Why you should do your outlining in reverse

Word count: 308 words

Reading time: Just over 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help writers. Today I focus on a piece about outlining…

A reader this week sent me a link to a New York Times piece by Aaron Hamburger on outlining. (Thanks, David!)

David predicted I’d like the article and he was right! Even though I don’t like outlining prior to writing (I believe we should all mindmap, instead), I strongly support the idea of outlining in reverse. This means outlining after you’ve finished writing your first draft — not before

The advantage? As Hamburger put it: “While staring at my stories for what seemed like the hundredth time, I decided to analyze them scene by scene, taking note of how many pages each one lasted, as well as how much of the piece was devoted to action and different characters. The math turned out to be inexorably honest.”

Hamburger could see that sometimes he’d taken a great deal of space setting up conflicts — while at other times, expended little or no effort or space. This made it easier for him to decide where to cut his stories. His goal? To cut scenes by 10% “Happily, I didn’t always achieve my goal,” he writes. “Let’s face it, writing is not math and never should be. Yet what I learned about my story along the way proved invaluable.”

I know some of my readers become irritated when I try to warn them off outlining. Does it make you feel better to know that I heartily endorse it as long as you’ve finished your writing?

Hamburger is an American writer best known for his short story collection The View from Stalin’s Head (2004) and the novel Faith for Beginners (2005).

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