Time-saving Tips, Post #1: Outlining (and Black Riders)
This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of posts aimed at helping me (and you) to save time. I fully realise the irony of world-class time-waster Leinad writing this series, but really what I am doing is trying to identify my own bad habits so that I can correct them. If someone else can benefit too, that’s a plus.
Today I want to talk about the dangers of writing overly thorough outlines. I am not talking primarily about writing outlines for works of fiction (I suspect, with fiction, the “correct” amount of outlining varies incredibly from person to person and from story to story). Instead, I am talking about writing outlines for school essays, blog-posts or whatever else you may be writing that requires a structured and logical approach. The common advice we hear is that we should outline so that our writing is structured and logical. But like so much good advice, taken too far to the extreme, this is bad advice. I have a tendency to take it to that extreme.
A typical two page English essay, for me, might take somewhere around 4 hours. This would be taken up by:
- thinking about the question
- jotting down points that could be used to answer the question
- trying to think how best to organise these points
- writing a brief chronology (one point per paragraph)
- writing a very detailed outline
- following the outline to write the essay
- giving the essay a quick edit (but only a quick edit because by this stage I’m running behind on my schedule)
In the end, my four hours gets me a pretty average essay. Not only does everything move slowly but, because everything moves so slowly (ostensibly for the sake of increasing quality), my mind has time to wonder to other matters, not related to the essay, slowing things down further. Two important things have to change.
The first thing that has to change (this is before I even begin) is that I have to move more quickly with my thoughts. Go into brainstorm mode. Don’t sit placidly waiting for the profound thought to come to you, chase the profound thought over hedges, through weeds and into ditches and don’t stop till you catch it. If you wait for profundity to come to you, you’ll be swamped by irrelevant and dangerously unproductive thoughts. (Think of Frodo: if he goes on to Rivendell by himself, he’ll find Gandalf — if he waits for Gandalf, all he will get is Black Riders)
The second important thing is not to write an outline which is a “For Dummies” book about my essay. After all, am I such a bad writer that I cannot write a good essay unless I’ve already half-written it in the form of the outline next to me? In practice, what this means is that I should vastly truncate step 5.
In September, for pretty much the first time, I had to write several essays in exams. In each of these essays, I wrote only an extremely brief outline (basically the brief chronology mentioned in step 4). Did this cost me dear in the quality of my essays? Not at all. I received full marks on the essay in my History exam, for which I had 60 minutes to handwrite probably 1200 – 1300 words. This was significantly better than I had scored on other history essays during the year where I had spent many, many hours planning, researching, outlining, writing and editing. Thus, while some kind of an outline is important (depending somewhat, even in non-fiction, upon your personal style), the actual writing is of far more consequence. We know how to write, so all we need is a brief reminder of our topic and of the main points we will use to support our viewpoint on that topic.
This is probably all complete common sense, but believe it or not I have got it wrong again and again. Maybe you don’t have the same problem as me. If so, don’t take this post as a warrant for stripping back the time you spend outlining if you don’t need that. Too much planning and you waste time, but no planning and your essay could turn out as long-winded and unfocussed as this post. The moral of the story is not “plan less” but “plan the right amount”. Usually I plan too much; for this post, in an attempt to shrug off all hypocrisy, I didn’t plan enough.
Also, beware of the Black Riders.