"I Don't Write Outlines Because I'm Afraid to Be Wrong"

When my student said this, I thought, Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere. 

I often ask students whether they outline before they write. In response, I hear: Sometimes. Kind of. It’s clear: most students don’t outline, and among the few who do, even fewer take it seriously.

Why? They’re a waste of time. I already know what I want to say. It’s all in my head. Why spend time writing it down?

Hundreds of students have told me these things, but they’re almost always wrong – and this becomes clear as soon as they write their essays. The connections between ideas are weak. The third body paragraph repeats the first. It’s not clear what the student wants to accomplish in the conclusion.

Outlines solve these problems.

What is an Outline?

I wrote some of this in the most recent installment of our Personal Essay Challenge, but it bears repeating.

An outline is the skeleton of your essay – the structure that holds everything in place. It’s the sequence of points you want to make, in the order you want to make them, with all of the necessary connections and transitions.

Think of an outline like a blueprint for a house – a way of getting your ideas onto the page and seeing if they really support one another. If they do, great – now you’ve got your building plan. If they don’t – well, that’s okay too; now you can fix them before committing your time and energy to something more substantial.

If you can’t outline effectively, then your writing is likely to be unclear. And if you can’t look at what you’ve written and extract an outline from it, then your writing is unclear.

If you can outline effectively, however, then you’re well on your way to writing clearly and powerfully.