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Organizing Your Writing Project – Outline, Mind Map Or List

writing list

Do they still teach outlining in high school?

I have a vague memory of trying to force projects into strict outline form.

You know, with Roman numerals, normal alphabet letters in both upper and lower case, depending on position, numbers and what-have-you.

I also know that Word will take pages of writing and turn them into something that looks like an outline – I’ve never found that button particularly useful because the resultant mess of bullets, etc. mean nothing to me.

There are all sorts of good resources on outlining if you want a formal one. City University of New York has a Basic Outlining page that makes the process fairly clear. If you don’t like that one, just google ‘outlining’ and you’ll get thousands of pages.

I don’t outline well because I find the process boring and because my mind, although fairly linear, doesn’t work quite that way. I also don’t do well with mind mapping, partly because my handwriting is so awful and partly because I’m never clear how to get from a mind map to something more usable.

I’ve got a little list

Maybe because I grew up listening to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Makado and still know many of the words from “I’ve got a little list” or maybe it’s just the way I’m wired, but I operate best from simple lists.

The table shown here is actually from what I call my Daily Hit List – this is where I list what I want to accomplish each day. It’s in table form because I also want to see certain projects listed I know I won’t even work on today – things like ‘Family Story.’ It’s a project my kids have asked me to do and bit by bit I’m getting it written, but it’s not a high priority. I also have various notes in some of the columns. The columns allow for a bit more information when I need it.

I also have hit lists for projects within the Daily Hit List. For example, although it’s not exactly a writing project, I have an extensive hit list for the 5 Buck Forum which lives at AboutWritingSquared. Those are often in table form too, with a column for information on how I solved a particular problem or a link to a website with a solution. Lori and I have worked a long way through it, and have a ways to go.

When I write a book a major part of the initial development is a Working Table of Contents. It’s another kind of list – of everything I or a ghostwriting client thinks needs to be in the book. It starts out in almost random fashion, then, as we work with it, begins to resemble an actual table of contents. But the list is the key.

I particularly like making lists with my word processing program because the computer makes it so easy to reorder the list over and over again. I can add things that I missed the first time through, refine items that are too broad or too narrow and generally keep massaging it until it works. I can use the strikeout feature in word to indicate what’s finished and what’s still to be done.

I also find when coaching writers that the idea of a list is way less intimating than that of an outline. It seems simpler because it is and because we all make lists of one thing or another as we go through life. You don’t need to learn anything new to make a list.

The key, of course, is to organize your writing project. It doesn’t matter so much if you use an outline, a mind map or a list, as long as whatever method you use gets you writing and helps you actually get your writing project done.

How do you organize your writing projects?

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman Writing Coach



Anne can coach you into organizing your writing projects in a way that works for you.

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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • HP van Duuren June 14, 2012, 7:31 am

    One of the things that I like to organise info is by using Mind Maps, usually I also put in all kinds of drawings, arrows and things like that.
    HP van Duuren recently posted..What Do You Think About My Book Review?My Profile

    • annew June 14, 2012, 10:27 am

      I get the biggest kick out of how different we are.

  • Ali June 14, 2012, 5:35 am

    I also prefer using lists, though at times, I use what you can call a hybrid of list and outline, especially when the project at hand is a complex and long one.
    Ali recently posted..The Top 10 Websites That Pay You To Write An ArticleMy Profile

    • annew June 14, 2012, 10:27 am

      hybrid is a good term for some of my lists – with lots of subheads.

  • Silviu June 13, 2012, 7:26 am

    Mind Mapping is a good way to do it. And there are some pretty nice online mind mapping tools that make the process of mind mapping really easy

    • annew June 13, 2012, 11:29 am

      I’ve tried several, Silviu, and still don’t like ’em… glad they work for you.

  • Jackie June 12, 2012, 2:19 pm

    I remember the dread of outlines in school. I HATED them. My brain doesn’t work that way either. My writing style is more like something I heard once in a Stephen King interview. Someone asked him, “What’s next? and he said that he couldn’t wait to find out either. Much like him, my stories have usually just flowed out and I myself sometimes have no idea where they are going to go. So, outlining them is impossible. What I use to do in school was write them and then build the outline from the story. :)

    • annew June 13, 2012, 11:25 am

      Julie, I often use the ‘what’s next’ method… didn’t know King talked about it. And yes, I remember writing an essay and then building the outline to fulfill some school requirement.

