Organizing Ideas into an Outline

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The bridge between brainstorming great ideas to fill the blank pages of your book and coherent writing that communicates your message to readers is a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline.

But how do you begin to organize all the puzzle pieces of ideas?

Organizing Ideas

Organizing Ideas

Write down your random ideas

Like someone preparing to solve a jigsaw puzzle, you need to gather your ideas without worrying how they fit together. Collect your thoughts on a piece of paper or type them down the page of a Word document. If you must, scribble on a napkin as creativity strikes. Decorate your desk with post-it notes. Just capture the ideas and spread them out like puzzle pieces on a table.

When writing my first book, Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith, I thought of illustrations and concepts that helped to communicate the main concepts in a certain chapter. I knew those ideas would shape the paragraphs yet to be written, but I needed more time to figure out how to make those ideas flow together. My first step was to capture those ideas and polish them into gemstones in their own isolated and random paragraphs. The process of stringing the gemstones together to make jewelry would come later.

Look for relationships between ideas

How do you begin to work a section of a jigsaw puzzle? I usually start by grouping together the pieces with similar colors or the pieces that have complementary shapes. Like a jeweler preparing to make a bracelet out of polished gemstones, I think about patterns. Before writing an outline for a book, I consider the relationships between the ideas in the chapter. Do I need to present the ideas in a chronological order? Should I arrange concepts next to each other in a way that creates contrast between different ideas? Should I build reader interest by adding a little suspense into the chapter, carefully delineating the problem before sharing the solution?

This grouping process helps me begin to write sections of an outline and start to order the sections of the chapter. If I have created paragraphs in the chapter itself, I cut and paste my ideas and write a few transitional sentences. I am on my way to filling those blank pages.

Make the central idea the focal point

The key to ordering the puzzle pieces correctly often involves finding that one central piece that helps you place all the others in the right place. In making jewelry, a jeweler will often select one gemstone as the focal point. When I write an outline, I ask myself what idea is the most important for the message I want to convey? Depending on my organizational pattern, that idea may need to come first, last, or even in the middle of the chapter. Placement of that idea is not about position so much as focus. Every other idea in my chapter will drive attention to that one main concept. Once I choose my central idea, the chapter outline falls into place. Writing the chapter is now as easy as filling in the blanks underneath each section of the outline with supporting details.

For non-fiction writers, a chapter-by-chapter outline is an essential component of the book proposal you will send to publishers. Deep into the publishing process, that outline may help you make structural changes to your book in order to sharpen your message. However important the outline may be to editors, think of that outline as a gift to you. It is your map through the thick forest of your ideas, keeping you from wandering off the path, and safely leading you to your destination. It will help you meet your deadlines on time and keep the ink flowing onto those blank pages. The time you spend writing your outline is an investment. So, go ahead, open the box, dump the puzzle pieces onto your desk, and outline your next book!

What method do you use to organize your writing?

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What My Students and I Learned This Semester in Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Big Thing #1: Neatening the messy truth never works. Nürnberg Prozess, Büro für Druckschriften-HerstellungStory: A sweet-hearted student wrote a moving essay about her difficulty with “being held” following her father’s death. She began her essay with an amusingly awkward forced hug—an assignment from her Family Sexuality class to practice “hugging until relaxed”—and concluded with her “surrender” into her friend’s arms at the hug’s end. Everyone loved the essay except for its conclusion.

In a conference with the student after workshop, I explained what I thought was the problem: the resolution just wasn’t as concrete and thus convincing as the wrenchingly funny opening scene. “Did this surrender really happen?” I asked. “It sounds like you’re lying.”

I didn’t really mean to accuse her of lying, only to convince her of that disparity in concreteness. Turns out, though, she had lied—not intentionally, of course, or even with intent to deceive but just to simplify the messiness of her struggle into a more satisfyingly redemptive conclusion. There’d been no surrender in that hug. After we both recovered from her surprising lie—as much to her as to me—she revised the piece to reveal what really happened, transforming a good essay into a publishable one.

Application: Tell the truth, don’t prettify it.

Big Thing #2: Contrary to the usual creative writing mandate to “Show, don’t tell,” most good writing requires both.

Story: Two students who particularly explored this truth were a chemistry major and a woman from a missionary family in Kenya. Both wrote from a knowledge-base completely foreign to us, thus running into a classic writerly problem which the missionary-kid characterized as “balancing explanation with story.” Explain too much, and you end up with a boring commentary on what happened; explain too little, and readers get lost. As the chemistry major said, “The audience cannot read your mind.”

