“How do you write an outline?”
“How detailed should I make my outline”
I don’t know how many times new writers have asked me that question. But it must be enough to sink a battleship, as my mother would say. Given that I suggest using Content Maps rather than outlines, I can imagine how many similar questions are fielded by people who teach the traditional outline method.
Now, you might think that I never write outlines for books and that I believe that outlines are useless. However, nothing can be further from the truth.
The fact is that writing the book outline has a number of very specific uses. Just not for writing the book itself. It’s not the right tool for that particular job. It’s the slot head screwdriver used on a Philips screw. Yes, it works. But you’re going to ruin the screw and the screwdriver.
There are five very specific reasons for writing an outline for your book. Or perhaps I should say there are five very specific occasions when you want to use an outline.
1. When someone else does the structural edit
Content Maps and their less effective competitors such as mindmaps are great for writing your book. However, unfortunately, most editors today learned to use outlines and to edit after the writing is done. After all, that was the traditional method we all learned in school. Unless you’re under 20 and had a progressive school, of course. Because editors have never used alternative methods, they’ve never learned to visualize the result from a plan. Editors expect to polish a finished piece of writing. One way to overcome this is by converting your Content Map to an outline before you share it as part of your structural edit.
2. When you are trying to sell someone your book
Editors aren’t the only people who have a problem with understanding writing plans such as Content Maps. Writing an outline for your book is mandatory when you are sending out a proposal to an agent or publisher. In fact, you’ll need multiple outlines at different levels of detail for the different audiences involved. The agent and the publisher’s editor for example will need a detailed outline. The publisher’s management on the other hand needs a much less detailed version (one or two paragraphs in fact).
3. When you are storing your book
When you design a book with a Content Map you normally use one or two words to get your concepts and points on paper. Unfortunately, while these short memes are sufficient for a short time, there is every likelihood that you will forget what you meant if you leave the map for too long. Writing an outline for your book is a good way to overcome this memory issue. In addition, it’s much easier to store a word document such as an outline. A diagram tool such as a Content Map (or mindmap) needs to be scanned and then stored.
4. When you are writing your book
You can write your book directly from your Content Map. And it often makes sense to do so. However, writing an outline for your book first is one of the little tricks you may find useful. This is especially true if you have had to prepare an outline for your editor. By splitting your outline into series of single sentences, you’ll have the plan for each paragraph (or set of paragraphs) in front of you as you write. Effectively, you’ll have created a write-by-numbers for your book.
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Glen Ford is an accomplished consultant, trainer and writer. He has far too many years experience as a trainer and facilitator to willingly admit.