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3. Outlining the Manuscript

[The third in a series.]

If you’ve been following this blog recently, you know that I’m trying to answer that burning question in the back of many people’s minds: How do you go about writing a book and getting it published?

So far, we’ve discussed getting the idea and doing the research. Now it’s time to tackle the next step. Once you have all the information you’ll need, you begin outlining the manuscript, what you will say and in what order.

Now please don’t stop reading just because you see the word outlining! I know that for some people that word brings back nightmares from junior high, when the teacher made you create formal outlines from long, boring reading assignments. Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, lowercase letters, Arabic numerals and lowercase letters within parentheses, etc.

That was then; this is now. That was (or seemed to be at the time) mere busywork; this is the real deal, a way to organize your thoughts so that your writing reflects what you intend to say logically and clearly.

If the word outlining causes you to tremble, call it planning or categorizing or anything else that removes from your mind the booger-man of outlining. An outline is simply the plan by which you intend to present the information you’ve gathered through your research.

If you skip this step, your writing will be random, haphazard, unorganized, unintelligible, confusing. So put your mind to it, and persevere. The exercise will be well worth it in the end.

For the books I’ve written or have in process, the outlines are generally chronological because the books deal with historical events or subjects, making the order of presentation straightforward. But even with those I generally have to explain the context, or backstory, before proceeding to the chronological steps. I also usually have to make conclusions or evaluations. I often have to offer biographical sketches of individuals that figure prominently in the text and explain how they fit into the overall picture.

So I must wrestle with the question of where best in my narrative to place each of those items or bits of information. In a large sense, my outline at this point became, for all intents and purposes, my table of contents. Granted, it was a working ToC because it sometimes changed as I added or deleted or rearranged the order of various points. But it was my guiding light as I prepared to write and during the writing process.

Then, within each main point, or chapter, I again addressed the same question regarding supporting or illustrative material. These became my subpoints and sub-subpoints.

For example, in Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, before I could discuss the individual offices and the people who filled them, I had to explain how the cabinet came into being (i.e., the secession crisis, the election of a Provisional Congress, the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president, and finally his process of selecting his cabinet). Each of those subtopics became a point in the opening chapter. Only then could I begin to address the individual departments and secretaries.

For the sake of order, consistency, and predictability, I devoted one chapter each to the individual departments of the cabinet, explaining how it was organized, the problems it faced, what it accomplished, etc. I followed those chapters with a chapter each for the men who held the secretaryship of those departments.

With that as my overall game plan, or writing strategy (dare I use the dreaded word outline?), I could begin drafting my text.

The key to effective writing is good organization, and one of the best tools for getting your information and thoughts organized is outlining. Your outline might (or might not!) be a formal outline. It might be a diagram. The longer your manuscript, the more important it will be to make it a formal, written outline.

But the essential thing is to get organized. Only then can you hope to write well. Disorganized information is a sign of disorganized thinking, and that’s no way to start writing. So get your information into logical categories and subcategories, and set those into a logical sequence.

Your assignment: Take the materials and notes you’ve been collecting during your research, and organize it in the most appropriate order for presentation. Then write down that order in outline form. Create a working table of contents. And get ready to write!

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