Don’t Outline — Strategize! Part 2

In the previous article, I discussed recalibrating the way we as writers think about the planning stage of the writing process. I suggested that we think of it as strategizing, just as a general would plan the strategy for a military engagement.

You’re in your war room, and you have your raw material at hand: maps, troop data, enemy intel. How do you begin to strategize?

The first thing to do is to determine the victory conditions for this engagement. In military terms, how will you know when you’ve succeeded? In writing terms, how will you know you have finished writing?

To determine this, you must clarify your purpose for writing. Why are you writing? What do you hope to achieve? At the broadest level, writing can be classified by its purpose: to inform, to persuade, or to entertain, for example. Many writers don’t step back to consider their writing’s true purpose, and they end up with muddy, unfocused drafts as a result.

For example, an article in an scientific journal may at first glance seem to be informative: after all, it is presenting the results of an experiment. However, the overarching purpose is usually not informative but persuasive: the article’s author wants to convince the reader that the data is valid, that his or her conclusions are correct and scientifically significance. The scientific article is using information, but its purpose is to persuade.

Similarly, you may think of an autobiographical narrative as primarily informative: you’re telling the reader what happened to you at a certain point in your life. However, your primary purpose is to entertain: you want them to be enthralled by the story. If you confuse these two purposes, you’ll end up with a narrative that reads like an instruction manual rather than a funny or touching story.

Your topic does not determine your purpose. For example, say your topic is Los Angeles traffic. You could write an informative piece that details the rising congestion in the area. You could also write a persuasive piece that argues in favor of mass transportation as the solution to the traffic problems in LA. You could even write a humorous narrative about the day it took you three hours to drive ten miles on the 101 freeway. What a writer wants to say about the topic determines the purpose, not the topic itself.

Once you determine your writing’s purpose, you will have a clear picture of how the reader will be affected by what you have written. The next part of the strategizing process is to decide how you are going to achieve that effect.

Now that you have envisioned victory, it is time to engineer a plan of attack. How are you going to achieve your writing goal? The issue we’ll consider today is organizational structure.

There are many ways to organize your writing. You can organize chronologically, beginning with what happened first and continuing to the story’s end. (You could also modify a strict chronology for dramatic effect by using a flashback, for example.) You could also organize logically: problem/solution, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and pro/con are all types of logical organization.

All the organizational structures I have listed above can be great, but none of them is great for all writing purposes. Some lend themselves better to argument, while others are better suited for explanations. The question to ask is not which one is best, but which one will best achieve your goal?

Once you have articulated your purpose for writing and your organizational strategy is in place, you can’t go far wrong. There is much more detailed planning one could do, but for the most inveterate outline-haters, even this much strategy will save you headaches when you begin to draft.

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