The dynamic outlining process that we’re working through at the moment can be used to produce a detailed structural outline for a non-fiction book.
What I want to address in this post is when non-fiction writers should produce a fast outline, and when they should produce a slow outline.
What’s The Difference Between A ‘Fast’ Outline And A Slow ‘Outline?’
If you are planning a new project the dynamic outlining process can be used to power through the outlining process. Depending on the complexity of your project, it’s possible to produce a detailed working outline in 4 to 6 hours.
That’s a ‘fast’ outline.
By comparison, a ‘slow’ outline is where the outlining process is done over a much longer period of time. If you read the post on How I Discovered My Outlining System you’ll remember that originally this process was trialled in a private forum, and the 30 or so people working on outlining their books had to answer a question a day. (And every question answered moved them a step closer to the completion of their outline.)
Now, in terms of actual time spent at the computer answering questions and working towards your completed outline, the overall time you spend at the computer working towards that finished outline is similar.
The major difference between a fast outline and a slow outline is the overall amount of time it takes to produce that finished outline. So 4-6 hours versus 20-30 days.
Now looking at those figures in isolation you might think it’s a no-brainer and that the fast outline is clearly superior.
But that’s not always the case. Let’s take a closer look at the slow outlining process.
The Slow Outlining Process
In the slow outlining process you work through answering the questions at a deliberate tortoise pace. Maybe you answer just one or two questions a day.
Obviously this will take substantially longer than powering through the questions and answering them sequentially.
But there is a paradoxical benefit to the slow outlining process. When you’re only answering a question or two a day your subconscious mind has a lot of free time to process information in the background as you’re going about your daily routine.
Fiction writer Stephen King refers to the writer’s subconscious mind as ‘the boys in the basement.’ And he also refers to the process of giving the subconscious mind information to work on as ‘feeding’ those boys in the basement.
I like that analogy.
Think of answering just one or two questions a day as tasty morsels to feed to boys in the basement. By deliberately outlining at a slow pace the subconscious mind gets a chance to process the information and provide ‘Eureka’ moments when you are least expecting them.
Those eureka moments can range from unexpected, non-linear connections in the material you are working on to intriguing process names to metaphors and analogies. Blending these insights into your outline – and eventually into the finished book! – helps with the creation of a book that’s more complex and more satisfying.
The Fast Outlining Process
The fast outlining process by contrast produces an outline much more quickly – but the outline is much more linear and much more obvious.
Because you are jumping from answering one question immediately into answering the next, the boys in the basement don’t get chance to process the material you are working on and provide you with any of those unexpected connections and insights.
Now the obvious conclusion to draw here is that the slow outlining process is superior and that’s the route to take. But that’s not always the case. Fast or slow outlines are merely tools in the non-fiction writer’s toolbox – and a good craftsman learns when to use one tool over another.
When To Use A Fast Outline
There are three situations when a fast outline tends to work better than a slow outline.
The first situation is where the book that you want to write dovetails with the kind of result that the fast outline gives – i.e. your book is linear and doesn’t require those deeper connections and insights that you can get from the slow outlining process.
For example, if you were writing a book on how beginners can program a specific computer language….that book is going to have a specific learning sequence that goes from Step 1 to Step 2 and so on.
The second situation is where the boys in the basement have already done their work. This happens when you’ve been planning to write a book for a while and you already possess detailed knowledge on that subject.
For example, I am currently using the same dynamic outlining process I’m sharing here on The Spoon to write a book on Deliberate Practice for Non-Fiction Writers. Because I’ve been using deliberate practce in my bass guitar teaching for 6 years – and I’ve already written a book on deliberate practice for bass guitarists – the boys in the basement have already done their work.
And I don’t need the slow outlining process to give time and space for the subconscious mind to make non-linear connections.
The third situation where you should use a fast outline is when the book you want to write is going to be highly specific and relatively short.
So if you are planning a 30-40 page book that solves a specific problem then the fast outlining process will serve you much better. These short books tend to be direct and linear – so the benefits of fast outlining from situation 1 also apply.
When to Use A Slow Outline
Non-fiction writers should use the slow outline for longer books, complex books and books where the writer knows he wants to talk about the topic but doesn’t know exactly what he wants to say or how he wants to say it.
That way, the discovery process is done in the dynamic outlining stage.
The slow outline process gives the subconscious mind time to process information when writing any of these three types of books. This allows for non-linear connections and ultimately for the writing of a ‘deeper’ and more satisfying book
So Which Is The Better Method?
Each method has its place in the writers toolbox. Like all tools you should experiment with using both and learn by implementation when it’s better to use the fast outline process and when it’s better to use the slow outline process.
I’ve detailed the scenarios that work for me. Every writer is different – and the writing process for you may be subtly (or vastly) different than it is for me. So take what I’ve written here, experiment with it, keep the things that work for you (and try and improve them) and drop the things that don’t work for you.
When using the dynamic outlining process you can either power through and answer all the questions and produce an outline in 4 to 6 hours, or you can take your time and answer a question a day for 20 days or so.
The first method is fast outlining. The second method is slow outlining.
Each method has its place in the writer’s toolbox.
Fast outlining works best for linear books, bookss where you know the material inside and out, or short books. (By definition, short books are almost always linear.)
Slow outlining works best for longer books, more complex books and for books where you know the topic that you want to write about but don’t know exactly what you want to write (or how you’re going to structure it).
If you can work out what type of book you’re planning to write, you can select the appropriate outlining method to use. Note that the actual method in either case is identical – you answer the same number of questions. But in the slow outline you take more time between questions – and the answers when slow outlining tend to be more detailed.
If you have any questions about outlining non-fiction books please post them below or drop me an email.