In Your Corner: The Art of the Outline (II)

My last post introduced the concept of outlining as a function of planning your next book. We got so far as to be ready to start looking at specific ways of doing so. My goal isn’t to recommend any specific way, but to present you with a buffet of possibilities you can mix and match between, should you like, or that you can research further into the one or few that appeal to you.


In this section of today’s post, I’m going to highlight some methods that have been thoroughly described elsewhere, with a brief summary description. I highly recommend following the hyperlinks to read the beautiful words and details put together by these phenomenal author advocates!


This is probably the simplest and most straightforward possibilities out there, and a great place to start if you’ve never or rarely ever created an outline, and are just dipping your toe into the process. Bullet points are one of the most motivating kinds of information organization systems out there, as there is a great deal of emphasis on streamlining things down to the bare minimum of crucial points. (In that way it is similar to the sticky-note and index card methods, which I get into later on.) Whether you’re working in print and doing a lot of the editing before you even put pen to paper, or if you’re using some kind of word processor that allows for constant reorganization and editing after the fact, there are huge benefits to this system of outlining. It forces an author to focus on the fundamentals: characters, plot architecture, inciting actions, and the basic scaffolding of the book. Whenever I’ve used this method myself (mostly back in my college days, to be honest) I discovered connections and related ideas as I typed them up, and used the COPY + PASTE functions on my laptop frequently to regroup these ideas into clumps that felt right together. The Australian literary magazine Writer’s Edit has broken its recommended “clumps” (my imperfect word, not theirs) to a series of eleven, including timeline and character design and arcs, voice, chapter organization (and reorganization), and how to survive the dreaded “middle.” The article was written by Kyla Bagnall, and is worth tucking away among your many drafting resources.


To echo what I said earlier in the “Bullet Points” description, keeping things simple has enoooormous benefits to many authors–whether it’s because of your own editing within a word processor or the repeatedly limited space provided by a sticky note pad (and I’m resisting the urge to recommend buying those fantastically huge, easel-sized sticky notes that are used for workshops and breakout activities in professional settings). The physical constraints of sticky notes (and index cards, too, as I discuss below) force an author to slow down and think very deliberately about what to include–and there’s the added benefit that you can essentially rearrange the sticky notes as you discover connections between them, whenever you want (although keep a water-soluble temporary adhesive glue stick with you as you go, since some sticky note pads aren’t exactly known for … sticking). You can even follow the same loose pattern as you would in a bullet point list (or turn a bullet point document into a sticky note outline, if you like to edit down digitally but arrange the points visually).

I have only used this process once, but I loved the flexibility of trying out different visual arrangements: information trees and hierarchies, venn diagrams, and loosely clusters of notes that would break up and reform as the drafting process continued. Any available wall or window will do for your workspace, which makes things quite fun for everyone except for the poor person on window-cleaning duties afterward! On the Writing With Sharon Watson blog, Sharon has included some additional ideas for a sticky note method, and there are plenty of beautiful pictures of people at work using it, as with the image at the top of this post. Sharon comes at the subject as an educator tasked with motivating students and teachers alike to tackle creative outlining styles, which I find really interesting.


The Index Card Method can indeed be looked at as a slightly less-fun alternative to sticky notes (especially if no walls or windows are available for outlining), lacking both the adhesive backing and the array of bright colors available that can provide useful color-coding (but here’s a secret … colored index cards exist too! Google them if you haven’t seen them before). A definite benefit to using the cards is that you can easily pack a lot more information on the one piece of heavy paper. (Think of how much information old-school library card catalogs managed to pack onto each Dewey reference card!) I could easily see using a phase-by-phase approach with the bullet point section coming first, full of rough and unrefined ideas, followed by the sticky note rearrangement method, which allows for more intuitive clusters of information to just … fall together. And once an author has nailed down exactly the order and shape of things, it might prove useful to rewrite the sticky note information (and expound on it) onto index cards that can be numbered and ordered in sequence. This saves a lot on storage space–you only have one little stack instead of a huge swathe of your room covered in sticky notes–and also keeps everything close to hand and easy to access when beginning the first draft. You’ll never forget what plot point needs to come next according to your grand scheme of things, because you’ll already have sequenced everything while converting the sticky notes into index cards.

