How To Outline Your Writing: 3 Easy Tricks You Need Today

Wish you knew how to outline your writing?

Whenever I use the word “outline” to my students, I know a couple of people in the group will sigh and look as if they wish they were somewhere else. Anywhere else.

To eliminate the panic, I suggest to my students that they substitute the word “map” for “outline.”

A map:

  • Orients you: it shows you where you are;
  • Reveals routes to your destination;
  • Is a visual guide. With a map, you can take in a lot of information at a glance.

Mind maps are a wonderful tool to help you to outline/ map your projects.

If you hate outlining; start by creating intuitive mind maps.

How to outline your writing: start with intuitive mind maps

You know much more than you think you do. I discovered intuitive mind mapping via Gabriele Rico’s wonderful book, Writing the Natural Way. Dr. Rico pioneered intuitive writing via clustering.

Clustering primes the pump of your writing.

A BIG TIP: kick your rational mind out of the way when you’re creating an intuitive mind map. Write your topic in the center of a sheet of paper, then cluster words or phrases around that central topic… without thinking about it.

Intuitive maps help you to create “mud”: the raw materials of your writing.

1. Make your “mud” first

Before you can begin an outline, you need some mud.

A little about mud from the Top 70 Writing Tips: Write More, Improve Your Writing, And Make More Money:

Look on all the writing you do as “making mud”. Be exuberant and messy.

You can do a lot with your mud. Just as you can build entire houses with mud bricks, you can write articles, novels, nonfiction books, short stories, essays, memoirs – in short, you can write anything and everything, if you make the basic building material, the “mud” first.

I like to start creating mud with the answers to some questions.

Tip: when you’re stuck in your writing, or unsure, ask questions.

2. Outline with questions: mind map the answers

Think of “outline” as a verb, rather than a noun. It’s an activity. Mind maps work as outlines for me, and for many of my students. You may prefer to create lists. Follow your natural inclination.

Most projects start with the 5 Ws plus an H: who, what, why, when, where and how.

To map your 5 Ws and an H, put your topic in the center of your map, then add the 5 Ws and an H as sub-topics, radiating outward in a circle. Then brainstorm each W, and the H. Try it. It’s easy and intuitive.

“How much outlining do I need? When do I start writing?”

This is a common concern of new writers, but outlining isn’t a discrete activity; it’s ongoing. You do both. You can outline at any stage of a writing project; it prevents procrastination.

Start writing at any time. Remember, it’s all mud: raw material. No writing you do is wasted; it’s discovery.

When writing fiction, I map each scene. With nonfiction, I map as I go too, chunking chapters down into sections and mapping each section.

3. If you prefer to pants your fiction…

Some authors never outline their fiction. They prefer to pants their novels. (Pants: write novels by the seat of your pants, with minimal outlining.)

I prefer to pants, but I still outline. I do it after I’ve written.

As soon as I’ve completed a chapter, I enter the scenes onto a mind map so that I can see which characters were present in a scene, where each scene was located, and what goals each character had for each scene.

Before I start work on my novel each day, I look at the previous chapter’s mind map. This always inspires me, and makes my writing flow.


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