or technical manual. You can do the same when you know which of these guys you’re like. Here are some helpful outlining tips for each one.
The Mapper Method
If you’re a Mapper, your best friend is preparation. Gather all document requirements, including purpose and audience, before you start to outline. Mappers tend to have an easier time with complex and stringent requirements like those found in Requests for Proposals, but knowing as much as possible ahead of time can simplify the process even for creative pieces.
The Spackler Method
Although preparation is always helpful, Spacklers also rely on a stream-of-consciousness approach. At the bottom of your outline, write down every entry as it hits your brain, no matter how weird it seems. Leave yourself space between sections to insert them where they fit best and toss the outliers when you’re finished. This approach benefits documents with very light or loose requirements that are difficult to organize from the front.
The Sprayer Method
Sprayers inherently have a more difficult time outlining than the other guys because they focus on what they want to say rather than organizing it beforehand. If you’re a Sprayer and you have to create an outline first, go ahead and write out all your ideas, but keep them to one or two sentences. When you’re finished, look for a pattern in the information. You should be able to build your outline from there.
Do you have other ideas for outline easification? (Yes, I just made that up. Verbs aren’t the only words we forge around here.) Let me know in the comments or via Twitter @VerbForge!

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