Laying it Out: 6 Outline Formats Every Writer Should Know

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Guest Post by Jon Ward – Founder of Braincat

Whether you’re writing a novella, a grant request, or a list article like this one, you can only benefit from creating your piece’s structure before fleshing out its content. Outlines are boundaries, and we draw boundaries not only to keep bad ideas out but to keep good ones in. Think of it as a skeleton, but on the outside — like a lobster’s. That lobster idea was in my outline.

Of course, if you’ve reached the point where you’re seeking writing advice online, you’ve probably heard about outlining once or twice. At the very least, and maybe by accident, you’ve discovered the rough draft, an unsophisticated type of outline that nonetheless establishes a piece’s direction and content without finalising its diction, tone, and overall presentation. As applicable (and unavoidable) as rough drafts are, we should talk about some of the more organisational outlining styles out there…

  1. The Extra Rough Draft

…but before we do that, we can get a little rougher. Your rough draft, which is usually structurally similar to your final draft in structure, can very well be preceded by an additional rough draft. This is the rough draft minus cohesion. You can call it a stream of consciousness if you want; some call it free writing. The point is this: your best ideas might be crushed by overthinking, so write them all down before you get the chance to overthink and clean up the mess after.

Free writing appeals to our desire to state our ideas in order, but with neither order nor ideology final. It’s chaotic, but chaos can breed order. If some elements are out of place, you’ll recognise them right away and incorporate the changes needed in your first draft. If parts are missing, you’ll notice and identify what should be added. This prototype’s prototype should be written by instinct; sentence fragments, misspellings, and totally misguided ideas aren’t just part of it, they’re helpful.

  1. The Traditional Outline

In both fiction and nonfiction writing, the traditional outline will be the most recommended approach. This is what we’re usually referring to when we say outline, a chronological map of your piece which sets up your biggest, most central ideas. Fiction writing has its own canon of outlining formats which ultimately influence story structure, like the classical hero’s journey, the three act model, or the Freytag model, to name a few. These are all essentially variants of the same idea, with minor tailoring to suit the needs of different story types.

All types of writing will benefit from this chronological plotting. Assign ideas to sections, and fill those with subsections. Then fill those subsections with subsections. Eventually you’ll have your piece in detailed but inorganic form, ready to be converted into something with a voice.

  1. Mind Mapping

Maybe chronology isn’t important to you, or maybe it’s not your thing. You might be engaged in a project that doesn’t call for a start-to-finish outline, but you still want to have some kind of outline. We’re all familiar with brainstorming, an outlining technique that lets us lay out ideas astructurally for consideration later. With a little bit of structural guidance, that brainstorm becomes a mind map.

A mind map is a branching outline formed from a central idea. For a fiction writer, mind maps are especially useful in allowing exploration of various characters and scenarios, as well as the possible outcomes of those scenarios; of course, nonfiction writing will also benefit from this format. Whereas chronologically driven outlines may pressure a writer to sacrifice one idea for another before even deciding which direction their piece should move, mind maps will afford some breathing room. Software mind mapping makes the process easier than ever, with tools like Braincat adding new dimensions and giving blocked-up writers a helping hand in connecting different ideas to create a more potent, more cohesive final product.

  1. The Synopsis

If you’re like me, you’ve already written 20 books… in your head. You might not know every line of dialogue, every character’s name, or even the order of events, but you know how it feels and you know what happens. Enter the synopsis, an outline that describes your piece in entirety, but ideally only in a page or two.

Unlike a rough draft, a synopsis is unconcerned with content; what’s important here is establishing the impression of your statement or story. Start your synopsis as simply as possible, describing your characters and their actions, clarifying their story arcs, and setting up your beginning and ending. Nonfiction writers should think of the synopsis as an extended thesis, or an abstract, and adjust as needed, using their synopsis to set up the main topic, subtopics, supporting information, and conclusion. If you need prime examples of synopses, look no further than Wikipedia, where articles on literature, television, and film typically feature thorough but efficient synopses.

  1. The Bookend Method

When you start something in its middle, it’s called en medias res. When you start something from the beginning and end simultaneously, it’s called the bookend method — Latin pending. This is the anti-synopsis. It’s for those of us who might feel burnt out or uninspired by the usual story plotting methods, or who already know what their essay should say, but not how to say it. By knowing how your piece begins and how it ends, you’ll find yourself in limiting, but motivating, circumstances: how can we possibly get from point A to point B?

The bookend method can be expanded within your outline as well; treat individual events or topics in your piece as their own bookends in need of filling. Eventually, you’ll have a roadmap that connects not only start to finish, but various components of your middle as well.

  1. The Snowflake

Yeah, I’m talking to you, snowflake! If you like mind mapping, but you already have a synopsis in mind, the snowflake method might be what you’re looking for. Writing a snowflake outline is like writing a mind map, but with full sentences. It should probably be called the snowball method, because the objective here is to start small and build.

It begins with the simplest possible synopsis: a single sentence. A man takes a job on a whaling ship. Then, expand on that sentence. A man takes a job on a whaling ship, which is a real mistake. Keep making incremental expansions until a full synopsis is developed. Rinse and repeat this process for characters, subtopics, or other elements which make up the whole of your piece. Once you have satisfying descriptions of all individual parts, you’ll find yourself with a working outline ready to be coloured in.

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About the Author: Jon Ward founded Braincat with a mission to raise the quality of thinking worldwide. He created the Braincat web-based application to help people both expand and condense their ideas with greater ease. Jon has a fifty-year history in branding, marketing, education, and writing. He is a strategic consultant to Calroy Health Sciences, an adjunct consultant to the Sheffield Group, and a founding member of the board of Regenerating Sonora, a 501c3. Author of Write Better English, he recently edited MC24: Bruce Mau’s 24 Principles for Designing Massive Change in your Life and Work, published in July 2020 by Phaidon Press. Jon blogs on thinking at theBraincat.com/blog

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42 comments

  1. Though I follow few of these methods but did not know their names. thanks a lot for sharing wonderful info for writers. indeed will help them to write better.

  2. Very much helpful Noor… I am mostly into mind mapping method I truly struggle with fiction though I was a good story creator during my childhood πŸ˜‰ but I guess these tips might help me to work upon fiction writing.

  3. These are some really nice ideas that are helpful for writers. It is always a challenge to systematically organize the different ideas and concepts that flit through your mind.

  4. My friend is interesting in writing! I will share this with her! This is really helpful! Thank you!

  5. Super informative. I was aware of a rough draft and mind mapping, but snowballing might come in really handy to be able to start small and build around it. That is a new thing I picked up. It’s a while different approach I might give a shot at the next time I write. Thanks Noor for sharing.

  6. I am in middle of my third book and I don’t follow these steps but I will consider my current work at extremely rough draft. Will try and follow these steps.

  7. I use a mix of many methods and I am glad to have learnt what are they called. This was an interesting read and I really learnt something something from this blog.

  8. This is such a learning post. I like the 6 formats you have mentioned. I do a lot of mind mapping and I usually draw a lot of mind maps that help me write and formulate my ideas.

  9. Loved how you explained everything with examples. Am starting a podcast and would like to invite you as a guest to share your knowledge. Please let me know if you’ll be interested.

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