New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist S.C. Gwynne shares the secret to a high-quality nonfiction writing: spending time on an outline.
One of the most common questions I am asked, and one of the most perplexing, is: How much time do I spend writing each day? I always try to be polite and circumspect when answering, but it is hard not to reply with another question: How do you define “writing?” I have an image in my mind of some modernist or other—let’s say Hemingway—arising in the morning, putting a sheet of bond paper into his Smith Corona, then writing English prose for the next few hours. Pretty, elliptical sentences drawn from his own life. Hemingway would thus “write” for five or six hours, log 500 acceptable words, then go off to fly fish in Spain or drink in Parisian bars for the rest of the day. When someone asked Hemingway how many hours a day he wrote, he would reply: “Five or six.” And this is what the questioner means.
But the question, as put, is meaningless. For one thing, as a nonfiction writer, I spend more than half of my time—and sometimes considerably more than half—doing research. (This is true for many fiction writers as well.) So, is that “writing?” If I pass eight hours in a dusty archive somewhere reading illegible letters, was I writing? I don’t think so. I also spend an inordinate amount of time constructing outlines. For a 5,000-word magazine feature story, I might spend two months reporting it, a full week outlining it, then perhaps seven to 10 days writing it.
So, is writing an outline actually writing? I would answer emphatically yes, though, again, this is not what the questioner means. Outlining is everything to me. It is the essence of writing. It is more important than writing successive bits of English prose. In many years in the business of writing magazine stories and books and also working as an editor, I have always been astonished to encounter writers who do not use outlines. There are many of them out there. I suppose I can understand why someone working on an hourly or daily deadline would not use an outline, though I have worked under daily deadlines and always used at least a rudimentary one. But I can’t understand how someone executing a feature story could possibly fly without a net.
Why is this so important to me? Mainly because creating a full-scale outline—I mean, I. a., b., c.; II. a., b., c.—forces you to think your way through the entire story. It forces you to name each one of your big talking points, develop them, and—here is the real test of a great writer—construct an elegant transition from one idea to the next. Outlining the piece is actually writing the piece because it constitutes the actual act of construction. In my business, structure is everything. Burying a lede is merely one obvious structural error. A well-constructed outline understands what its most important idea is. If the writer has paid enough attention to the outline, a buried lede or a directionless nut graph becomes immediately apparent.
Since I spend most of my time writing books, here is how I might do a chapter. After finishing the research, I print out my reading notes and any other documents I want close at hand. I read everything I have, all of the distilled information from all of that research. As I read, I note all of the important ideas in a file I call “Concepts.” I don’t order them. But I don’t miss any of the big ones, either. The “concept” sheet will contain, in shorthand form, everything that I consider important about this chapter.
With my “concept” printout in hand, I then write an outline. For the moment, this is only the bare bones of an outline, but this is the moment when I have to think through the structure of my chapter. What are its most important ideas? Which characters come on stage and when? What are the big narrative arcs? If I have done a good job, the ideas/characters should be cleanly delineated, and the chapter should move forward in a logical, organized way.
Thus far, the process has been fun. There is no drudgery in coming up with shorthand versions of the chapter’s ideas. Sometimes I have been known to do it over a few gin and tonics. While I am composing it, I actually think that writing is fun. But now the hard slog begins. The next step is to “pack” the outline, meaning that I am going to create the machine that will actually write the story for me. When I am finished, for example, III a. will contain full instructions to allow me to find any relevant quotes references, facts, or other pertinent information. So what started as a three-page outline will now quickly grow to perhaps 25 (single-spaced), meaning that the outline itself may be longer than the actual chapter. But a full outline means that, as I write the story, I have everything in front of me. I will not have pausing for hours to track down that one little fact whose origin I can’t remember.
And then, of course, I actually write the thing, in the precise sense that my questioner intended: sentences and paragraphs. If I have done a good job on the outline, the chapter will go easily and the editor will be happy. If not, it will fall to the editor to fix the structural mistakes I made in my own outline.
But I am damned if I can say which part of all that is “writing,” and I guess my answer to the “how many hours” question, if I am talking about writing finished sentences, would be: “very damn few.”
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