Flat Outlines

Long Question:

I’m giving some lectures to a group of mid-career European business people who are intending to use their business experiences to ground an academic thesis. I’ve done this for a few years now and every year I suggest that they begin with flat outlines of their work, not the detailed hierarchies which seem to be instinctive to them. They are mainly Mac uses and are dying to dig into OmniOutliner, but I recommend that they begin with plain text lists, with one or two levels (that’s how I use Taskpaper) or completely flat Scapples (of course).

There is always some initial resistance to this advice, as there is from some of my clients when I’m working as a developmental editor - especially academics who are trying to turn their research into non-fiction and cannot at first see that flat outlining is one good way to avoid re-academising their work. The thought seems to be that setting out a complex hierarchy makes the writing easier. In my own experience as a non-fiction writer (of conceptually fairly convoluted history of science) it seems to me entirely the other way around: that it is the writing out of the flat-outline details which makes the identification of latent structures and a later hierarchy easier.

As I do now find flat outlining so much more useful and natural (and it also fits so well with the Tinderbox ethic of not over-organising at the start) I was just wondering how other writers viewed it. Am I wrong to assume that most people think the same way - in both fiction and non-fiction - and that the flat outline and broader view is the starting preference? (I noticed Heller’s huge whiteboard for Catch-22 on the post about written outlines: complex, but flat, and available for easy overview).

Speaking from personal experience, I don’t think that it matters too much whether the outlining is flat or hierarchical. The prime goal - not the only one of course - is presumably clarity in the final draft, which can be achieved by either means. (I’ve been the consumer of enough documents from businessmen and academics to know that clarity can be an elusive quality in the writings of even the cleverest and most decisive.)

Personally, I favour an evolving outline - flat and simple to begin with, and hierarchical and somewhat more complex later as it develops - which is what I think you are yourself almost describing (and is what I find Tinderbox is most useful for). In fiction, this been called the “snowflake method”, hinting at the fractal qualities of something that looks simple at first but becomes apparently more complicated as you explore it. I like to think of a genetic metaphor - simplicity that contains the possibility of great complexity. Of course, that can mean that the selection of words and crafting of statements in even the simplest and flattest of outlines requires care; the expression of ideas needs to be accurate without it being too confining.

Yes - exactly that. The problem in these particular cases is that there is often too much information which has already had a previous definite structural form and which now needs to be reconceptualised in a different form. I mentioned this to Mark B as a possible use for StorySpace - different narrative structures from the same conceptual structure - and it seems it would fit (and so opens yet another new way for me to think about Tinderbox) …

Scapple has a worked well like this for some: `Motherlode’ scap for the beginning, with connected satellite scaps for the later more detailed ordering.

Yes, I’ve come across “too much information”! The word “eidetic” was made for such people. Sometimes this can be approached by asking the individuals to start by summing up what they want to say in one sentence and a subordinate clause, no more (again, this is a “snowflake” guideline).

Of course, this may be more challenging than it seems. As someone (Voltaire?) observed, expressing oneself briefly can be more difficult that expressing oneself at length.

Here’s my take on the non-fiction outline:

Just found this:

takingnotenow.blogspot.co.uk/201 … hical.html

Pretty much what I was thinking …

I taught graduates for nearly 30 years and my students - academic or business - had access to decent computers/software for at least half that time; I wonder why this is now becoming more of an issue. (I’ve been an academic/non-fiction editor for less than a decade and it’s been an issue from the start).

It’s not a problem - I’m just interested in other writers’ experiences with their own writing.

Basically that’s my thinking too.

For my journalism, I rarely go beyond two levels. Even for my nonfiction book, I rarely went beyond three, in part because I used a separate outline for each chapter. Not to say this is the best way or even the way I’ll do I t next time, but it seems to be the pattern to date.

Two levels are enough for both my scientific and fiction writing. With more levels I would most likely get lost. Besides, having more levels would probably result in my ending up with to little text in each section (single-paragraph-sections), which would cause me to loose track of the higher organisational level.
So only two levels, so far.

I find traditional outlines—and mind maps, with their inherent hierarchy—really don’t help when sketching out factual work, unless the facts are already telling a single story. Using ‘flat’ outlines at outset, as in maps (e.g. Scapple, Tinderbox, etc.), stop assumed (‘obvious’) narrative structure obfuscating the more interesting cross-links between different aspects of the data. I find with a flat map it is easier to tease out issues that run across areas otherwise seemingly discrete. Whether these abstractions form transcludes to multiple locations in eventual long-form output or are simply cross referenced, doing this helps avoid the experience of finding oneself describing the same thing—in slightly different fashion—in different places.

If going for long-form output (OP mentions theses) then at some point an outline is needed, even only if shallow. More interesting is if the output is to hypertext, where pretty much anything could be a transclude. Indeed, Ted Nelson characterises Bush’s Memex trails as transclusions not links [1]. Viewed from that perspective, flat outlines are really useful as the reader can enter pretty much anywhere. I’ve not found much on writing-as-transcludes. People tend to flee to the familiarity of conventional narrative.

[1] http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1286240.1286303, footnote on p227.

I avoid outlines as much as possible, rarely going beyond two levels for even book-length work. If I knew that level of detail in advance, I wouldn’t have to write the silly thing!

On the other hand, I have learned from hard experience to insist that clients approve an outline before I start writing. Approaching client work with the same free-form methods that I use in my own writing is a path to madness, endless revisions, and under-compensated last minute research.




Dearest Katherine,
words of such sweet wisdom and truth, as always. Needs no more to be said.
Were you my right hand, the rocky road of life, would be as a verdant, well manicured lawn. If only … :frowning:
Ah well … c’est la vie … eh?