When writing, you need an outline or table of contents – right? Only partly. Here’s another view, from one of my favourite books, Several short sentences about writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg:
“[Outlining] prevents discovery within the act of writing .... It overemphasises logic and chronology, because they offer apparently ‘natural’ structures.”
These statements have had quite an influence on me lately. When I get to my desk in the morning, I nearly always start with a spell of freewriting (some call it automatic writing), using a fountain pen and sensuous letter paper that allows the ink flow more smoothly. My starting point is usually something that has struck me recently – often a conversation from the day before, or something I have encountered in my morning reading. Then I write down whatever relevant thoughts come to mind. This activity always frees up unexpected associations – memories, insights, experiences. They seem to float in from my peripheral vision.
And yet... from time to time I do feel a desire to formulate an outline. Seeing the major headings on the page helps me as writer to step back from the detail and glimpse the wider picture and to ponder what order will work best for readers. It crystallises the shape of the book and sets boundaries – I'm not a musician myself but I understand a framework can make improvisation easier.
The chapter headings are not slabs of concrete or stone. They are more like a menu with a few enticing dishes on it. A menu offering a thousand items would be almost impossible to navigate.
I have created many outlines over time, and each one seems better than the last. But it is always replaced by another.
Recently I looked at my latest attempt and noticed it had grown too unwieldy, with about 17 headings, so I grouped them and ended up with just 7 headings. Imagining myself as a reader, I found this much more appetising and far easier to take in than the longer version. And with my author's hat on, it even looks like something I might enjoy writing, though I know it will morph again.
The crucial thing for all writers is to continue writing notes or sentences every day is possible. This reveals what really interests us, and eventually there might be enough good material for a book that others will enjoy reading. As Klinkenborg wrote:
“You’ll never know what you think until you escape your outline.”