Monday, March 31, 2014

Deadliest Animals: Ugh! Outlines

Here’s something that might surprise you. I hate making outlines, and I don’t do it unless I have to (because the publisher requires it). I think it must go back to the way I learned to write in school. Outlines were supposed to be like roadmaps, and you followed them carefully, so you wouldn’t get lost.

But here’s the thing—writing isn’t like driving from Point A to Point B. Sometimes it’s good to get lost in words and ideas and information. Sometimes you stumble upon marvelous things as you blindly try to find you way.
When I share my philosophy with other nonfiction writers, they are very skeptical. They insist that I MUST outline. I must have a general sense of order, at least in my head if not on paper. And maybe they’re right. But if it’s sitting there in one part of my brain, the writing part of my brain must choose to ignore it—at least to a certain extent.
I have to admit, though, that I like the idea that Colleen Cruz and Lucy Calkins suggest in The Art of Information Writing. They don’t talk about starting with an outline. They talk about starting with a Table of Contents (Brownie points for integrating a text feature into an instructional strategy.).
Colleen and Lucy see a TOC as a way to get from Point A to Point B. Not the way. To emphasize this point, they encourage students to play around with their Table of Contents, considering various options. The point is that the same information can be structured in different ways, resulting in radically different books. And some of those books will be more interesting than others.
What I like most about this way of thinking is the idea that no writing plan needs to be set in stone. Writers should stay open minded and take time to consider alternate routes throughout the writing process.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, even though I don’t usually write outlines, sometimes I am contractually required to submit one. And that’s what happened with  Deadliest Animals. Here’s what I sent to my editor:

Table of Contents             

Intro                                           4-5

Mighty Hunters                       6-11

--Polar bear

--Saltwater crocodile
Big and Brutal                      12-17
--Cape buffalo
Scary Snakes                       18-21
--Beaked sea snake

Ferocious Fish                     22-27
--Great white shark
--Puffer fish

No Bones About It               28-33
--Blue-ringed octopus
--Box jellyfish
--Cone shell

Small But Deadly                 34-43
--Poison dart frog
--Cane Toad
--Funnel web spider

Deadliest of All                     44-45
--Mosquito (includes conclusion)
Glossary                                46
Index                                      48

There are a few interesting things to note about this outline.

  1. It’s pretty similar to the final book, which sort of surprised me when I looked back at it. What I remember most about writing the book was my decision to expand the introduction as I wrote the first draft. But because the intro includes the lion, I only ended up cutting one animal (the cane toad) later.
  2. I didn’t provide any details about what the intro would be—the whole idea of readers being surprised. I’m not sure if that’s because I was still working it out in my head or if I decided to keep the approach to myself until the editor could see it fully developed.
  3. This isn’t a very detailed outline. I probably should have submitted something a bit more fleshed out. I think the editor must have trusted me because I’d already written several books for the series. But as they say, all’s well that ends well.


1 comment:

  1. I don't mind outlining. I always have to submit an outline with magazine proposals, so it's the easiest way for me to start. I do find it interesting that there seems to be a correlation between the article/book length and how much the outline changes. For short pieces, the outline is never the same as the article because I have to cut so much. For books, the outline is often pretty much the same. I'll have to look for the information writing book. It looks like a great source.