LawProse Lesson #286: Nonlinear outlining.

Most schoolchildren are taught to start an outline with “I, II, III”—a quintessentially linear structure. But for many writers, this rote method leads to “outliner’s block”: the relative inability to produce a traditional outline. Most writers are familiar with the anxiety that facing an empty page can provoke. Not knowing where to begin a project, they find that all their ideas have suddenly deserted them, leaving their minds as blank as the paper. An empty outline only compounds that problem by imposing the expectation of a rigid structure too early in the process. Unsurprisingly, writers afflicted with this syndrome tend to compose first and outline later, if at all. When structure is a mere afterthought, coherence and persuasiveness inevitably suffer.

The best way to avoid this pitfall is to make some type of nonlinear outline before planning the linear structure. The nonlinear form—whether a “mind map” or a “whirlybird”—helps you generate and accumulate your thoughts in no particular order before worrying about assembling them into a sensible linear format. You separate the begetting of ideas from their arrangement. For those who have difficulty outlining, nonlinear methods can be a godsend. And they are easy to learn.

In Part 1 of Bryan Garner’s forthcoming ten-part webinar series, Legal Writing in Plain English, you’ll learn how to use nonlinear outlining to jump-start any writing project. Participants in Garner’s live seminars routinely say that this method enables them to produce excellent work in remarkably little time. With most projects, 15 short minutes with Garner’s coaching will probably make you feel as if you’re halfway home.

Further reading:

Legal Writing in Plain English 9–16 (2d ed. 2013).
The Winning Brief 29–34 (3d ed. 2014).
Garner on Language and Writing 8–11 (2009).

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