To outline or not outline, that is a question only the writer can answer
“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
Joyce Carol Oates
How you begin to write your article is a personal preference for most writers, and there are a variety of styles from which to choose.
Adam Jardy of the Columbus Dispatch recalls a seventh-grade English teacher who insisted every paper that he wrote include an outline.
And he hated it.
“I didn’t even consider myself much of a writer at that point but that just burned me to my core,” said Jardy. “When I sat down to write things, that was not how my brain comprehended things”
To outline or not outline is a continuing debate among writers, and there is truly not a correct answer. For some, it is a limiting exercise. For others it is as important as a skeleton, providing organization and structure.
In truth, every writer organizes in some way. My style is to organize through transcription — as I put the notes into publishable form, I add subheads to categorize subjects. I then move those subjects around in the order I see them in the story.
Jardy said he seeks more ambiguity as he lets the story unfold, then as he writes it, it starts to take shape and makes more sense to him.
“I feel like I’m always thinking about [the structure], especially when I’m working on a really big story or feature that I’m really interested in,” he said. “There’s a flow to it and the more you do it the more it makes sense.”
Jardy recalled writing a story about how Ohio State basketball preps for a game. He watched film with the coaches, at least two practices, a shoot-around and how they played a game He estimates he spent 20 to 30 hours gathering all the information. And the whole time he was formulating in his head how to write the story.
“It’s always turning over in my brain somehow,” he said. “By the time I sit down to write, I generally feel like by then I have a handle on what I’m doing. Something has bubbled its way to the top of my brain as far as ‘This is the most interesting thing, this is the big picture, this is how I get into the story, this is the lede.’
“You have to believe in the reporting that you’ve done, the work that you’ve done, the interviewing that you’ve done. You’ve got to have all that in front of you and believe that you can connect all the dots, and from that, you can draw what’s important, what are you writing, what are you not writing.”
Jardy admitted every writer has his or her own process, but he said he just sits down and starts writing.
“Staring at a blank screen doesn’t help you,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with putting something down and having to go back and change it later. Sometimes just getting a couple of words out it just starts the process then the brain starts working because creativity comes out and it takes over. But just getting started sometimes, getting those first couple of sentences, it just picks up steam from there.”
Many writers — and I am among them — must have a lede in place before they can begin to structure the remainder of the story. That does not mean the lede will stand through until publication, but it does open the door for me to walk through as the writer, so I can see and craft the nut graph and structure a body that comes off of that nut graph.
“I can’t do anything till I have my lede or something that will end up being close to my lede,” Zack Meisel of The Athletic confirms. “I’ll just get something down, then go from beginning to finish and outline it, then write through it a million times until I’m satisfied.”
Abby Vesoulis of Time said that after reporting she organizes her notes and then seeks out the lede.
“I love anecdotal ledes that start with a person who talks about this problem that they had, and then you pivot from that and say something like ‘She’s not alone, as 130 million Americans also face this problem and after years of it being ignored this is why it has become a hot issue.’ Then you get into the tension that has prevented it from becoming enacted at this point.
“The lede is a snapshot of the problem and the nut graph said why we’re doing this story right now, the tension that prevents it from getting accomplished and then a 20,000-feet perspective of saying what has to get accomplished to make this a reality.”
Other writers will structure the nut graph first, and others may tackle the conclusion before anything.
Outlining your story may be the way to go for you, which would mean identifying the nut graph and then ordering the body by subject matter, so you can see how the parts and pieces fit together.
Misti Crane at Ohio State advocated creating an outline based on the themes of this story, which she said will provide a useful framework for what could be notebooks filled with reporting.
“A lot of it comes back to the [five-paragraph essay] sort of framework,” she said. “What are the key points you are making? If you have three notebooks full of notes for a 1,500-word feature and you just start going through your notebook, you are screwed. You have to figure out that the outline format of key points and being really disciplined about only adding details and dialogue that fit strictly into the framework of the story is one way of doing it.”
Mike Wagner of The Dispatch said he writes down in a Word document the five or six themes he wants to represent in an article.
“You are going to highlight those impact things and then write around those,” he said. “You add your information.”
Just as many reporters outline in their head, said Wagner’s investigative reporting partner, Lucas Sullivan.
“Coming back from an interview, I always go through what were the highlights,” he said. “If I was going to tell anyone about what I just experienced, I say, ‘OK, what would I tell them.’
“You have to be able to tell yourself, your editor, your roommate or whatever what was the top few things that you take away from that interview. What would you use? I think that helps you write your lede and is the crux of a good article. You have to have that mental conversation of OK if someone would ask me what is the top moment I took away from that interview, what is it? Then everything sort of falls into place after that.”
I similarly gather all of my notes in written (transcribed) form and then organize them based on the subject matter. I will use headers like “History” and “Early Days” and “Conclusion” and then get narrower.
By moving all the quotes on those subjects together, I can see how the anecdotes and facts begin to flow from one to the other, and see if the structure makes logical sense before I begin too much writing.
Then I start turning fact-based quotes into paraphrases and anecdotes and structuring the quotes I need to support them.
When I see the anecdote I want for the lede, I move it to the top of my document. The concluding anecdote or quote then gets placed at the end of the document.
Melissa Hoppert of the New York Times takes a similar approach. She tapes every interaction — in person or on the phone — and then types out all of her quotes “to see what I have.” As she goes through the tapes, she will bold the elements that seem to “jump out.”
“I will have thousands of things bolded,” she said. “The things that stuck out in my mind from the start of the story, I put those at the top of the file. That way, as I start to write I know what I want to include. At the end of the process, I’ll have maybe 10 things I want to get in. As I start to write, I keep writing from my list. It’s almost like building a puzzle.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that outlining is for everyone, and linear writing may not be the best approach. Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated said he has never made an outline and instead puts the notes as he organizes them in the chronological way he wants the story to be told.
“I was always told to make a formal outline, but that’s drudgery and a straitjacket to me,” Rushin said. “Don’t feel like you have to start at the start. That’s the tyranny of the cursor looking at you. Write anything. Write the end, then write the middle. Write a sentence. If you know you have a quote you want to use, put that down.”
Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated suggests young writers go even a step further by approaching not a 3,000-word article but instead writing three 1,000-word pieces or six 500-word pieces, each tying into each other.
“Maybe start with a scene that lends insight into whoever you’re writing about,” he suggested. “Break into blocks if that is what will make you comfortable with. One will flow into the next.
You can write several 400-500 word pieces. They don’t have to be equal chunks.”
To Outline or Not?
“When I was writing one story, I left my notebooks [unopened]. Then I sat down and forced myself to try to write the story from memory the way I would tell the story to a friend. Then I would get the notebooks to find the quotes I wanted and put them in. I know a lot of people who record and transcribe, and then you have everything in all this detail, and that can be really helpful but it also can be detrimental to good storytelling. Pull yourself away from what the notes say and think about what the important parts of the story are.”
Mike Wagner, Columbus Dispatch
“I write out all the quotes, transcribe everything, then kind of review that. In your mind, I think you start to build the story into maybe four or five sections if you’re doing a 4,000-5,000 word story. Then I start to think of, how am I going to tell this? Chronological? Is it going to be a flashback, is it going to be back and forth? Usually, it becomes fairly apparent through the interview process I think. Once you’ve written so many of these longer features it kind of falls into a couple of different categories; you have experience on what has worked well in the past and what doesn’t work. I think you mentally start to compartmentalize things. That’s why for me it’s important to write out quotes, then I’ll almost know what section what is going to go in. Sometimes it changes, sometimes you write and you think ‘no this needs to be moved up,’ but I think for the most part you have a mental outline.”