Outlining: What?


In my previous article I talked about why you might want to use outlining as a technique. In this article I’m going to look at what outlining is.

Basic Outlining

At it’s simplest, outlining is the enhancement of content through spacial arrangement. That can involve the placing of elements in a list, a grid, a hierarchy, on a map, or in any other way which helps you to understand the relationships between elements. Take a simple example:

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Indigo
  • Violet

This is a list of colours. We could say that the order of the list references something about the wavelength of the light, or we could say it reflects the order of the rainbow. It remains, though, an ordered list. Now to add some detail:

  • Red
    • Blood
    • Rust, or is that brown?
  • Orange
    • A fruit
  • Yellow
    • Cowardice
      • Expression of; where does this come from
    • Jaundice
    • Ribbon
  • Green
    • Has ethical implications
  • Blue
    • Down, depressed, low
  • Indigo
    • Isn’t this just purple?
  • Violet
    • No this is purple – why two purples?

Now we have an outline which expresses some detail about these colours, and adds information in a structured way to imply that the detail is a property of the heading. We may want to re-order this list according to some other criterion, or add things in that we feel are important:

  •  Red
    • Blood
  • Purple
  • Brown
    • Rust
  •  Orange
    • A fruit
  • Yellow
    • Ribbon
    •  Cowardice
      • Expression of; where does this come from?
    • Jaundice
  • Green
    • Has ethical implications
    • Fingers
  • Blue
    • Down, depressed, low

We’ve done a number of important things from an outlining perspective. We’ve inserted Brown into the list before Orange and put Rust under that because we think that’s where it belongs. Note that we can insert anywhere, not just at the end. We’ve merged Indigo and Violet into Purple because we think they’re the same thing, and we’ve moved them nearer to Red where we think they fit. We’ve moved Ribbon up the list under Yellow, but still under Yellow, and we’ve added Fingers to Green.

Note we didn’t type Green fingers; it’s position under Green implies Green, the same as the Ribbon is still Yellow. If I moved the Ribbon under Red it would be a Red Ribbon unless I state Yellow Ribbon under Red, which I could do if it meant something.

This isn’t about getting a right or wrong answer; it doesn’t matter that Indigo and Violet are different colours because the difference in this context at this time is not significant to us. It may become significant later. It doesn’t matter that Brown is a composite colour: here and now it’s in the list.

This is the freedom of outlining. It allows you to get things down quickly and intuitively without necessarily challenging those thoughts at the time. You can consider this outline later, having done some more research, and you may at that point want to introduce Black. Is Black a colour? This isn’t a list of colours, it’s an outline of colour related thoughts, and therefore Black is a colour if we say it is. So is Pumpkin.

We can take a two step approach to this:

Step 1: Divergent Thinking

  • Adding elements as they occur
  • Ordered but not fixed in order
  • Adding levels of detail where they occur
  • Adding place-holders where it needs work
  • Mixing and merging concepts (eg: temperature, colour, and badgers)
  • Without challenge:
    • Speld howevr is quickest
    • In the order they occur or fit
    • Using the words that most easily decribe
    • Capturing the spirit and the message
    • Skipping mechanics or detail

Step 2: Convergent Thinking

  • Ordering elements into sequence (not necessarily time-based)
    • In the order they will be used or consumed
  • With only enough detail to enable you to recall
  • Crystalising or deleting place-holders
  • Merging and separating concepts and concerns, eg:
    • colour/temperature
    • badgers
  • Questioning the place, order and precedence of everything
  • Establishing flow, teasing out themes, highlighting holes and outstanding issues

Two steps implies that you do one then the other, but this may not be the case. You may iterate between divergent and convergent, adding in layers and then detailing them, only to add more later. You may start converging and then realise you have a whole new thread and start diverging from there. It’s organic and it’s meant to develop over time.

Step 3: The Power of Delete

I said it was a two stage process and it is, but it doesn’t always work. Don’t be afraid to delete everything and start again, I don’t mean save and close, I mean DELETE. Get rid of the whole thing. At worst you will lose a couple of hours work.

Start again, but not in the same place. Come at the whole thing from a new character, a new timeframe, a new perspective. If you’re brave enough to delete you will find that the pressure to keep what was good means that those ideas bubble up to the surface again in new guises. If you don’t delete you will find yourself constrained to the paths you’ve already taken. The delete key is your liberator.

Change the layout and look at it differently. If you had an ordered list before, put things in a circle and draw lines between them. Write things on sticky-notes and post them on a wall. Add symbols, or emoji, or highlighter, or stickers.

The importance you attach to things is dictated by their relevance and importance to you, at this time, in this context. It can be more or less useful, it can be clear or opaque, it can help or hinder, but it can’t be right or wrong.

Next time I’ll talk about how tools help and hinder.

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