By Linda Carlson
I consider myself a born writer, and I’ve been lucky to be published by mainstream media since I was a teenager. The books, the articles, and the speeches I write are good because I get enthused about topics, do thorough research, ask hard questions and have a clear focus on my intended reader. Even more important: I’m organized. And that doesn’t come easy.
Nonfiction manuscripts of almost any length do not organize themselves. I begin with the same tool we learned in grade school: the outline. Except I don’t worry about Roman numeral this, and capital letter number that. I just jot down the topics I want to cover---in whatever order they come to mind. Some people use index cards, paper or digital, which can be shuffled. For Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest, I wanted to describe daily life in employer-owned communities, and the big question was whether to do it by community or by topic. The choice was topic, with chapters on education, religion, housing and with demographics covered in “Who Lived in Company Towns?” and periods of crisis in “Depression and World Wars.” Each includes examples from a few towns, and to satisfy my personal commitment to identifying hundreds of villages that no longer exist, the end matter includes a gazetteer briefly describing each town researched.
My outlines are also important because they keep me honest. That is, they force me to answer the questions I expect my readers to ask. When I write about marketing, the outline for “Outdoor Advertising” has to include more than billboards, and it has to include the media purchase (the rental of the billboard, transit sign, taxi cab topper, etc.), the production cost and typical advantages and disadvantages of each medium. When I wrote about company towns, I dug through vintage ads to compare prices in company stores and chain supermarkets, as well as interviewing former company-town residents and grocers about quality and credit policies. When I write about publishing, my outline includes traditional contracts, work-for-hire, and the many ways to self-publish.
When I’m writing, I’m often smitten by anecdotes that are not central to the point, stories I badly want to share. So here’s where my outline serves as the road map: it keeps me on an interstate highway, guiding me to the direct route through my topic. If format and word count allows, the cherished anecdotes can become the equivalent of side trips, possibly presented as sidebars or footnotes. If a publisher requires words to be cut, these are already identified as extras.
In short, while creating an outline can be hard work, it’s a discipline that can organize a writer’s thoughts, eliminate some of the false starts most of us make, ensure we have complete information, and most important, help each of us make the best possible presentation of our material.
Linda Carlson is the author of 15 books, including Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results (Barrett Street Productions) and Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press). She has also been published by John Wiley and Prentice Hall. A graduate of Washington State University and the Harvard Business School, Carlson has written for the monthly of the Independent Book Publishers Association since 2005. For more information, lindacarlson.com, twitter.com/carlsonideas, linkedin.com/pub/lindacarlson/1/239/223, facebook.com/AdvertisingWithSmallBudgetsForBigResults, pinterest.com/thorvaldswanes,washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/CARCOP.htmland ibpa-online.org/article-author/linda-carlson.