The role of the outline

What's the role of an outline? Should you have one? Most business people I speak with confess: they rarely use an outline, and they virtually never use a formal outline (you know—I, A, B, II, A, B).

Outlines do have advantages, though. It's always helpful to know where you're going before you start. But sometimes writers simply aren't quite sure where they're going until they write; that is, as they struggle to put thoughts into those elusive things called words, learning takes place: new ideas emerge and old ideas take new shape. We've all had that experience.

In other words, sometimes we have trouble writing an effective outline at the beginning of the writing process. Starting "cold" seems to produce either bad outlines or, worse, only a blank piece of paper and a deep sense of guilt.

For something under a page or so, don't worry about an outline at all. It probably isn't necessary. For something longer—even just slightly longer—an outline may be helpful. Here's what I recommend:

• If you have excellent understanding of your content at the start, try making an outline. Don't worry about those Roman numerals—just jot something down. You may want to jot down only main headings.

• If you're a little unsure of your content, try jotting down several ideas in the order you think you should cover them. Then start writing. After writing two or three paragraphs, you'll probably warm up; that is, your mind will be focused on your material—more saturated with the information you want to cover. So reassess your outline and redo it if necessary—this time perhaps in a little more detail.

• If you're embarking on a long writing project or one involving other writers, work hard to get a good— even formal—outline on paper before you begin.

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