my ass is on the (out)line

For someone who really loves planning, I have a curious disability: I can’t outline. Sure, I generally know what I am going to argue (in my MSt dissertation I will argue that literature is not a secular concept but perpetually performs theodicy because of narrative necessities). I also vaguely know how I will argue this (by revealing theodicical structures in A.H. Clough’s narrative poetry, and J.A. Froude’s novel and autobiographic remains) but that’s as far as I am comfortable to go. I am amazed to see friends produce detailed maps, outlining chapters and sub-chapters and prophesying word counts for every thought – I just can’t do it. Were I a psychologizing kind of gal, I would assume that I dislike outlines because they require decision making, they reveal to me all the things I will not be able to write about, proving in miniature what I fear in reality; that life’s opportunity’s are limited. You have 10.000 words in which you can only say these few little things, you have 90 years and you’ll never become an accomplished pianist, Nobel prize winner, stuntman-chef designing for Dior. Are you doing the right thing with your paper/life? Beware the deadline!

Happily I am not prone to psychologize. For whatever reason, I have always shunned outlining, making only the most basic structures (to keep my supervisors happy) and then just rolling with whatever the words want me to do.

Obviously this is stupid. Not outlining is entirely doable and my usual backwards-planning structure is designed in a way to account for an inability to outline (giving me a lot of time to think while writing and an opportunity to completely change the structure once the first draft is done). BUT I suspect I would be faster and perhaps even better if I knew what exactly I was going to say before I started saying it. I would also need to cut fewer words. (Also if I knew how to outline, I wouldn’t need to admit that I don’t know how to outline, bringing me so much closer to absolute awesome).

This outlining business is one of the few intricacies of knowledge work which I have not yet been able to solve, despite continually reading about it (Writing for Academic Journals, for example, has a lot on outlining that is interesting but doesn’t address my particular issues with decision making). All I can do is to continue trying; to keep asking other people how they do it (if you have suggestions please leave a comment) and to practice, practice, practive and then ask myself what I could have done better. One of the reasons I started this blog is to force me to outline blog posts. I thought that having a regular writing activity might enable me to make outlining a regular activity as well. So I made an outline for this post:

1. Intro: I can’t outline because I am afraid to make a decision, nevertheless I want to make outlines because of time, quality and a latent inability to accept that I have an inability (150 words)

2. Body: (a) can’t solve it but can keep trying

(b) practice by outlining blogposts (show outline for post)

(c) go to a nice quiet place and do it as well as you can (300 words)

3. Conclusion: I will now write an outline for my dissertation. It might not be prefect but that’s ok. (50)

So this is my outline. I did that and am following it as much as I can. I also feel a bit of a fool because the task seems so simple. I also forgot to put in my outline that one of my strategies is to bully myself into doing things I am not good at. So, not only am I making this struggle as public as possible by posting it here, I also told my supervisor that he’d get an outline by tonight. The self-bullying strategy usually works best if it is accompanied by positive reinforcement and genereal niceness, so I will now leave the library and go to a nice cafe. I will take coloured pens and post-its (yay! colours!) and the moleskine notebook I bought for this purpose and I will not leave until I have an outline. According to my outline, the outline I am about to write will not be perfect, but that’s ok.

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About Oxford DPhile

I'm a doctoral candidate in English at Somerville College, Oxford. My thesis, tentatively titled “Just Literature: Evil, Victorian Narrative, and the Problem of Theodicy”, explores the interplay between literature and theodicy – the justification of a good God in light of the existence of evil – in the works of A.H. Clough, J.A. Froude and George Eliot. I teach English Literature at the University of Würzburg, coach academic writing in English at Oxford, blog about the tricks and pitfalls of thesis writing, and love to collaborate. My novel "Das Unglück anderer Leute" was published by Galiani Berlin in August 2016.
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One Response to my ass is on the (out)line

  1. Pingback: This feels entirely too much like planning | The "Professional" Blog of J. M. Brink

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