I wrote my first book report in third grade. It was handwritten on notebook paper with wide margins. And it was over ten pages long when I turned it in for a grade. It was possibly closer to twenty or so pages, if I recall correctly. I ended up receiving a bad mark on it and had to rewrite it, even after all the work I did. To say that I was perplexed and upset is an understatement. 

I had received no guidance on what a book report was supposed to include or how to complete one before attempting to complete one. I was excited by the assignment when I started it because there weren’t any rules provided and I could write what I wanted to write about the book, or so I thought. I thought I was supposed to discuss all the facets of the book, including its character development, plot, and structure, in detail. But apparently I was only supposed to capture the overall plot of the book in a few paragraphs. 😕 

Oddly enough, I don’t even remember what book I read for this report. It was some random book I had selected in the school library on my own and was obviously not very remarkable since I don’t remember it. But I will never forget this experience as long as I live. It taught me the importance of creating an outline for my writing, long before I even knew what an outline was. 

In retrospect, I believe that my book report in third grade was so long because I didn’t have an outline for it. I followed each facet of the book I wanted to talk about and just kept adding to each one until I thought all the relevant details about each facet were included. Creating an outline would have helped me look at the book holistically, and the report holistically, so that I could have cut out redundant or extraneous information that wasn’t relevant to the plot of the book. I’m pretty sure that it would have also kept the word count down. 🤷

To Create An Outline Or To Not Create An Outline? That is always the question.

Some authors swear by outlines for anything they write, especially when they’re working on book projects. And other writers claim that they feel more confined and stuck when they create outlines for their writing projects, and ultimately uninspired by the “madness of the Muses.”

If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.

– Socrates (Phaedrus by Plato) 

I am one of those writers who falls somewhere in between loving outlines and hating them, in equal measure. Especially after my experience in third grade, which I am, as you can tell, still somewhat sour about. 

Outlines have become a sort of necessary evil for me and my writing process–allowing for the madness of the Muses, while simultaneously taming it. 

While outlines can help you stay organized and focused on a day-to-day basis, they can also be detrimental to creativity or succumbing to the madness of the Muses at times if they aren’t designed to be somewhat flexible and malleable as you write. 

Over the years I have learned how to create what I call a “loose outline” for pretty much anything and everything I write, but especially for my current nonfiction book project. Such outlines have worked pretty well for me … so far. 

A loose outline essentially chops up a larger writing project into manageable pieces, with each piece also having allotted time to research, draft, revise, and edit—with a majority of the time being set aside to write. Please view the pie chart below as an illustration of what I’m talking about. 

To me, an outline (which is part of both the researching and drafting phases) should help you stay organized and focused as you write so that you continue to write every day, especially for larger or more involved writing projects that you have to come back to again and again, day after day for months or even years. If you are always looking at the entire project when you sit down to write, it becomes too large and overwhelming and difficult to tackle. In my experience, it also leads to a lot of extra time rewriting drafts. Chopping up writing projects into more manageable bits is key to staying focused, and writing. 

I also believe that an outline should be malleable and flexible and never set in stone, so that you can also remain creative and discover where your writing takes you as you write. Because as you’re writing, you might spend longer than intended or planned on a certain part of your writing project. Or you might want to add a piece to the writing pie that was missing beforehand but becomes necessary to include as you write. The unexpected should be expected and accounted for too, as you outline your project. Just because you move pieces of your outline around or change what they include, doesn’t mean you need to throw your entire outline out the window. 

With my current book project I have allotted percentages of time for each step of the overall writing process for each chapter that I’m working on, knowing that they’ll change somewhat as I write. I have assumed these time allotments and which chapters will take longer to write based on some preliminary research that I have done and how dense some of the materials are. This preliminary research is what made me interested in working on the book I am currently working on in the first place, so I have a fairly good idea about what topics and subtopics to include in my research. But there will, of course, be some things that I have missed or that won’t wind up being relevant.  

For my preliminary research, I basically came up with a reading list for each chapter, to get started with the research required for each chapter topic, each chapter being a subtopic of the main topic of the overall book project. However, I will add and delete research from these reading lists as I begin writing sections of each chapter. The sections of each chapter will also be outlined and written as I carry out my research, so they will often be moved around as they’re written. As I am researching and writing, I may also discover that I need to add, delete, or rename a chapter. So, overall, my book outline will be there as a guide, but I will move sections of the outline around (i.e. chapters and their sections) based on what is discovered as I write and discover via research. 

Each chapter of my book project is outlined via their tentative titles and sections, which is based on the preliminary research I have conducted which is based on my preliminary reading lists. And this general outline with reading lists will help me write each chapter. And writing each chapter will become easier because they are divided into more manageable sections. This outline and overall process, therefore, break the project down into smaller bits that I can work on, on a day-to-day basis. But as I write each section of a chapter, I am keeping in mind where it fits within the makeup of the entire book project outline, in case it needs to be moved, deleted, or amended in some way. 

The jury is still out on how helpful my outline will be as I work on my book, and whether or not it will ultimately hinder or help my writing progress or not. My prediction is that it might do a little bit of both, depending on the day. Perhaps I’ll end up scraping it entirely as I work. At the very least, I am feeling optimistic that I can avoid an experience similar to the one I endured when writing a book report in the third grade. 🤞

What Some Well-Known Authors Have to Say About Outlines

Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.

Ray Bradbury

Being an author is simple, really. I write notes and outlines so my characters can make paper airplanes out of them.

Nicole Sager

I’m one of those writers who tends to be really good at making outlines and sticking to them. I’m very good at doing that, but I don’t like it. It sort of takes a lot of the fun out.

Neil Gaiman

An outline is crucial. It saves so much time. When you write suspense, you have to know where you’re going because you have to drop little hints along the way. With the outline, I always know where the story is going. So before I ever write, I prepare an outline of 40 or 50 pages.

John Grisham

What’s your stance on outlines? 

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