To outline or Not to Outline

This is a guest post by author Nancy R. Hinchliff

Nancy Hinchliff was born in Detroit but spent most of her life in Chicago. She earned undergraduate degrees in music and education and graduate degrees in music, the science of education, and special education before teaching in the Chicago Public schools and later at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Ms. Hinchliff has been writing journal articles, essays, and creative non-fiction all her adult life and has been published in newsletters, magazines, and as a guest blogger. In 2008, she co-authored "Room at the Table", a coffee-table cookbook written for the Bed and Breakfast Association of Kentucky which won their president's award. At the age of 65, she purchased a turn-of-the-century mansion in Old Louisville, Kentucky and turned it into a bed and breakfast. She remained in business there until 2015, when she moved to Vermont having published her first memoir. She is now working on a second one.

I make beautiful outlines. And have, ever since I started writing seriously, which was as a student studying to be a high school teacher. I had excellent English teachers in high school who taught us all the right things, one of them being how to outline properly. All through college, I utilized the skills I’d acquired in Redford High School English classes to write almost perfect outlines that served me well when it came time to use them to create more pieces of writing.

When I began teaching for the Chicago Board of education, making outlines continued to work well for me, as I planned lessons for my students, especially if the topic was new to me. After receiving my undergrad degree, I started teaching Reading and Music to eighth graders===no high school positions were available. So, I had to wait a couple of years until something opened up in high school music. In the meantime, I learned to make beautiful lesson plans, utilizing my beautiful outlines. I had always loved writing things down in an orderly fashion, so I was in heaven.

I remained in my first high school assignment until I was transferred back to an elementary school, because of a shakeup at the board of education that resulted in an attempt to phase out Music and Art. I was very unhappy teaching little kids for those two years, so I decided to return to the university for masters in special education; my reasoning being that the Board now needed Special Ed. teachers at the high school level. It worked. After a year, I had another degree and a position at Crane high school teaching all subjects, including English, to small groups of Learning Disabled and Behavior Disordered students. Now my skill at outlining really came in handy, as I was now teaching English, monitoring IEPs (Individual Lesson Plans) for my students, and researching Social Studies and Math topics.

When I took a sabbatical, after a few years, to work on another advanced degree and was confronted with research paper after research paper along with the responsibility for learning a grandiose amount of new information, outlines were indispensable===there was just too much that could easily become unwieldy; it had to be broken down into bite-sized pieces and put in some logical order, so it could be regurgitated in class or used to present at conventions and workshops.

Finally, when my teaching days were behind me, my twenty year journey as an innkeeper had come to an end, the inn had been sold and the move to Vermont accomplished, I began to contemplate publishing a memoir, based on stories I had written in Louisville, Kentucky in a second floor back bedroom of my Victorian bed and breakfast. They had developed out of a serious relationship with blogging. I’d received comment after comment suggesting I collect all my blog-posted stories and magically turn them into a memoir.  At first, I was overwhelmed by the idea, but eventually, I succumbed and wrote my first memoir.

Now I know what you’re thinking? Again I utilized my outlining skills to help me sort out all those posts and turn them into something magical. Sorry, but you would be wrong. I never once outlined anything. I just started writing===head on, without stopping until I’d finished the first draft.

I don’t remember anyone ever telling me they made an outline before writing a post on a blog. No. And I certainly had not. When I began blogging, after all the formal writing I had done, it felt a little strange sitting down to my computer and just writing about my day like I was just having a conversation with someone.  But I soon got the gist if it. And it got easier and easier. Soon I was so comfortable with it, I was posting every day, not just on one blog I’d named InnNotes, but on four. The blogging format was easily turned into a memoir format, which to me is just blogging on a larger scale.  I never outlined anything after that; however, I did make notes and weird graphs to help me keep a handle on timelines, dates, and descriptions of various locations and people. Strange, isn’t it===about abandoning all those years of outlining? But memoir is loose and contingent upon what the writer is able to remember. I found outlining too restrictive….it interfered with the flow. I’d like to know how other memoir writers feel about this.