I read the interview anthology The New New Journalism a couple of years ago, and one of the many things that struck me while reading it was how consistently the writers interviewed for the book said they didn’t use an “outline” when organizing the mass of material to write long-form narrative nonfiction. Just as consistently, immediately after that declaration, the writer would describe how they DID organize the material—which was frequently a list of topics, high points in the material, turning points in their pursuit of the story—and their approach would basically be an outline in everything but name.
That’s what reminded me how much most of us, writers included, hate our 8th grade English teachers. In the pursuit of teaching us how to write the perfect five-paragraph theme, he or she was often the one who introduced us to the “outline”—that Roman numeral bit of antiquity that works a whole lot better after the piece is finished than while we’re trying to organize it. (I remember learning how to do an outline by studying the structure of finished writings, most often by professional writers, which just seems to buttress my point.)
So outlines are rarely the tool of choice when organizing material, but there are alternatives to a) making a list (and obsessing over it way more than twice) or b) just plunging into writing without structuring the material, which is a little like trying to do a do-it-yourself home improvement project without measuring anything.
I’ve found 3 structuring techniques that go beyond the humble list method, give your writing a visual boost, and can even prepare your finished piece for a world beyond print.
Tool #1: The Mind Map
Popularized by Tony Buzan, mind-mapping has spawned a cottage industry of software that will take your thoughts and provide a visual display of relationships between ideas and where the linkages are. It’s sort of like a 3-D list.
Here’s a link on Tony’s site to a mind-map of a concept from a book by Edward De Bono, Six Thinking Hats.
And here’s a very interesting Flash-based instructional mind-map on how to use mind maps to write an essay.
The greatest advantage of mind-mapping a nonfiction story is that it makes the whole process less linear, and helps you see multiple relationships between topics and sub-topics in your story. As an editor, I often mind-map as I brainstorm story assignments for my writers; as a writer, it’s been an interesting way to supplement the “list method” of organizing my stories.
Tool #2: Storyboarding
I heard the wonderful journalism instructor Jacqui Banaszynski lecture three years ago at an editor’s conference, and she asserted that the generation coming of age write now has a far more visual, cinematic imagination. She reported that her college students at Mizzou have responded well when she asked them to plot out their nonfiction stories by conceiving each element in a narrative as a “scene.”
Taking that concept one step further is using storyboards to structure one’s writing. Borrowed from the world of filmmaking, storyboards force you to do several things with your writing:
¨ You have to determine a story arc to your material
¨ You have to be explicit about what point of view you are using in your writing, and how and why you shift it during the story
¨ You need to conceive of anecdotes or reportage as scenes, with a beginning, middle and end, that serve to drive the larger story forward
¨ You have to pay attention to the visual and kinesthetic elements of the scenes you are recounting
As one might expect, fiction writers have discovered how useful storyboarding is to their writing. For nonfiction writers, storyboards can help keep a large “cast of characters” organized, reveal gaps in information, uncover points where lesser storylines threaten to derail the main thrust of your article or book, and provide an easy at-a-glance reference for a long manuscript.
This newsletter article from a romance writers group discusses several ways to create a storyboard for a written piece. Lightning Bug’s article on storyboarding is also good, especially because it demonstrates how simple the pictures can be and still be effective. Frankly, spending time creating beautiful graphics isn’t the point—if you can understand what you sketched later, that’s enough!
Tool #3: Wordle/Tag Clouds
One last tool that can help you see patterns in your research is the concept of the tag cloud, which provides a visual representation of the frequency of words or topics in a given piece of writing. Popularized by blogs, tag clouds can be an aid to a user’s search of a site—if a tag that matches their search is big enough, they may be enticed deeper into an online site.
For those of you unfamiliar with tag clouds, here’s one from my delicious.com feed.
Wordle is another interesting tool for finding patterns or repeating elements in your writing. It creates word clouds that look and function much the same as tag clouds.
Here’s an image via Wordle that was created from a newsletter article I wrote a while back about persistence and creativity.
My suggestion for using Wordle to structure your story is to do a free-form brain dump on your material, up to 500 words long, then drop the piece into Wordle and see what patterns emerge.