The No-Stress Way for Writers to Outline

by | Nov 1, 2011

by David Carr

David Carr is an experienced book editor and friend from the San Francisco Bay Area here in California. We attend BAIPA meetings together sometimes and I have a lot of respect for his skills. I invited David to write an article that would show writers how he manages the organization of long manuscripts, and here’s his response.

Trust me on this, Writer: Having a good map of where your piece is going will make finishing it more efficient. It will save you from frustration and stuckness; your completed first draft will be closer to polished; and you’ll have gotten there much faster.

Different kinds of maps are useful for fiction and non. The traditional tool for non-fiction is the OUTLINE (I wrote that in caps so you can cringe now and get over it.) I’m not sure why that word carries a terror as great as being sent to the principal’s office, but it does for most of my clients.

Even though I went to a progressive elementary school, outlining was taught in seventh grade. Progressive in those days must have meant getting a real world education. That skill was the key to surviving my later education—I don’t have a great memory for detail, but outlining helped me ace every paper I wrote despite exams in the C-range (unless there were essays).

Here are the two benefits of the outline:

  1. You will have thought through just about everything you need to say, so you won’t get stuck wondering what to say next anywhere in the writing process.
  2. If you come to a place where you realize you need to do more research, but you’re in a writing mood today, you can pick any place in the outline and start writing there. The outline holds the logical order, so you don’t need to write in the logical order for your content to be logical in the end.

Take your terror to your therapist, but track with me in the meantime. I’m trying to help you. First, throw away your idea that an outline looks like this:

Outlining by David Carr

Sorry if I shocked you. Take a deep breath, sense your feet on the floor. I’m trying to titrate the horror.

Here’s my method

1. Take a notebook (no electronic equipment allowed, including phones) and a comfortable writing utensil. (Yes, this is about comfort—remember I promised to make it easy.)

2. Go to a place where you can relax undisturbed – the woods, a beach, a hammock (snoozing is not bad for the process), the outhouse. Let your mind run out of the stories it’s carrying. Walking or meditating are both useful (as is relieving yourself—empty everything).

3. Bring your overall topic into focus.

4. Write down the most important topics you want to cover.

Do not waste time with full sentences, just a few words, so you know what you were thinking about when you come back to this later, so 3 to 7 words should be enough. If you attempt to write full sentences, you’ll likely get stuck looking for the right words for your idea. Stay spontaneous and brief.

Aim for 10 or 15 independent topics

End of Session One

5. Go to your computer and enter each of the topics on a separate line.

Arrange them in logical sequence. To talk about y, I need to introduce x, which requires describing d. That’s the logic of the structure—every idea which is brought in should have all the background introduced first.

You might notice that some ideas are not really independent, but are a subset of others, so put them under the appropriate topic. Add as many more independent topics as continue to come to mind.

If some of the new ideas belong under the major topics, move them there. You’re already into the next phase!

6. Go back to the beach, the woods or the hammock.

Focus on only one of the major topics.

Write down all the primary things you need to present for that topic to be understood.

Do this for each of the major topics.

Enter in the computer and arrange in logical order

7. & 8. Repeat the process for each of the secondary topics, then for each of the tertiary topics. This level of articulation might take several days of contemplation.

By the time you have refined each topic to this fourth level, you are close to having the first sentence of every paragraph of your whole book. And all you’ve done is taken quiet time to think about what you are going to write.

Now you can start thinking about what you should say in the introduction because you have an overview of the entire content of your book in the order of presentation.

What you have created is an outline, though it may not look like the terrifying image you expected.

Along the way you may have realized that you need to do some research to complete your knowledge. If you don’t need that information right away and you are excited about starting to write, follow your impulse. You can wait to do the research until it’s convenient or until you can’t move forward without it.

I hope you realize that your outline is not cast in concrete. If more ideas arise as you write, you can easily add them into your map.

