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Streamline Your Writing Using Outline Tools

Use outlining tools to give large reports and books crystal-clear logic.

By
Stever Robbins,
February 17, 2009
Episode #070

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Today's topic is keeping a longer piece of writing coherent. The quick and dirty tip is to use collapsible tools like outliners and mind maps to view your logic at different depths (see this episode for more on mind maps).

I’m writing a book. Much to my surprise, it’s harder to write a book than a five-minute podcast. With the podcast, it’s easy to keep the whole thing in mind at once. But with a book, it’s different. It’s so big that there’s just no way to keep it all in my brain at once time. And working on it for months and months… I get so distractable that anything shiny or sparkly totally grabs my attention. Like, for example, sun glinting on the three feet of freshly fallen snow outside my office window. Come to think if it, it’s beautiful…So hypnotic. I could watch … it……. for……. hours……..

Your Main Idea Is Where You Start

The only way to keep a whole book in mind at once is to simplify, simplify, simplify. I need simplicity. Scientists say people can keep seven plus-or-minus two things in mind at once. Not me. I’m lucky to keep one plus-or-minus two things in mind. So my wonderful, 295 page first draft really amounts to: “Life can be easy.” Everything else is just details, and at last, I can hold the whole book in my brain at once!

Subtopics Give Details

My publisher heard my one-liner and laughed in my face. “Do you really believe life can be easy? You’re nuts!” I had to expand on the idea for him. “Well,” I said, “If you learn to deal with your own brain, you can make your internal life easy. And if you learn to make projects easy, you’ll be able to reach your goals. Then all that’s left is making organizational life easy, relationships easy, and your career easy. Self, projects, organizations, relationships, and career. It even spells SPORC, which is really  easy to remember. So see? Life can be easy.”

He wasn’t convinced, but lo and behold, SPORC became the major sections of the book. I can review those topics over and over, and they make perfect sense to me.

Then I can focus in on each of those sections. If I can come up with subtopics beneath those that tell a coherent story, then that section can stay comfortably in mind. By repeatedly looking only at a given topic and its subtopics, I can evaluate the logic and flow of the book without getting lost in the details.

Collapsible Idea Organizers Help You Think

Long-time listeners will know I often eschew computers in favor of pencil and paper. (I feel almost like a liberal arts major, using words like “eschew.”) In this case, however, computers can come to your rescue in ways that will be the envy of your Pilot G-2 05 mechanical pencil.

Grab a program that supports collapsible outlines. That means it will just show you the levels of the outline you want to see. If you tell it to show you one level, you see all the major headings. Two levels shows major headings and subheadings. Three levels shows headings, subheadings, and sub-subheadings. And so on.

Now write your paper in phases. First show just the headings and enter the headings of the sections of your paper. Now read them straight down, as if they, themselves, were all you had. Do they flow? Do they tell a story? Are they coherent? If so, then as long as the text you put under them is all related to the heading, the final paper will flow, too.

The major headings for this episode tell a short story. Writing needs organization (that’s the intro), your main idea is where you start, subtopics give detail, collapsible idea organizers help you think, reviews at different detail levels keep everything flowing, and every platform has outlining tools.

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