November 14

Starting with an outline is a terrible idea

    My high school English teacher (and probably yours, too) gave me some terrible, terrible advice, which has set me up so many times for head-banging writer’s block. If your high school English class was anything like mine, before you start writing a paper, you were taught to always “write an outline.”  For the sake of argument, though, let’s run through what it usually looks like, when you follow your high school English teacher’s formula.*

    You choose your topic.

    You read some (or dozens, maybe hundreds) of books, articles, and essays on your topic. Take copious notes.

    Then, you outline your argument in the outline, delineating major points and sub-points.

    You open your fresh Word document, type in “Outline,” hit enter, type in “I. Introduction,” hit enter, type “A.”


    Okay, well, skip that, because you won’t know your thesis until you’ve written a little bit. No big deal. Let’s just outline the main points and sub-points of your arguments.

    Hit enter a couple of times. Type “II.”

    You start with one of the major points you’ve been thinking about, and everything starts off all jolly and productive. Approximately 10 minutes into the outlining process, though, you’ve described the one or two major points you’ve been thinking about, and, quite frankly, you’re stuck. You spent hours reading, taking notes, thinking, reading some more, thinking, more notes. Now, you’re completely stuck.

    13-11-14 bookstacks

    The problem is your consumption to production ratio is off.

    This standard method asks you to consume entirely too much information to really process. You read, and, yes, you take notes, but your notes are probably just summations of the content you just read. It’s like you took in and hoarded all of these thoughts and stuffed them in a closet. Now that it’s time to actually write, to create something new out of the content, you don’t even know where to start.

    Then you’re frustrated, fed up, and your default coping mechanism is to go back to the research phase, desperately seeking inspiration and clarity.

    I hate to tell you this. If you’ve already done a hundred hours of reading/note-taking and no writing, another hour or two of reading will not help you write, not even a little bit.

    The solution?

    Write as you research. Write with no outline, no plan, no road map. Read, take notes, and then write your response to what you’ve been reading. Even if it’s essentially a journal entry that will never see the light of day, you need to begin creating content from what you’re consuming right away.

    Yes, if you’re writing new ideas from freshly-consumed content, your ideas will be rough, half-baked, and possibly entirely non-sensical. That’s okay.

    The reason we like the idea of the outline is because it makes us feel safe.

    I feel safe when I consume content. Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out this whole small business, blogging, Internet marketing thing. I know writing, but I’m new to business-building. I have taken more courses and read more books in the past ten months than I feel comfortable admitting.


    But I will admit my addiction to consuming content. In ten months, I have taken three intense online courses, read over 40 books, watched 120 hours of videos, listened to 150 hours of podcasts, and just last night was seriously considering signing up for another intense online course.


    Consuming content is much easier and safer than creating content.

    You feel like you have to be an expert to even begin creating content.

    The truth? You don’t. You do not have to be the world’s number 1 expert to start writing a book. You do not have to collect every piece of knowledge in the known world before you type the first word in your book.

    Clarity and creative thought come about in the process of writing. As you write about the content you have consumed, you will develop clearer thinking about the content and how you can innovate around it.

    As you write, you will become more of an expert. The journey from typing out your first thoughts about your topic to developing chapters and continuing research – that entire process will mold you into an expert and published author. That process begins with the courage to skip the outline for now and just start typing.

    If you’re feeling stuck, do not type “Google.com,” do not go back to the library, do not review your notes. You have consumed enough content to begin.

    Next week, I’m going to walk you through what happens when you’ve mustered the courage to begin, you have created new content, and then you’re stuck again. Yep, happens to everyone. The Reverse Outline is going to kick you out of that writing rut like a cat out of a bath.

    I’ll let you know the second I publish next week’s article about the Reverse Outline. It’s going to be awesome.

    Reverse Outline available NOW!

    In the meantime, put away the research, close that outline, and just start typing.

    *Note: I’m not trying to offend high school English teachers! I know educators are extremely restricted in the content you’re allowed to teach, and many of the standard curriculums have set steps that you absolutely must teach. Plus, high schoolers need direction, someplace to begin, and an outline provides a starting block. I get that, completely! So, I’m not trying to offend anyone here. If it were up to me, I would totally empower English teachers to teach writing to the best of their abilities, regardless of the standard exams and curriculums. Do I sense an inevitable writing revolution in US education? Heck, yes!


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