Mind Mapping

Modern technology has introduce a second technique which I used occasionally on paper when my brain felt exceedingly jumbled. It’s called “mind mapping” (which name I find misleading). There are several free versions online, as well as costly ones. For people who resist linearity, these brings you to the same place as the process I described, though it may not be as easy to follow the thread once you start writing. I’ve shown free versions to clients, but never tried to use them myself.

Mind mapping has one huge benefit for the modern era. You can jump to the web when you need information and paste a url into the map for later reference. You can also insert links to your photos and other files.

Fiction mapping coming soon.

Until next time, delight in the process.

David-Carr-editorDavid Colin Carr ( has been editing fiction and non-fiction since 1988 with writers as far flung as China and Thailand, as well as with doctoral students in the Bay Area and New York. He works collaboratively with clients to activate their passion and vision – with clarity, coherence, and in their distinctive voice. David is dedicated to projects that value, expand, and connect our human hearts – offering his own heart, counseling experience, and creativity to bring forth the brilliance of both the writing and the collaborative relationship. He is associate editor with Volcano Press.

Photo by 5lab.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Victoria Fuller

    Useful info. Thank you.
    (P.S. Two typos in first paragraph under Mind Mapping.)

  2. Kenneth Ashe

    Fantastic advice. I’ve going back and forth on writing a book mostly due to the outline. This process will make it much easier.

  3. Hayley Salas

    Thank you so much for all your useful information. I myself am writing a memoir. I am writing in chronological order. My memories begin at five to eight years old. Then second chapter ages nine to twelve. And so on. Nothing is set however in concrete. Your outline process makes writing my book much easier. Thanks again. Hayley

  4. Teri Rose


    Like so many others have been doing, I want to thank you for sharing your ideas and wisdom. I have been procrastinating on my book for quite awhile. I love to write and have lots of words on paper but it has been daunting to organize them in the form of a book. I have struck gold here with your common sense method. Thank you!

  5. Katie Patton

    Thank you. I’m having trouble putting a nonfiction book in correct order. it’s hard to write something in a way a beginner would understand when you’ve known the topic for years. I will try to put myself in those shoes.

    • David Colin Carr

      Hi Katie –

      Here’s a suggestion. Try to explain to an intelligent friend who is not familiar with your topic, and listen to the question that they ask to clarify their understanding. You should get a quick guide to what to include and what information is needed before other information. I suggest building a basic outline before you have that conversation, and make notes on the questions that are asked. I’m also happy to reflect with you on the strength of your outline.

  6. marvia

    Thank you for this article. It helped me figure out how to organize a book of essays I just started. At first, I was overwhelmed, and nearly gave up before I began. But I followed the first steps (breaking the traditional outline), hard for me as a high school English teacher, but once I read your ideas, I understood why. It made total sense. I will finish the rest later in the week, but I wanted to say thanks. This gave me the confidence boost and practicality that I desperately needed.

    • David Colin Carr

      Thanks, Marvia, for letting me know that what’s intuitive can undercut the suffering so many writers experience as they face turning an idea into a written piece. Yesterday I spent less than an hour reflecting with a doctoral candidate on how to throw all the ideas he wanted to include in his dissertation into a jar (metaphorically) and shake hard. Like a pile of dirt – the small particles fall to the bottom, under the pebbles, with the stones on the top. The stones are the major parts of the outline – once these three or five or seven are identified, they need to be put in logical order. The rest of the process is letting the pebbles congregate around the stones, the sand around the pebbles. I’m so glad an English teacher can undo the treachery imposed on young writers by taking the intimidation out of outlining.

  7. J S

    I’ve been using Xmind Mind Mapping software. It’s free and works on Linux (I think it runs on Windows, and maybe Mac if you’re on those). It also has an outline view that takes the mindmap and automatically parses it into an outline. that I run in split-screen. I can flip between the two options depending on how the ideas are arriving. FreeMind is another I’ve used.

