What My Toddler Taught Me About Outlining

I have a college degree in English, specifically in writing-intensive English, but my classes covered topics such as learning how enjambment makes the poem, how authentic speech mouthed by authentic characters in authentic situations makes the fiction, and how complex sentences with many clauses and many conjunctions makes your writing dense, deep, important, and self-indulgent. Professors focused on the romantic visions of writing as organic growth, something done in Parisian or Nuyorican coffee shops in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, those ideals of youth and academia don’t reflect the realities of writing for a living or even as an ascendant hobby leading to writing for a living. Fortunately, though, my newest mentor and teacher has taught me a method to efficient, guided writing. My toddler has not only shown me the value of outlining, but has provided insight into effective outlining techniques to build better articles.

I remember outlining from middle school or high school. We had a unit on it for a couple weeks, and I probably had to provide an outline before turning in a research paper or a persuasion five paragraph essay at some point. Knowing my youthful work habits, I surely wrote the outline to match the paper. However, rather like geometry theorems, the usage left me after I passed the classes. Once I got to college, I found staring into space a usable methodology, particularly when coupled with madly typing at midnight the day before the due date. These practices served well enough to get me through college, but when I tried to apply them in the vast openness of the rest of my life, I didn’t get too far.

Instead, I spent a lot of time staring at open word processor programs, watching the world outside my window, or espousing excuses for why I was spending so much time writing but so little time finishing written works. Then, real life intervened by giving the responsibility of a young child and leaving me with less time to indulge in my avocation. No longer could I waste time at the keyboard, reviewing esoterica on the Internet instead of stringing characters into thoughts. Not even with a laptop could I continue pretending and procrastinating, for a wandering daredevil requires too much attention even for that.

I tried using an actual pen on an actual clipboard to capture ideas or nuggets for articles or stories. When a thought occurred to me, I jotted it down. However, a series of random thoughts on paper didn’t kick-start my writing process. The jottings provided me with a number of inchoate ideas whose import and gist I ultimately forgot before I could actually sneak off to a computer to write them. So bullet-pointed lists of ideas didn’t work.

So I listened to the wisdom of my toddler as he taught me that outlining was the way and the light. Through his simple koans and living example, I became a more productive writer, squeezing parts of writing into minutes snatched like pebbles from his hand.

“1, 2, 3, 5,” my pint-sized shidoshi reminds me. Although he’s working on reciting numbers, sometimes he forgets something in the sequence. When crafting the order of your points, make sure that you have all of your points before you get to the conclusion. Don’t leave out the important step that takes your reader from big idea to profit.

“A, B, C, A, B, C,” my sensei says. His alphabet stops very early and repeats. If you’re outlining and you make it too far into the alphabet, much less into the double letters, you might be running on. You should limit the number of supporting details to any assertion or topic sentence and consider regrouping your details into smaller points.

“Knock it down!” When the master stacks his blocks into castles and towers, he relishes knocking them down. Outlines are like those blocks: simple lines and ideas that you can easily stack and knock over to stack differently. By the time I get words onto paper, I get a little bound to the order of concepts when revising or to my deft transitions between paragraphs. With outlines, though, I can rearrange them easily and quickly with a couple strokes of a pen on paper.

“What is that?” Lacking nouns for many things he encounters, my toddler asks this question often. I have to search for points of reference that can explain things in terms he understands, keeping the explanations simple enough that he can remember them after a couple of questions. At the end of putting together an outline, you should ask yourself the same question. Do the idea and outline ultimately have the weight to warrant writing? Does the outline explain points simply? Is the piece worthwhile?

The toddler is only 36 inches tall, but his influence overshadows my current work habits. His presence demands discipline, and his tenets and teachings provide guidance in achieving productive writing, or at least productive precursors to writing, in the minutes I can snatch from the day.

2 Responses to “What My Toddler Taught Me About Outlining”

  1. John Farrier Says:

    An item from the Evil Overlord List is relevant to this point:

    One of my advisors will be an average five-year-old child. Any flaws in my plan that he is able to spot will be corrected before implementation.

    You don’t have to write as low as a five-year old child, but you should never write higher than necessary to accomplish your writing goal. Write like an Evil Overlord.

  2. Brian Says:

    When I’m in technical writer mode, I write from the ground up so that someone who doesn’t understand computers or software, almost, can understand what I’m documenting. I get some bit of grief for it, but I figure those who already know what I’m saying can skim over it, but if you don’t explain the basics, someone might miss them.