How to write powerful outlines faster (when you lack deep topic expertise)

By Jonathan Tee

How to write outlines faster

Need to write an outline fast?

But don’t feel on top of your subject matter?

If it were a topic in which you had expertise, you’d easily pull an outline together. (More or less.)

But it’s not.

When you jot down your ideas they feel derivative and uninspired. You’re not sure if what you’re arguing is right. You feel out of your depth. Exposed.

You need to produce something darned good. That will build authority. But you just don’t have time to properly dive into the topic. To immmerse yourself in research. To become an expert.

What can you do?

More...

How can you create a compelling, original outline on a topic you’re not yet master of when you’re pressed for time?

5 steps to drafting a decent outline (even when you’re short of time)

Do you know Peter Elbow’s fabulous book Writing with Power?

In it he describes a wonderfully pragmatic approach he calls the 'loop writing process'. It's perfect for creating a doozy of an outline when you don’t have oodles of time.

How does it work?

1: Freewrite on your topic for 10–15 minutes

First off, gather together and review your background information. Make sure you’re clear:

  • What is your topic?
  • Who is your piece aimed at?
  • What do you target readers need to know?
  • What do they know already?
  • What do you want them to do after reading it?

Then, before doing any additional research, get out onto the page all the thoughts you have on the subject.

Keep going for at least 10–15 minutes.

Write quickly. Focus on getting your ideas out. Don’t worry about whether they’re good or bad. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. Just get down on paper what is in your head. And when you get stuck with an idea, simply start a new line and keep going.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes.

The point of this exercise is to get your creative juices flowing. To let your ideas develop. And to generate material you can work with later.

So get all your ideas out. Don’t critique them. And don’t worry at all about structure. As Elbow notes:

[D]on’t spend any time at this early stage trying to get your thoughts correctly ordered or reconciled with each other. Just get them all down as quickly as you can.

Once you’re done, take a break before moving on to the next step.

2: Set a timer for 25 minutes and write an ‘instant version’

What?!!

How on earth can you create an ‘instant version’ in 25 minutes?

Here’s the trick. You’re not trying to create a polished final version in 25 minutes. You’re just trying to create a version you can create in 25 minutes.

As Peter Elbow describes it:

Simply deny the need for research, thinking, planning and turn out a kind of sketch of your final piece – an instant projected version. You’ll have to pretend you know things you don’t know, act as though you have made up your mind where you’re uncertain, make up facts and ideas, and leave out large chunks… But by doing so you can will yourself into producing a quickly written final version.

Okay, super. But how on earth is this helpful?

First off, it helps you get much more out of any research because you’ve already taken a position you can stress test. And because you quickly realise the gaps in your knowledge, your research is much more directed.

Here's Peter Elbow again:

First thoughts… and instant versions catapult you into a position of initiative and control so that you use reading and research to check and revise your thinking actively, not passively just to find something to think.

Second, it creates an important psychological shift. You start to think about how you can revise and improve an already existing document rather than feeling stuck, confronted by a blank page – without material to mold into shape.

As Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird note in their book The 5 Elements of Effecting Thinking:

You have traded in the impossible task of creating something that’s perfect for the much easier task of mining gems and correcting errors… you are not creating a work on a blank canvas but instead you are responding to a work already there. Your responses, in turn, will lead to new good ideas that you could not have created before you made the requisite mistakes.

And you’ve also generated that precious commodity, forward momentum.

3: Read through what you’ve written

Highlight promising ideas. Fix glaring errors. And do some focused research to check areas you realise you’re not clear on. 

You’ll find this research to be much more time efficient than any you’d have done before you’d got some thoughts on paper.

Ready to write that outline?

4: Remind yourself who your audience is and what they need to know

Then, with your notes in front of you, sketch out your outline based on the half-decent ideas you’ve highlighted.

Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just assemble these ideas into what feels like a sensible order.

Then take a break to let your ideas brew.

5: Revise your outline with a critical eye

It’s time to put your critical hat on.

Carefully revise your outline, once again, keeping your reader at the front of your mind:

  • Have you answered the questions she has?
  • Does your structure make logical sense?
  • Have you left any gaps in your argument?
  • Are there any points you’re not clear on that you still need to research? (Do that now.)
  • Are there any objections your reader is likely to have that you need to answer?
  • Have you offered her a clear next step?

Don’t be afraid to be brutal here. Cut the crap. Clarify, hone and refine.

And your outline's finished – in just over 2 hours

If you’ve spent ~25 minutes for each step, you’ve now worked on your outline for just over two hours. You’re pretty much guaranteed to have a more interesting and robust outline than you would have had otherwise. And with your ideas flowing and a solid structure in place, you’re perfectly placed to quickly bash out your crappy first draft.

Hang on a sec. Does this really work?

Elbow’s method is a deliciously time-efficient way to get unstuck, warmed up, and have your brain tucking in to any tricky topic.

It gets you moving with the smallest possible effort.

And that's important because the sooner you can trick your brain out of its sofa stupor and get it gnawing away at a tasty problem, the more compelling your outline will become.

By forcing yourself to write an instant draft you quickly generate lots of mistakes you can then focus on fixing – rather than being stuck not quite sure what question you should be asking.

For the same amount of time, you end up ways ahead of where you’d have been otherwise – if, for example, you’d started with unfocused research then cobbled together a superficial outline before creating a draft. A draft that would likely require many time-consuming revisions to hit the mark.

Time you don’t have.

Next time you have to write an outline on a topic you’re not expert in, stop.

Look at your notes. Set a timer. Then freewrite for 10–15 minutes.

Give your brain something to work with.

Quickly write an instant version with lots of mistakes. Only afterwards let your critical side get involved and fix them.

You’ll find you’ve crafted a solid outline in much less time. With much less pain and angst.

Sound almost too easy? Excellent. Give it a go.

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