Outlines…. the death of me.

I have, unfortunately, received major deductions from final grades from not doing an outline.  I hate outlines.  I write like I speak and I do not speak in outline form.  I honestly can’t stress how much I dislike outlines.  I have never found them helpful, and they actually confuse me more.  I take a very liberal approach to writing and it consists of my throwing it together and then reviewing it after the fact– so honestly I could possibly benefit from an outline, but I sincerely doubt I’ll enjoy it. 

I understand the pro of outlines, but they are certainly more of a con for me than anything.  I never really organize my paper until after the paper is written on paper.  I feel like maybe we were so forced to do outlines so much that now I just hate them.  I know writers should be more organized than we usually are, but I just feel better if I don’t have to do an outline. Editors as said in the book would probably like an outline to see how we have organized our thoughts but until the I will stick with my writing style. I also understand the “you will need, most likely, more than one edit of a draft,” I recently edited a story about 5 times and I sent it back and forth to people who were helping me edit. My best draft is never my first and is usually never my second. There is always something else I want to add.


Outlines are essential

I find I cannot write a story without a structured and focused outline. Depending on if it is a short feature story or long feature story, the outlines will be different. The long feature story would be more detailed and possibly include more potential sources. Outlining can be tedious, but I find I write the best stories when my thoughts are clearly writing down and laying right next to my laptop. 

In “Telling True Stories,” I appreciated how the authors talked about the editor-writer relationship because it is good for writers to understand that the relationship is not meant to assert authority. I am an editor myself and I always find myself constantly improving my writing. Also, it was interesting how they said editing can take more than two or three drafts for a piece to be publishable. It is a process that takes patience and immense reflecting on myself. As far as style goes, I was intrigued how the author made the suggestion always keep Strunk and Whites, “The Elements of Style” nearby your writing desk. I also enjoyed the other style ideas presented such as embody the ideas in the nature of language, restore worn-out words, take an art class (really?), use concrete detail and compose the piece. These elements really make a feature piece coherent and interesting to the reader. Our audience, after all, is the most important. 

Reader Interest Plane: Enjoy your flight.

Structure is everything. Without a strong structure houses would tumble down around us, bridges wouldn’t hold anything much less a car, and skyscrapers would be piles of rubble. An outline is essentially your structure; where your piece is going to take readers and how. What’s more, the reader must know and understand where the story is going in order to retain a high interest level. This is one of the most important things I got out of chapter 10 from The Art of Feature Writing. The Reader Interest Plane is kind of like five-card draw: Don’t show your cards too early. Generating a clever hook to initially grab a reader, then keeping them on the line by slowly reeling them in is the name of the game. Putting everything into the first couple of paragraphs will be a good story, but the end of it will be cut and dry. Who knows, the reader might not even make it to the end to see how dry it is.

The ideas that the writer has need to be organized in a manner that flows well, while also not revealing everything at once. The secret is in how these are organized. The book says this is the same between a newspaper article and a magazine feature (narrative hook, idea and transition). But, the paragraphs must also have climactic elements that build and build all the way through to the end. This will guarantee a lingering impression with the reader, and leave them impressed but also none the wiser to your carefully planned out story structure.


Writing and Critiquing Features

Do not fear- features are here!  Sometimes reading general news story after general news story can let your thinking get dull and creativity dusty.  Feature stories however bring a whole new light to the right side of the brain.  So how do you begin?

1.  Let’s get an outline together.

I’ll be honest- I’m type A.  I love my planner and I love making lists, so an outline is second nature for me.  But even if you’re type B, C or E, an outline will help you put your thoughts in order and give you a structure of the story.

For example, a persuasive outline might look something like this: (from The Art of Feature Writing, p. 273)

  • Introduction to the issue and your stance
  • Arguments in support of your position
  • Arguments in opposition to your position and a refutation
  • A reaffirmation of the stance taken in the opening paragraphs, but phrased differently.

Do you see how this helps your story flow?  Now take this general guideline, and make it specific to your persuasive story.

2.  Now let’s write:

Good writers craft every element of their work, down to the joints between the words.  During this meticulous process it’s nearly impossible to step back and experience the text as a new reader would,” said Mark Kramer and Wendy Call in Telling True Stories.

This is such a true great piece of advice.  Keep that in mind when you begin to edit.  Here are some other great tips for perfecting your writing abilities:

  • Embody ideas in the nature of language
  • Restore worn-out words
  • Take an art class
  • Use concrete detail
  • Compose the pace
  • Experiment with form
  • Cultivate your own style
  • Get someone to read and critique
  • Raise the bar through each story
  • Each year choose three skills to concentrate and develop on


Take these tips and apply them to each story you write.  Perfect your feature and see how far you can go!

It’s Just An Outline

I remember taking speech class a couple years ago at Jones County Junior College, and we had an assignment that required us to make an entire outline of a five-minute speech. Easier said than done. What I took from that experience is that when delivering a story, whether it’s written or verbally, there has to be some element of organization to keep a steady flow in whatever is being delivered to the audience.

As writers, it can be easy for us to become frustrated with so many thoughts circling our mind when we are composing a feature story. The reading shares several tips on how to avoid that along with making the writing process easier. Whether it’s a simple outline with main topics and subtopics or an inverted pyramid, your story deserves some type of organization to help make it more compelling. The last thing you want is for your story to read off as a cluster of words with no meaning.

