Writing a Book: How to Beat Outline Block

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Most of us learned to write for the first time in elementary school. That’s why so many of us are outline-dependent. We imagine an English teacher at the front of the room waiting for us to hand in our outline before we can write.

I try to get most of my clients who are planning a book to use something other than an outline in the initial stages. I suggest starting with the stories they want to tell or creating a list of the big ideas they want in the book. I encourage them to write a zero draft. That’s the draft that comes before the first draft.

To create a zero draft, write your book straight through. Don’t stop for research and to fine-tune your wording. Make any notes you must but keep going. You won’t get a draft you want to publish, but you’ll learn a lot about what will make a great book. As a bonus, your other drafts will go faster.

That’s way too much work for most people. Besides, there’s that English teacher at the front of the room waiting for the outline.

The Purpose of An Outline in The Early Stages

When you’re in the early stages of planning your book, outline only big, important things. You can add details later, but first, you need to get the big stuff in the right order.

That often leads to what I call “outline block.” Outline block happens when you’re putting an outline together and you can’t decide whether point A should come before point B or vice versa. When that happens, stop tinkering with your outline and concentrate on the two ideas.

Sketch out how you’ll use those ideas in your book.

Write the introduction to point A. You don’t have to write any more about point A. Just the introduction will do. Next, write the transition from point A to point B. Finally, write the introduction to point B.

When you’re done, do the same thing, but putting the points in a different order.

What Will Happen

There are three things that could happen. In one scenario, one order is the clear winner. Go no further. Return to your outline with your problem resolved.

The other possibility is that neither one is a clear winner. When that happens, it’s time to get creative. What changes would make things work?

Maybe you need a third point between the two to carry the transition. Or, maybe those two points shouldn’t be adjacent at all. Perhaps they’ll work in either order if you change the wording.  You may not need a big change. A little change is often enough.

Do this to make progress instead of staring at your outline and hitting yourself in the head.

Bottom Line

Test the order of points using this technique. But don’t fool yourself. Don’t just think about the introductions and transition. Write them out.

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