  • Lori June 12, 2012, 1:11 pm

    Totally with you on the list alternative, Anne. Something about outlines always stymies my creativity. I get so caught up in outlining that I lose the story entirely.

    When I “outline” an article, I use subheads as my outline. Works wonders for getting the focus down fast and getting the questions organized.
    Lori recently posted..Bending Rules and Delivering ServiceMy Profile

    • annew June 12, 2012, 1:32 pm

      Yeah, somehow subheads don’t feel like outlining to me 😉

  • Sharon Hurley Hall June 12, 2012, 9:26 am

    I like lists, too, Anne – never have got on with mindmapping. My favorite online list and planning tool is Workflowy.
    Sharon Hurley Hall recently posted..How To Succeed As A Part-Time Freelance Writer – Part 3My Profile

    • annew June 12, 2012, 1:31 pm

      Yikes, I’ll have to check out workflowy too… love the suggestions.

  • Wade Finnegan June 12, 2012, 9:14 am

    I like lists so I can see what I have accomplished, but when it comes to writing I like mind mapping or bubble charting. I like organization, but outlines feel too confining and I strive for a flow of consciousness.
    Wade Finnegan recently posted..New site under constructionMy Profile

    • annew June 12, 2012, 1:29 pm

      Bubble charting! What the heck is that, Wade. (off to google…. time passes….) oh dear… I am way behind.

      • Wade Finnegan June 12, 2012, 4:06 pm

        I believe I got that term from inpiration software we used at school. Bubble charts, maps etc. It’s just way to let ideas have off-shoots and see where the “real” meat is.
        Wade Finnegan recently posted..New site under constructionMy Profile

        • annew June 13, 2012, 11:26 am

          Yes, but I’d not run into the bubbles before 😉

  • Amandah June 12, 2012, 8:05 am

    I love outlining! Not only can you outline your fiction or non-fiction book, you can outline a screenplay. I recommend starting with the logline, followed by the synopsis, and then an outline. You may want to attempt to write the treatment or wait until you’ve written at least 10-20 pages of your screenplay.
    Amandah recently posted..5 Simple Ways to Make Blog Posts Viral (Even if You’re about to Give Up)My Profile

    • annew June 12, 2012, 1:27 pm

      Amandah, define logline please… and I know there are folks like you who love outlining.

  • Charlotte Rains Dixon June 12, 2012, 7:56 am

    I’m a big fan of the loose list, loose because I allow it to morph often. For writing projects, I hand write notes first and when those seem to be coming together, I transfer them to the computer. For my to-do list, I’m constantly searching for a new style that will work for me. I may adapt yours, thanks!
    Charlotte Rains Dixon recently posted..Checking in on the Three Words of the YearMy Profile

    • annew June 12, 2012, 1:26 pm

      Charlotte, feel free to use my hit list loose as it is, and I love the term, ‘loose list.’

  • Cathy Miller June 11, 2012, 2:32 pm

    I’m a list lover as well. :-) About as close as I get to mind mapping is jotting down random ideas that pop in my head for a certain subject – like the recent post I did on business blog posts based on the theme of summer. I then take the list and develop the ideas from there.

    For my clients, I often use outlines. They don’t have to be a the formal Word format, but they divide up the project. For example, for a white paper, my outline might include something like this ~

    Subject matter
    The objective (e.g., thought leadership, generating leads, etc.)
    The ideal reader
    Problem (high-level)
    Market drivers/what’s contributing to the problem
    Specific problems
    Generic solution
    Specific solution (hire my client!)

    I find by outlining, it helps me organize my thoughts and makes sure my client & I are on the same page.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..5 Business Writing Tips From the ProsMy Profile

    • annew June 12, 2012, 1:25 pm

      I suppose creating a working table of contents for a ghostwriting client is similar, particularly as we get the subheads filled in. But Cathy, I think your thinking is way more organized than mine.

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