Craft Lesson: Devote yourself to outlining

Craft Lessons

There are many ways to find the order that is right for your story. 

Make a list of what you want to say.

What piece of information should be at the beginning?

What piece of information should be at the end?

What belongs in the middle?

Ask the questions the reader will ask and put them in the order they will be asked.

Assign values to quotations.

Then there is the outline , the writer’s tool that summarizes the main points or important details before you write your story. It’s a map, a guide.

I’m not talking about the type, festooned with Roman numerals, that your teachers demanded during your school days. Yucck! But when the story, especially, is narrative nonfiction, an outline allows the writer to pull back from the mass of notes, interview transcripts, scenes, quotes, statistics, observations and other material collected during the reporting phrase.

If your interest is fiction, before you write a novel or short story, the outline lays out the important scenes before the drafting begins.

Whichever method you choose, ordering is a crucial part of the writing process.

I recently encountered an extreme method of outlining from a writer who describes herself as a “devoted outliner at the start.” Lizzie Presser is a reporter for ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization. I Interviewed her about her story, “The Black American Amputation Epidemic,” one of two pieces that won the 2021 National Magazine Award for public interest,

I asked Presser to unpack her writing process as part of an annotation for Nieman Storyboard, which celebrates the art and craft of narrative nonfiction. The resulting conversation amounted to a master class for anyone interested in that challenging but immensely rewarding form and the art and craft of the outline. 

For this story,” Presser told me, “I printed out hundreds of pages of interviews and transcribed scenes and tried to read through them within 24 hours so the material was fresh in my mind. I usually outline on a computer, but in this case, there was so much that I wanted to use that I started cutting up paragraphs and quotes and details and laying them out on the floor. This is the most difficult and the most exciting part of the process for me. I’m trying to craft a narrative with suspense at the same time as I’m trying to construct a logical argument. Once I’d laid out my outline on the floor, I left it there for weeks as I tried to write through it. I would move pieces around on the floor to see how changes would play.”

Granted such efforts demand time — in Presser’s case, she spent a total of two months to report and write her story–that may be beyond the reach of many writers. Still, there’s no reason why you can’t try a limited approach for a daily story or a takeout due in a week. Whatever your deadline, Presser’s approach to outlining longform stories is inspirational and instructive.

More importantly, it contains lessons of value to those who practice as well those who aspire to model such excellence. Even if you lack the resources Presser had, there are nuggets of methodology that you can still apply to your next story.

At the very least, you can devote yourself to outlining, choosing which approaches to take that best suit the time and reporting you have collected. Even on deadline, outlining can map a story that enables readers to understand its meaning and message through a coherent structure. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

5 × 3 =