I was one of those kids in school who wrote outlines after writing a report. You probably were too. The way they’re taught in school, they’re so static, so formal, that they become documents with lives of their own. No wonder they frighten even the best of students. But when I began working as a writing tutor, I revisited outlines. Many of my students were disorganized writers. All the thoughts were there, but jumbled. Sometimes there were enough thoughts for more than one paper, all mixed together. Outlining was just the tool they needed.
The trouble is that no one ever taught them or us there’s such a thing as a working outline—one that can change often and wants nothing to do with legions of Roman numerals. It can be as individual as you and the project you work on. If you write something short, you may be able to keep your outline in your head, but don’t skip a step and neglect it entirely. If you work on a novel, you can plot it out as a timeline on roll paper and tack it on the wall. In-between, there are all sorts of options, from mind mapping to sliding index cards around on the dining room table. I’ve even walked students through outlining midway through their writing, cutting up overly long papers into paragraphs, writing main ideas on the slips, and sorting them.
The key is to remember an outline’s true purpose. It’s meant for organizing your thoughts, seeing what fits with your purpose and what’s extraneous, where the gaps are and how to fill them. Later, circumstances might dictate a formal outline. Then and only then should you lock it down and line up your legions. By then, they should already be close to battle-ready.