TL; DR – Create an outline before writing to avoid getting stuck.
It’s like mental constipation – the dreaded writer’s block. But what if you’re not a writer with lofty ambitions? What if your boss simply asked you to draft a memo and now you’re stuck staring at a blank page on your computer screen with mild pangs of panic?
It used to frequently happen to me, until I started outlining everything short of a text message or a quick email. Previously I had avoided outlining because it seemed like a waste of time, especially for short pieces like memos or formal letters. But then, when I’d finally get my procrastination in a headlock and force myself to sit down and write… nothing would come out. Alternatively, I’d get going and quickly write myself into a dead-end.
Why does this annoying “stuckness” happen? When you get stuck, it’s a sign that you have a general idea of what you want to say, but don’t yet know how to get there. Perhaps the ideas are swirling around in your brain, but you’re juggling too many thoughts at once to translate them into a chain of logically linked paragraphs. This is where the humble outline swoops in to the rescue.
I prefer to outline on paper. In fact, for this post I created a simple 4-point outline in my notepad. I usually structure an outline based on the classical argument form: introduction, thesis statement,
reasons and evidence, refutation/opposing views (I often leave this part out) and conclusions. Sometimes I adjust the structure to fit the type of piece I am working on, but for the most part it works quite well.
For each section of the outline I create a numbered list item with a short phrase describing what I intend to write about – this is a road sign that will direct your thoughts and link them to the next section. Under these items I write down 2 or 3 sub-items with more specific ideas. For longer pieces with many sections or even chapters, I recommend writing the outline items and the corresponding sub-items on index cards. This allows you to move the items around and experiment with the structure by physically arranging the order of the cards.
This advice is not groundbreaking or sexy, but it works, if you can get into the habit of applying it. You were probably taught the outlining technique in grade school, but that’s why many non-professional writers don’t use it. It may seem childish and time consuming to create an outline for an occasional business letter, but it can go a long way in ensuring you don’t get stuck and spend half of your time looking at a blank page. Outlining also helps flesh out the logic of your arguments and makes the prose flow smoother.