Even if you skip the bullet point document and the sticky note method, index cards can prove mighty useful in the drafting process. I have been invited to guest judge several small-town high school speech and debate tournaments over the years, and it has to be said that the speakers who come with sequenced index cards in hand never seem to waste time trying to dredge up information before their presentation time expires. (I prefer spontaneous speeches for other reasons, but that’s beside the point.) And the point here is that outlining and sequencing your work, whether book or public speech, helps prevent veering off course and rambling. In high school, the suggested outlining structure is incredibly simple:

  • Introduction
  • Transition
  • Point/example 1
  • Point/example 2
  • Point/example 3
  • Transition 2
  • Conclusion

… and that’s really about it. Your book is unlikely to be structured as simply as a time-restricted speech or an essay on assigned reading, but you get the idea. And if your structure gets overwhelmingly complicated to the point where you seem to lose your place, you might consider going back to the initial bullet point section and the article I reference there. If things seem just impossible to streamline and you’re feeling panicked, it might also be time to look into those apps and computer programs, including the famous Scribner, that lead you through a step-by-step process of converting your outline into something that looks and feels like it makes sense. More on that next.


I don’t like picking and choosing programs and apps to recommend based on personal preference (favoritism!), but Scrivener is probably the most widely-heard-of example of what’s out there, although it is now facing increasing competition from apps available for mobile devices and app-based operating systems. First figure out what device or devices you want to be using for the outlining process, because that will in large part determine which specific one you pick. Will you need to go to the Apple App Store, or the Android or Google Play app stores for other devices? Some apps are not built to work across both sides of the Apple vs. Android system divide, so you need to know what you’re going to use going in. And don’t be afraid to look up tutorials on using the platform you’re looking into, on YouTube and elsewhere. YouTube helped me disassemble my bread machine in order to replace the drive belt, so a bit of system description and such will most definitely be present on the great and mighty Internet. Here is a great example of a YouTube tutorial on Scrivener by Literature and Latte that visually explains how to use the software’s outlining function. (Scrivener is often offered at a steep discount during or after National Novel Writing Month, so if you’re interested, definitely keep an eye out for good deals like that.) The video may be four years old as of the date of this post, but it hasn’t changed very much in that time. Don’t be shy about trying your hand out with different app or software trial periods, either! Sometimes you don’t know what will truly help until you’ve spent some quality time with it.


Well, I’m several essays into this one post and I still have five more outlining methods that I’m excited to talk about–so I’ve decided to save the final four for my next post (on March 25th) and close out today by briefly mentioning the Hero’s Journey method.

What is the Hero’s Journey? It’s a sort of organizational metaphor originally put forth by the Great and Mighty AKA “appears in loads of composition textbooks” Joseph Campbell. I can’t even touch all the finer points of his epic (bad pun alert!) analysis, which took up much of his professional life, but suffice it to say this is the kind of organizational structure (or “monomyth”) that underlies many (if not most) great stories in the Western canon. Many of you will have probably heard some of his terminology before, so I won’t go into too much detail–and besides, Scott Jeffrey of CEOsage has created a wonderful guide to the Hero’s Journey monomyth and how one can apply it to daily life. If you extrapolate out just a little bit, you can easily see how an author might choose to use the outline of the Hero’s Journey as a kind of template for outlining their own! An author might keep it simple and make use of the three (3) stages of the journey (departure, initiation, and return) or go absolutely wild with the ten (10) more detailed steps that underlie the big three, swapping out the monomyth’s basic steps with the relevant or related bits of your own work in progress. You can get into the weeds of composition and literary theory if you want to by checking out out every book on Campbell from your local library, or you can just start with the basics as described by Jeffrey. You’ll start to see an outline develop before you even know it!

More fun options next time, I promise!

Thinking of you always. ♣︎

Daylight Savings is this Sunday!
Do you have ideas to share? Please don’t hesitate to drop us a line in the comments section, below.
ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 20 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Director of Sales and Marketing for Outskirts Press. The Sales and Marketing departments are composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.

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