Monday, November 26, 2012

Barzun on Outlines versus Notebooks

I came across this passage in Jacques Barzun, On Writing, editing, and Publishing. Essays Explicative and Hortatory. 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 11:
Why not an outline? Well, for my taste outlines are useless, fettering, imbecile. Sometimes, when you find yourself writing in circles, it may help to write down a sketch outline of the topics (or in a story, of the phases) so far covered. You outline, in short, something that already exists in written form., and this may help to show where you started backstitching. To be sure, a memorandum listing haphazardly what belongs to a particular project is useful. In fact, if you would be a"full" man as you undertake a new piece of work, you should have before you a little stack of slips bearing the ideas that have occurred to you since the subject first came to life in your mind. ... It is jottings of this sort that fill the "Notebooks" at the end of "The works." When I say slips or notebooks, I mean the any congenial form of memorandum, for I doubt whether a self-respecting man with a lively flow of ideas can constrain himself to a uniform style and form of note taking until the sacred fires have begun to cool—say around the age of fifty-one
I have always felt bad that I did not begin settling on a certain method of note-taking before I was 48 and on the final version at around 55. If I were to believe Barzun, I should stop feeling bad. But I don't.

I am also more of an outliner than he ever seems to have been. Though I must say that I am more prone to using flat outlines nowadays. The hierarchical structure arise only slowly as I work out the memoranda collected in my "Notebooks" or ConnectedText Projects by explicitly writing about a certain subject matter in a focused way.

The essay in which these musings can be found is called: "A Writer's Discipline." I recommend it, even if I often have the reactions he also describes: "What an idea! Why, it's just the opposite.

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