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:

  1. thinking about the question
  2. jotting down points that could be used to answer the question
  3. trying to think how best to organise these points
  4. writing a brief chronology (one point per paragraph)
  5. writing a very detailed outline
  6. following the outline to write the essay
  7. 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.


About Leinad

Leinad, also known as Keras the Unknown (Keras for short), also known as Thevarul, is an MK who likes to run, read, write and play board-games.

Posted on December 17, 2013, in My Thoughts, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Huh. I would say I have the tendency to under-plan school writing. But then, technically I haven’t done very much of it, which is frustrating to no end as I try to figure out how one would write a “formal essay.” So far, I hate it.

    But that may just be me and how I’ve learned/not learned to write.

    • Well if you have a tendency to under-plan, by all means plan more, but don’t take it to the other extreme, which is what I did 😉

      For several years I was home schooled using a curriculum called Sonlight. They had a strong focus on writing things that were enjoyable to read. But when I started school this year (from a distance) my amateur attempts to make my essays enjoyable to read only served to weaken my essays in the eyes of my teachers (they didn’t like the colloquialisms, the poor structure etc). Now I am writing essays which follow the form my teachers like much more, but I occasionally wonder if my ability to write interesting things will suffer.

      • I’ve heard of Sonlight. We never really used much of a curriculum, just kind of a bunch of things mashed together. However, the past two years my brother (who is younger but in the same grade) and I have been using one called “My Father’s World.” I enjoy it most of the time, but the writing they want us to do…well, we haven’t had the experience yet. And I agree about making it interesting. I try, but my mom isn’t so fond of it. Sigh.

      • Likewise, I have heard of “My Father’s World”, but I’ve never used it. I suppose we’ve done a little bit of the “bunch of things mashed together” approach too — NSW Maths, various history books when SL had too much American history etc. — but then again, what home schooler hasn’t?

        Well, good luck in getting the hang of formal essays. I suppose one’s blog is a good place to maintain practice at writing things that ordinary people can read 😉

      • “What homeschooler hasn’t?” — Exactly.

        And thanks. I hope I can manage it without losing any shred of creativity in me.

  2. I can relate to spending hours on a overly-detailed outline, but I always kind of enjoyed the ability to transfer full sentences over from my outline to my essay. That way I could do all the brainstorming and research on one day and then only spend about half-an-hour on the actual essay at a different point. But, as I think about it, there have probably been times when I spent way too much time on my outline. *shrugs* I think it can be a situational thing in many ways.

    As for your post, though, I don’t think it was terribly unfocused. ‘Twasn’t perfect, but your point was mostly clear. I’m excited to see what else you have in this series! 🙂

    • Those are good thoughts, thanks. I think you are right — it does depend a fair bit on the situation.

      As for the “series”… well, hopefully I’ll write another post in it sometime soonish. I am away on holidays at the moment, though, so I’ll probably wait until I get home to my computer before I write anything more for my blog.

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