  8. Amber Lea Starfire

    David, I’m one of those people whose brain goes on the fritz with the idea of outlining — not regular nonfiction, such as in courses, how-to’s, essays, and so on (outlining those is easy) — but for memoir, which is not, and should not, always be presented in a linear fashion. Do you have outlining methods for helping people shape a longer creative nonfiction work, such as memoir?

    • David Colin Carr

      I think the first comment pointing to Elizabeth George’s suggestion for outlining fiction is great. Memoir, however, is such an unpredictable medium that I’m not sure I have an answer. I’ve worked with many memoir clients, yet each one has taken a thorough review of the content followed by a “mull” – I post a question on the cosmic bulletin board and wait for an answer to show up about how to present it most vividly.

      The challenge with memoir is to make it interesting to someone other than the writer. The primary consideration is to point up the useful lessons for readers and present them in a way that explores the inner territory as well as the universal. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brian is great. He mulls the material from different perspectives in different chapters. This exposes the objective outrage of what war does to the human mind and the inherent disorder in ground war, as well as what it destroys in the righteous warrior. Personal, intimate and universal all together. It also conveys his question about what is true in memory so that you have a feeling of his internal confusion. (The chapter about the young water buffalo brought me to question about how intense writing has to be to make its point. I couldn’t sleep after reading it. And no doubt that was part of his intention in writing it for me. Another short, effective and excruciating memoir is Dorothy Alison’s Numbers – I think that’s the title, I can’t find it at the moment.)

      As I’m mulling your question, Amber, I think you probably just need to write everything that needs to be written, then worry about structure afterward and rebuild the text from there. Laura Davis in Santa Cruz teaches occasional weekend memoir retreats. My experience there is that you don’t know what you really have to say until you start writing. And I highly recommend Wild Mind free writing to pull that material out of the stores hidden beneath consciousness and into daylight. After there are a lot of words, I suspect it takes a good editor who can reflect with you to pull out something valuable to a broad audience.

      • Amber Lea Starfire

        David, thank you for your thoughtful and helpful reply to my question. Writing what I need to write (those most compelling images) and then structuring later is pretty much the way I’m going about it. I’ve written tens of thousands of words, and I’m definitely still in the “figuring out what I really need to say” part of the process. It’s kind of an organic thing, this memoir writing. I do a lot of free writing and journaling. I’ll check out the Wild Mind free writing method and see what it has to offer.

        • David Colin Carr

          Free writing is a technique that Natalie Goldberg describes in Wild Mind. She starts with a prompt and the process is to write for a preset time (10-30 minutes, but I suggest starting with 10) and never let your hand stop moving – no crossing out, no inner critic evaluating how/what you’re doing. If you run out of words, start with the prompt again. For example (for memoir) “The house on XXX street” or “My grandmother’s refrigerator (or icebox depending on how old you are and where your grandmother lived)” or “When I saw my father”. It’s a great way to loosen the screws on our usual way of thinking, so that oddments of various relevancy can ooze out. This process is not about craft, though beautiful writing can result. It’s about opening the field.

          At you can sign up for a Tuesday email with a prompt. Or search “Writing Prompts” for thousands online.

          A more organized way to go about memoir is to focus clearly on the audience you want to reach and what you want them to learn from your writing. If you keep that in mind as you write, you can bypass distracting details that may be what you remember, but which will not further or enrich your story.

          • Amber Lea Starfire

            David, again, thank you. I didn’t realize you were referring to Goldberg’s book by that name, but thought you were referring to a specific freewriting technique. I freewrite all the time, beginning way back when, with the Artist’s Way, and “Morning Pages.” In fact, my site, is all about journaling, journaling prompts, and techniques to enhance writing skills, including writing for memoir. And my book, Week by Week: A Year’s Worth of Journaling Prompts is about to be released on December 15th. I’m always looking for advanced ideas about how to structure longer works of memoir, however :-). It tends to be the most illusive.

            I love the way you present concepts and ideas — practical and accessible.