Throughout the course, the students tugged at the delicate membrane between showing and telling, testing the delights and dangers of being too baffling or too, as I call it, “explainy.” By semester’s end, both consistently wowed us with their work, delighting us especially with a close-up of cosy Nairobi teatimes and a wacky book review/lab manual hybrid on the chemistry of poisons.

Application: To take us somewhere we’ve never been—which is, after all, every creative nonfiction writer’s job—you need to show AND tell, judiciously.

Big Thing #3: Scheduled, specific assignments not only motivate idea-less students but—counter-intuitively—often result in their most creative work.

Story: Several students struggled with motivation and, as one put it, “finding something to write about” for the course’s ten pieces. The first six assignments were pretty narrowly defined and came one right after the next; pretty much everyone found those fun, easy to write, and creatively empowering. Open assignments with longer deadlines were more challenging.

Application: If you’re stuck, give yourself an assignment. And a due date.

Embarrassed_Father_-_Vintage_family_PhotoBig Thing #4: Learning to write better teaches humility.

Story: Several students identified “taking criticism” as a struggle in the course of the semester. Here’s a reflection from one student’s revision account: “I was pretty judgmental of the big guy, so I tamed that part down. It felt mean when I looked at it again. I don’t think I lost anything at all, the scene wasn’t really about him anyway.” The student’s introspection and writerly focus say it all.

Application: Find yourself some honest readers, then pay attention to them. It’ll help your writing and your soul.

Malassezia_lipophilis_3_loresLittle Thing #1 (Big Thing #5): Clichés are like fungus: ubiquitous but strangely more embarrassing and disgusting than most other writerly ills.

Story: Student after student confessed to clichés. They hardly needed to, since I routinely point them out in class. Even their revisions had clichés—as do my own, unless I’m super vigilant. In class, I put quotation marks around their clichés in Google to convince them. The phrase “inextricably linked,” for example, gets “About 715,000 results (0.15 seconds).”

In a way, clichés are wonderful: someone’s once-creative, collectively approved wording. That said, clichés remain the bane of good writing—Oh no! That’s “About 3,160 results (0.51 seconds.)”

Application: Look again. And again. They’re there.

Live It Before You Write It

Often, I try to shortcut beyond my own abilities. Nowhere is this more true than with writing.

As a non-fiction author, I lean toward meeting felt needs in storied, practical, and spiritual ways. These days, every time I recognize a lack in life, my mind immediately draws a rough book, article, or blog outline. Maybe I can help someone else, I think.

There’s just one little problem. Sometimes I haven’t taken the time to live past my own lack. Impatiently, I rush beyond God’s desire to finish a beautiful work in my situation, and start sharing with others before I’m done living it out. I scribble my pitiful solutions onto a page. Too often, I forget to ask my Mentor what He thinks about what I just said.Nonfiction Half-Baked Ingredients

Like taking a cake out of the oven fifteen minutes before it’s done, my projects are half-baked when I rush them to my agent, to a magazine editor, or onto my blog platform. And because I’m still too close to the circumstances, the topic is too hot to handle.

Slowing down, and allowing God to add His special flavor deepens the richness of my life, and my work. Most often, this happens when I follow His timing, and don’t pull writing topics out before they are ready.

  • These are projects I want to write.
  • Need to write.
  • But the time isn’t right.

While I wait for the chemistry of those ideas to solidify, there’s plenty of other things to work on. I have life experiences already baked and cooled. But changing writing topics is like changing cake flavors. It requires putting some things away, and laying out a whole new list of ingredients. So how do I make sure I don’t mix things up in the process?

Mind Mapping ImageSpending a mere fifteen to twenty minutes helps me realign my thoughts into an organized fashion appropriate for the topic I need to focus on. One of my favorite brainstorming techniques is Mind Mapping. This process is simple, fast, reduces distracting thoughts, and moves me into a heightened creative flow. It pulls buried memories from the dark pantry of my brain.

Writing effective non-fiction often means living through a subject before you write about it. And Mind Mapping takes what we learn and develops those lessons into a teachable format. It ensures we won’t forget to relate any important part of the process to our readers.

Mind Maps enhance our memories and help us present concise non-fiction book projects. Mixed, baked, and cooled until the end product is just right. Showing readers what we lived, before we wrote.