The case against outlining (why mindmapping is better) (video)


Viewing time: 3 minutes and 57 seconds

The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of the first issue, which ran on Jan. 20/17.


Hi and welcome to the very first episode of The Write Question, the video podcast about writing. My name is Daphne Gray-Grant, but you may know me as the Publication Coach. For the past 30 years I’ve been helping people write. Recently I decided I wanted to take a new step, and produce a video podcast answering your questions about writing.

This question is from Michael Watson of Baltimore, Maryland. It addresses something that I talk about all the time. Seriously, all the time. The question is “Why don’t I outline”, or more specifically what do I have against outlining.

So, here’s my complaint. Outlining forces you into a logical, linear way of thinking. That’s not a totally bad thing of course, but it’s not very creative. When you write you want your brain to operate in the most creative way possible. You don’t want to be hemmed in by anything.

But an outline acts like a drill sergeant. It takes something that should be fun and turns it into an obligation. If you’re not keen to write, having someone scream at you — now drop and give me 20 —  that’s not going to help.

But here’s the worst thing about outlines: it’s practically allergic to stories. And stories are what make writing interesting — even non-fiction writing. Have you ever tried to jam a story into an outline? It’s a bit like taking a really big box and trying to jam it into a very narrow drawer. I don’t like any technique that automatically excludes stories.

Just let me add that I’m not entirely opposed to outlining. The one time it can be useful, is when almost NO ONE uses it. This is called “reverse outlining”, or, creating an outline AFTER you’ve finished writing. Doing an outline at this point exposes the underlying structure of what you’ve already written. And this can show you if there are any problems or holes and can be really useful to you when you’re editing.

I actually did this a lot when I was really young. When I was in high school, the nuns who taught me often demanded that we submit an outline with each essay. Thinking I was being a real rebel, I wrote my essay first and then created my outline after that. (Other kids would go smoke in the forest behind the school but in my head I was still a real rebel!)

Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no good reason to start with an outline, but I’ve taught a lot of writers who look at me with panicked eyes when I say I’m going to take that tool away from them. So, this might be a good time for me to mention a different technique I teach my writers. Mind mapping. There are thousands of great articles on how beneficial mind mapping can be, a few of which i’ve written myself. I’ll link to them in the description.

I’m sure I’ll be talking more about mind mapping in the future, which brings me to one last point. I really want to answer your questions on this podcast. If you have any questions about writing you can email, tweet, or call my Skype voicemail. Details are in the description.

And before I go, let’s remember the words of the late E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and many other fine pieces of writing. “Commas in The New Yorker,” he said, “fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”

That’s the only type of outline I’m interested in hearing about. I’ll see you next week.

If you’d like to find more about mindmapping…

Please check out these articles:

Are you making any of these mindmapping mistakes? (video)

Why I insist on blathering about mindmapping

A new use for an artist’s notebook

The difference between mindmapping that works and TMI

If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me at, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.

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