Though some writers will tell you they never outline, chances are they actually do. An outline is an essential tool in building a story or a book. While this may be obvious for a lengthy piece of non-fiction, even a picture book or a novel needs a thoughtful structure. (If the piece is really short, the outline may reside only in the writer's head, but as a middle-aged memory-challenged writer, I strongly favor paper!)
Most of us think of outlines as those structured frames we learned to make in school: Roman numeral followed by capital letter followed by Arabic number, you can’t have an “a” unless you also have a “b,” no complete sentences allowed. Writers’ outlines seldom look like those, which is why some people don’t think of them as outlines at all.
Grow beyond the structure and you’ll discover an outline can not only help you organize your material but will show you interconnections and pathways you hadn’t considered, gaps you need to fill in and mountains to be leveled.
Your first outlines for a new project are likely to be sketchy skeletons. Your headings may be characters or episodes, a broad list of topics or questions you hope to answer. Under the headings you jot down what you know about each one, and how each will interact with the others. Leave lots of blank space: as your thoughts develop you’ll come back to fill in more information.
For my “Sports and Games” book my first headings were seven regions of the world. As I did my research and filled in under the headings, it rapidly became clear that some sections were much thinner than others. This let me know where I needed to increase my efforts, and warned me where I was going to have to trim.
As you begin to accumulate material you’ll create another kind of outline. Building the structure of this “chapter” outline goes along with the process of mapping your work in your mind. Will it move chronologically, geographically, or thematically? How will you transition from one section or chapter to the next? For this outline your headings may be possible opening sentences, bullets or titles. Under each heading you’ll note the scene, the characters, and the action you’ll be describing there. You’ll note what information you’ll be including, and may decide some things need to be introduced earlier or held until later to improve the flow or balance of the work. When you actually begin to write, you may find yourself writing the middle of the piece first, then the scene leading to the climax, circling around to fill in the blank places later. An outline allows you to do this: you don’t have to write the book or article in the order that your reader will read it.
Your outlining will continue as you begin to write - the outline and the manuscript will interact, each illuminating the other.
Eventually you’ll create a polished version of this outline to include in your proposal (when you may label it "synopsis"). It shows the editor that you’ve developed your ideas and know how you’re going to get from the beginning to the end without getting bogged down or sidetracked in the middle. For now, this outline is a working document. It should be very messy, because as you research, think and write, you’ll be adding new ideas and new information, moving material around to accommodate different approaches, and lopping off bits that turn out to be awkward or extraneous.
Think of your outline not as steel girders within the building of your creative work but as scaffolding erected alongside it. Scaffolding enables you to move around the work, hammering here and welding there. It lets you go back and forth between parts that aren’t yet connected. It lets you show someone else the structure of the building before it’s ready for them to come inside. Like scaffolding, your outline may be dismantled and reassembled multiple times before the work is finished. Eventually it will be removed completely. Yet without it the project would be more difficult, if not impossible.