Pleasures & Perils of Writing Non-Fiction, Post #9

We are discussing Phase Four of the non-fiction writing process. For an overview of the four phases, see Post #2.

The fourth phase is, “Carry Out the Actual Writing of the Piece.” This begins with initial drafting. When you are ready to draft a chapter, you have two items in front of you: a blank page on a screen, and a bunch of notes.

As I said in Post #6, note-taking is foundational to the non-fiction writing process. Now that you are going to begin drafting a chapter, you need to have the notes relevant to the topic of that chapter within reach — which in my case means pieces of paper right here on my desk.

Some say that you should have a third item in front of you: an outline. In my experience, an outline is not only unnecessary but also detrimental to the writing process. I’m specifically talking about a formal outline here, what some folks call a “Harvard outline.” I’m not talking about some “back of the envelope” notes you’ve jotted down about topics you want to include, maybe even in a rough sequence. And I’m not talking about the ideas swimming around in your mind about how the chapter might proceed; if you don’t have those, why are you drafting a chapter?

There are two reasons why I never begin with a detailed outline. The first is related to my creative process. The second is related to transitions.

I find that an outline restricts my creative process. When I’m actually word-for-word drafting a chapter, I frequently have ideas about what I’ve already written and what I’ll be writing soon. I’m engaged in contemplating not merely this sentence but also the context in which this sentence resides. What best precedes it? What best follows it? Is its topic best dealt with in this section, or another? Occasionally, I recall a fact I read but didn’t take a note on; suddenly it seems relevant. So I grab that source from the library shelf and consider whether maybe that fact should be included. This type of creative freedom is severely hampered if I’m adhering to a formal outline. Of course, I can ditch the outline, but then why did I go to all the trouble to develop it when a “back-of-the-envelope” list of topics would have served perfectly well?

I also find that a formal outline preoccupies me about transitions. “Transition” refers to a sentence or two that one writes to guide the reader from the topic that’s ending into the topic that’s beginning. Rather than abruptly ending one topic and plunging into another, a transition alerts the reader, often by reflecting a relationship of some kind between the two topics. They’re sort of like those yellow diamond-shaped road signs with twisted arrows. Well, if I’m working from an outline, I feel that I must plot the transitions in advance: “How am I going to transition from that topic into the next one?” I’ve even seen outlines that include specific notes about each transition!

In my experience, worrying in advance about transitions simply isn’t necessary. As I’m writing I’m also entertaining ideas about how to slide more or less smoothly into a new but related topic. Here’s the thing: IF I don’t have an outline, what the new topic will be remains flexible. Usually a range of options emerges, including how to bring the current topic to a close, what the next topic will be, and how to slide into it with a transition sentence at the end of the previous topic or the beginning of the new topic.

Educator, independent scholar. I write books for Americans with insights re how parents & teachers in other societies deal with young children & their learning.