When Outlines Paralyze

There are essentially two types of writers in the world: those who create and follow outlines with ease, and those who are paralyzed by them.

I’m the type that gets paralyzed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still find outlines very useful, but not until after I’ve written a full draft. Then and ONLY then can I find the right organizing scheme that develops organically from the content, rather than being imposed upon it. If I set up an outline too soon in the game, and then try to follow it, I will spend hours staring blankly at my screen, or writing in fits and starts, going here and there and essentially nowhere in the end.

I am the kind of writer who needs the process of getting the words down on paper (or these days, coded into bytes), in order to find out what I know and what I want to say. Writing for me is a process of discovery. I write down one thought, and that thought suggests another, and another, and another. Ultimately it becomes clear that I am beginning to repeat myself, and that I am rambling, often incoherently. But it’s best for me to keep the words flowing until they just won’t flow anymore. Then I can go back and edit out the chaff and put like things together and contrasty things side-by-side, and separate the ideas that belong in some other work from the one I need to write at the moment.

So how does that work after you have submitted a dissertation proposal with this beautiful outline that makes so much sense…until you actually try to write the material that is supposed to go with it? Well, as I told one of my coaching clients recently: the purpose of your outline in your dissertation proposal is to get your committee’s approval. After that, you are free to go wherever your ideas and your research take you, as long as you end up with something remotely resembling your proposal…and it is good.

The truth of the matter with my own dissertation is that you would barely recognize what I ended up with compared with the original outline I proposed. That’s because in the process of doing the research I learned so much more than I knew when I started. How can you create a workable outline of a piece that you haven’t even researched yet?

Another analogy I gave her derives from an essay I wrote decades ago when I applied to be a teaching master of arts candidate at Cal State Long Beach. I wrote then comparing writing to the process of working with clay in the ceramics courses I’d taken while I was an art major. One day I was working in the ceramics lab diligently trying to create nice little objects that would serve as Christmas gifts. The instructor came by and asked what I was doing. He said that was fine if that was all I wanted to do. But if I wanted to become a potter, I had to learn to listen to the clay. Instead of imposing pre-conceived ideas about what my object should look like, I had to learn to listen for the clay to tell me what it wanted to be. And I had to make mountains of mistakes, working the clay over and over and over again. Stopping, slicing it to see how even the walls were, then punching it down and starting over again. And over and over and over again.

That’s the same way I approach my writing. That is, the writing that comes before the editing.

My client gave me her plan for the next time — that she would do the next chapter, and she said it would be beautiful.

I said, “I’m not looking for beautiful.” Beautiful is what happens after the clay is out there, after it’s been worked through, after it has told you what it needs to be. Then we carve, cutting out what doesn’t belong, shaping and reshaping what is left.

Don’t worry about beautiful, I said. I am an expert at organizing and polishing writing, but I can’t do it until after the writing has been done!

See, the thing is that when you are aiming for beautiful when you don’t have much to work with yet is that the Editor in your head becomes a Vulture standing over you, ready to pounce and destroy. Or, as Gail Godwin put it, the Editor becomes “The Watcher at the Gate,”

Freud quotes Schiller, who is writing a letter to a friend.  The friend complains of his lack of creative power.  Schiller replies with an allegory.  He says it is not good if the intellect examines too closely the ideas pouring in at the gates.  “In isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea which follows it. . . . In the case of a creative mind, it seems to me, the intellect has withdrawn its watchers from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.  You are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. . . . You reject too soon and discriminate too severely.”

 [I read this essay ages ago for an assignment at a women’s writing conference at UC Santa Cruz, two weeks worth of nothing short of heaven for me at the time, 1978.]

Editors are wonderful beings — whether in your own head, or hired. They are extremely useful and, when activated at the proper time, they can do beautiful. But the ones in your head have a tendency to block you rather than help you if employed to early in the game.

So for now, just write! 


Resources on Academic Writing Part I

As I continue working with new clients I am discovering a great deal of common ground: graduate schools appear to do very little to help prepare their students for the rigors of academic writing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. My own original literature review began exactly the same way. It was rambling, overly long, inchoate, disorderly…leaving readers impatient for me to “get to the point!” I had good excuses for that. After all, I had bit off an giant chunk of ideas to chew on: sociological theories of agency, historiography, feminist theory, and women’s history; all of which I intended to bring to bear on a field that by its very nature had given very little thought to any sort of theory at all: journalism history. And oh yes, I forgot, I also had to cover various approaches within communication theory as well.

Needless to say, “cutting to the chase” was a long, drawn-out process struggling with decisions to cut prose with which I had become enamored and that seemed indispensable — to no one else but me.

I went looking for something to help explain to a new client the problems with her literature review and to offer some ideas on how to resolve it, and happily came across this wonderful article, “A Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review,” by Justus J. Randolph of Walden University. As Randolph writes in his abstract, “Writing a faulty literature review is one of many ways to derail a dissertation.” It is also one of the many ways to cause your editor to tear her hair out!

Guide to Writing the Dissertation Literature Review. By Justus Randolph.

This article provides a terrific taxonomy of the different kinds of literature reviews, and approaches to writing them. Little did you know that there are many ways to accomplish this task, with the choice depending on your audience(s) and purpose.

Here is a table of that taxonomy, created by H.M. Cooper in “Organizing Knowledge Synthesis: A Taxonomy of Literature Reviews,” Knowledge in Society (1988) 1: 104-26:

Cooper's Taxonomy of Literature Reviews

As you can see, there are many variations of focus, goal, perspective, coverage, organization and audience. As noted in the U Illinois-Urbana/Champaign library I took this from:

This chart seems overwhelming! But don’t be afraid. All it is doing is laying out some simple questions you should ask yourself before beginning a Literature Review. For example, the first row, “FOCUS,” is asking what outcomes, methods, theories or practices your literature review is about. Are you tracking the outcomes of previous studies, the methods that have been used over time, or something else?

You don’t need a definitive answer to all these questions, but they will help focus your research.

Questions to consider:

  • Which of these characteristics seem to fit within your field?
  • What would you like your Literature Review/thesis/dissertation to accomplish?
  • Is your aim to influence theory within your field, or have specific application?
  • Who is your audience?
  • Does your field necessitate a particular perspective?
  • How does your field typically organize its findings?


Another very useful article is this one, the first chapter in a book by Eric Hoftsee, Constructing a Good Dissertation:

Writing the Literature Review

As Hoftsee notes:

A literature review serves several purposes in your dissertation. A good literature review shows

  • that you are aware of what is going on in the field, and thus your credentials
  • that there is a theory base for the work you are proposing to do
  • how your work fits in with what has already been done (it provides a detailedcontext for your work)
  • that your work has significance
  • that your work will lead to new knowledge. 

Hoftsee has some very helpful suggestions for how to organize your literature review and select the materials to include. This one is a bit simpler and easier to understand than Randolph’s, but both are useful.

Indeed, I plan to make the both of them required reading for all new dissertation clients! So get busy!