I’ve learned from past experiences with composing stories that it really helps to map out the sequence of ideas even before working on my rough draft. It’s like playing a game of spades. You set your cards up, see what you’re working with and play to your advantage in order to win. The same concept (sort of) applies to writing a feature story, set your main topics up, see what additional commentary and notes you’re working with and write to your advantage.

It never helps to immediately start writing a story with no sense of direction.

Better writing comes from learning to edit yourself

If you really want to improve your writing, spend some time as an editor. Being an editor makes you read a story differently. Rather than seeing the story as a collective whole, editors see it as pieces (words, sentences, thoughts, ideas.) They learn to compartmentalize, reading for content first, and then going line by line to spot mistakes, clunkiness, lack of flow.

The best writers learn to use these editing tools on their own work. They distance themselves from their writing by “letting it gel,” or writing and then leaving their work before reading it again. Then they put on their editors’ hats and spot the problems.

You can give it try here by editing each of these sentences.

Outlines Will Save Your Life

Forgive me, for I have sinned. I have never written an outline for any of the stories or articles I have written. Outlining was always my least favorite part growing up and going through public-education English classes. I get it’s useful for some people, but I always ended up changing things from whatever was in my outline. It was all just a waste of time for me.

I might jot down a few short notes that make sense to me and only me, but I have never done a formal outline, which is apparently very helpful when writing and makes your writing better. See, a lot of people like organization. Even people who think in a very disorganized way (myself included) like organization when it comes to writing because it is all just easier to follow and understand. If the story is disorganized,  no one will understand what it is about and lose interest in the story.

So outlines are really good for keeping stories organized, apparently. First, you have to make sure you know what kind of story you are hoping to write, because you can’t outline a short feature story the same way you would a long news story. Then you can figure out what parts of the story are going to go where to make it a coherent story.

I know as I improve my writing it would probably be in my best interest to start outlining my stories instead of just diving in and writing it. It’s just quicker that way, so I like it better, and I rearrange the story as I go along. That’s the wonderful thing about using a computer with cut and paste capabilities. Essentially, if someone wants to be a good writer, they should not follow my example. They should outline.

What’s In a Lead?

Leads to a story can be tricky.  Sometimes, I’ll write the body of the story first and the lead last.  Leads should be enticing, interesting and compelling.  The reader should be drawn in to read the rest of the story.

The dramatic lead.

“His classmates called him “the leper,” because measles had left his 12-year-old body scarred.  His mother said children tended to blame him when things went wrong.  One day, distraught, the boy in Tromsoe, Norway, took a rope and hanged himself.”

This lead is from the Associated Press in 1983.  The story is about suicide among children, but aren’t you enticed?  They could have begun with statistics- which would be interesting- but doesn’t this really impact you?

The question lead.

“Acid rain- how much is falling and where?  Where does it come from?  Is the problem getting worse?  Are its effects cumulative?”

This is from the West Virginia University Alumni Magazine.  When I read this, I’m genuinely concerned about my area and I want to know if acid rain is coming near me.  The biggest rule about a question lead- it needs to be clearly answered in the article.  Again, CLEARLY answered.

The setting lead.

This lead should really set the scene.  The reader should have a vivid picture of where the story is and what’s happening.  These are generally filled with descriptive verbs and adjectives.

The combination lead.

Alright- let’s throw it all together!  Combine two and be creative.  Try something many different ways and see what you get.


Don’t forget your amazing heading!  A good title will draw in a magazine editor and the general reader.  Make your reader have to read the article- make them need to know the story.

Lead them away from the zombies.

The only thing I know for sure is how to create a lead. I could write you any type of lead any type of way. I mean we have only been practicing writing leads since we began our education here. If you leave this school without knowing how to create a lead then that is on you as we have basically been brainwashed with leads.I love that Leading the Way was not really teaching new leads, but offering tips on how to create fantastic leads. It is time to stop learning new leads and time to start making our leads catch our readers attention. I can not tell you how many leads I have read from my local news station that makes me want to scream. Leads are one of the most important parts of the story. A terrible lead can make a reader run faster than if they had a herd of Walkers chasing after them. Your lead has to be the best thing you have ever written or you can forget about your reader even considering finishing your story. Trust me if the lead is awful I just cannot go on with the story.
Writers should also learn to speak simply to their readers. Do not pretend that your readers are stupid, but do not think they have the same vocabulary as you do. Your job is to make a story interesting, informing, or entertaining. Do not confuse your readers, because you enjoy big words. No, bad. If you can read your paper without going, “oh yeah I am a genius,” then your reader will probably enjoy your paper.

P.S. They should teach continuing education classes for journalist in how to perfect the lead.

Finding the English Major in You.

The more I do in this class, the more I realize that I’m just unlearning what I have been taught in the rest of the media writing curriculum.

In media writing there seems to be a lot of value put on simple sentences. Subject, verb, object and move on. We have deadlines to meet and the editors have not slept in two days. Now this book is giving radical ideas such as inverting the sentence for emphasis? Crazy.

Though there is something to changing up the sentence structure in even the hardest news stories. If the goal is to get the reader to the bottom of the page and across the break then adding diversity is important.

At the same time, the content of the story may be all one needs to carry a story. What’s scary about features is that split between content and style is much closer to 50/50. I know I have opened some poor written, but interesting, feature stories and quit after a few paragraphs. That also holds true the other way around.

I have gotten really comfortable hiding behind the content of a news story lately. This chapter has really made realize I need to rediscover my English major if I want to do well with features. Though now that English major is a little less likely to drone on due to writing on deadline, so maybe that won’t be a bad thing.