            Freewriting is a great way to get at the heart of things, and I recommend it for all kinds of purposes, including fiction (freewriting characters, setting, and so on).

  9. Jonathan Evatt

    Thanks David. Enjoyed reading this article… it unfolded at a good pace, and covered some very useful ideas. I tend toward Mind-mapping and have done for the past 20+ years, since I started using them at school. These days I do them all on computer, but back then all on paper. The tool I currently use for them is NovaMind. One can switch easily between Outlining mode and MindMapping mode. It is then effortless to export the whole outline (including notes, etc.) in OPML through to Scrivener.

    I’ll make use of your tips for my next outline / mind-map.

    With heart,


    • David Colin Carr

      Thanks, Jonathan, for acknowledging the structure beneath my writing – and for point us to NovaMind. I’m touched by the sharing that has come from this post.

      In service, David

  10. Joel Friedlander

    What I like about David’s method is how relaxing it is. Outlining or mind mapping a big project can be pretty stressful because it feels like the weight of the entire project is on one’s back. But this way, you get rid of all the pressure and the whole process starts to look more like an enjoyable kind of game. That’s neat!

  11. Marla Markman

    David, thank you for presenting another way to create an outline. It is indeed a less intimidating method than the traditional way you are taught in school. Although I usually get books to edit after they’ve already been written, this is a good method to suggest to any one who may be suffering from writer’s block or is stymied in the organizational dept, so I shall keep it mind.

    Michael Robert: Your storyboard method sounds like an workable method as well. Glad it has worked for you.

  12. paula hendricks

    good post david. yes, i love the tone. and the balance in comments for fiction make this great. thank you all.


  13. Michael Robert Lockridge

    On my most recent novel I decided to try a storyboard using presentation software. As I thought of major elements for the story I would make a slide, adding any details and notes as came to mind. The slides built up to form the story line. I could move elements around, add elements where necessary, and add details and notes. I have modified the storyboard as my work developed. I am 75% through the first draft, and hope to use the storyboard to aid me in my editing and rewriting.

    • David Colin Carr

      Do you mean transparencies, Michael? That gave me an interesting visual image, but I wouldn’t know how to go about making them.
      I am so pleased by the good-heartedness of the community that is responding to my post.

  14. David Colin Carr

    You’ve made my day lighter already, Betty. I hadn’t realized the timing…
    And maybe I’ll follow your lead and have a mellow, sane day myself.

  15. betty ming liu

    love the mellow sanity of this post. i really appreciate the tone. and it’s perfect for this morning — the start of national novel writing month. i am going to use it right now, to get started. thanks for the inspiration!

  16. Mary Tod

    The hammock outlining process sounds ideal. I use a concept borrowed from Elizabeth George (in her book Write Away) to outline fiction. Each chapter has six headings: Setting (where is this taking place), Voice (who tells the story in this chapter), Timeline, Basic Outline (bullet points of what happens), Dramatic Dominoes (events cascading from the chapter) and Open Questions (questions the reader has at the end of the chapter that will keep them wanting more).
    First novel I wrote took forever, using this technique the second novel took much less time and the third less time again.
    I’ll have to try it from the hammock :)

    • David Colin Carr

      Well, no need to follow up with my promised method for developing fiction structure, Mary. What Elizabeth George describes it succinct and useful. Thanks for sharing that.
      The challenge I run into as an editor is having time to read other editors and writers on How-to’s. Not even time to finish my own book on writing a self-help books at actually helps.

      • Mary Tod

        Hi David, I did not mean to steal your thunder. I’d love to hear your ideas about outlining fiction. Anything to improve the torturous writing process! And no, I am not doing NaNoWriMo. Maybe next year :)

        • David Colin Carr

          I didn’t feel my thunder was stolen at all, Mary – I think Elizabeth George’s points are terrific and have already sent your comment to some clients. There’s not enough time to keep up with the wonderful writing in the world, so why put more repetitive words out there?



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