Many writers simply dive into their writing projects when the mood hits them and not bother to outline their writing. Then, half way in, they’ll look back over their work and realize they’ve gotten way off track from where they originally started.

Whether you write for business, create non-fiction articles, write educational materials, write for children, or even write novels, outlining your plan of action before you start can save you time and help keep you focused. Additionally, outlining helps create a visual you can use to see the overall structure of your work, and it makes writing your draft and doing reorganization work much easier.

In this first of two posts, I’ll take a look at how to set up an outline and discuss what the beginnings of one should look like.

Before starting your outline, you’ll need to determine how you want to organize your work. Should you organize chronologically or reverse chronologically, or should the elements be organized by a particular related grouping? If you’re writing fiction, you can organize by chapter or by plot line, which often involves a time line, so you can keep track of where your story is headed.

Once you determine how to organize, you’ll then need to group related pieces of information. Group these into major and minor points. Your major points should directly support the purpose or theme of your work, while the minor points would, in turn, support the major ones. If you find minor points along the way that do not support any of your major points,  either get rid of those minor ones, or if you think the information is critical, develop other similar points so you can also create a major point for the group of minor ones. You don’t want any stragglers!

Start off by labeling all these major points with a Roman numeral, beginning with the Introduction. If you’re writing nonfiction, these major points will ultimately become sentences, so you can either turn them into sentence form now, or leave them as words or phrases, developing sentences from them later.

Place your main points or main headings into logical order, based on the organizational method you’ve chosen. If you decided on a chronological organization, your main headings may simply be dates, time frames,  or events.

After your main headings are laid out, arrange each of your minor points under them accordingly, using capital letters.  Make sure your minor points carry equal weight in that they share importance in your story or article. If they do not, move the lesser important ones to become subpoints of the minor points. Label these with Arabic numerals.

Now that you have the basic structure for your outline, next time I’ll discuss creating an introduction, a conclusion, and joining your points in between!

If you have an article or other piece of work in the beginning stages right now, apply these principles to create an outline for it. Let me know how it goes!

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When it comes to writing, I find I work best when I’m organized. I know most creative types thrive on chaos and clutter, but typically, even these personalities like some order to their lives occasionally. In addressing issues of organization, I’d like to zero in on time, space, and materials.

• I’ve talked about time management in earlier posts, so here I’ll simply reiterate that the best way to organize your time is to block off chunks of it on a daily and weekly basis. Within these chunks you should have family time, time allotted to specific writing projects (along with how much time you plan to devote to each), time for fitness, time for educating yourself on industry matters and your craft, and so forth.

As much as you probably want to just “go with  the flow,” having a schedule will really help keep you on track so you don’t end up wasting your time. And…remember to build in some margin for those days when nothing seems to go your way!

• Another key area for organization is your work space. It’s critical to have some sort of dedicated space for writing. This doesn’t mean you have to have an office with a door. But you do need a stationary location so you won’t have to continually move your work from place to place. Make sure this space is as conducive to writing as possible–good lighting, close to materials and tools you need, and quiet (if you need quiet).

• Within your work space, you’ll need to properly organize your materials. I recommend a file cabinet, plenty of manila folders, and accordion files or large, expandable envelopes. Everyone will organize their work differently, but I can tell you what’s been effective for me. I keep manila folders for each project I’m working on, or if there’s one project that is particularly large (this would apply to novels or large nonfiction works) I will use accordion-style folders to organize the work into smaller chunks, yet still keep it all together.

It helps me immensely to have everything at my fingertips when I need it so I don’t have to waste time trying to find things. With everything in different folders, I just pull the folder I need from the file cabinet, and all my work for that one project is all together. Along these lines, it’s helpful to keep whatever research materials or resources you need in one place. I have my writing books organized by frequency of use,  so the ones I most often refer to are always close at hand.

Aside from organizing your writing projects, you’ll also need a good system for keeping track of clients and publishers. I recommend using both an electronic spreadsheet as well as hard copy backups to track your submissions, contracts, queries, invoices sent, and payments. This is information you definitely do not want to lose.

Another tip for keeping materials organized is to set up some type of inbox or bin for papers you don’t want to deal with immediately. If you keep all these together in one place, none will get lost. Then it’s just a matter of occasionally going through your bin to file them or respond to them.

Speaking of going through papers…it’s so important to schedule regular times to organize and clear out your work space and files. Get in the habit of regularly re-prioritizing projects, sorting through your industry magazines and newsletters, and cleaning up your emails and electronic files. It’s very hard to get caught up on this once you fall behind. Then the task becomes so monumental, you never want to start. Ask me how I know!

Hopefully, this will help you get a jump start on organizing as we head into a new year. I’d love to hear about any tips or methods you have for staying organized!

Next time, I’ll look at how to juggle part-time writing with a full-time job.

As we head into a brand-new year, it’s the perfect time to reflect on what’s worked over the past year and what hasn’t. Hopefully, more has worked than hasn’t! I’m not big on making resolutions, but I am huge on goal setting. Resolutions are too easy to break, but goals stay before you, daring you to reach them. I find goals quite motivating.

Over my next couple of posts, I’d like to discuss different areas of the writing life and how we can  make it work in our favor instead of against us. In particular, I’d like to focus on:

1. Balancing family obligations with writing obligations

2. How to stay organized for optimal efficiency

3. Juggling part-time writing with full-time work

4. Overcoming distractions when working from home

5. Making time to write effectively when it’s part of your non-writing job

If you have any additional areas of the writing life that you’d like to see discussed, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to address them.

Look for today’s follow-up post by January 1!

What’s the first thing you do when you turn your computer on in the morning? Check email? Scan the news headlines? Log onto Facebook or another social network? Have you ever stopped to actually log the amount of time spent on the above activities or similar activities during the course of your day?

Time management is probably one of the most difficult aspects of a writer’s job, especially freelance writers who work from home. With never-ending deadlines and typically several projects being juggled at once,  having a time-management plan becomes critical.

Here are a few things I’ve discovered that help keep me on track:

1. Log your time. When you first attempt to get a plan together, spend the  first week logging how much time you’re spending on various activities. If you’re like me and you have small children at home, the time you spend with them would get included in your log. Track  actual writing time, family time, marketing time, time spent emailing and Facebooking–everything. Do this for a whole week to get an average of how much time you spend on each activity during a typical work day.

2. Eliminate time wasters. When I worked as a commissioned retail associate, I would sometimes get customers who asked question after question about a product, wanting to know every minute detail. They continued to act very interested, so I appeased them. Then, after  sabotaging my time with other customers, they’d decide they’d have to “think about it.” These people were affectionately called “time wasters.”

So what are time wasters for the writer? Continually checking email or a social networking account while you’re writing, answering your phone and/or texting, and, in general, getting caught up in any nonwriting distraction. This is the main reason for logging your activities. Find out exactly where your time is going and which activities you can eliminate or drastically decrease to free up your time.

3. Block your time. I find it more difficult to write when I only get 15 or 20 minutes here and there, although I’ve learned to capture every possible moment I can.  It’s much more effective to block off hours at a time to do nothing but write. Then have other hours devoted to marketing and promoting your work. Block more time for blog and website maintenance, and additional time for reading and returning emails. You’ll have to test your time blocks for a while to see what’s realistic, but it’s better than grabbing time whenever you get it,  because most likely, you won’t ever get it.

4. Make daily and weekly plans. At the beginning of your week,  plan everything you hope to/need to accomplish during that week. Next, break the plan down into daily chunks, leaving yourself some cushion for life’s inevitable emergencies and distractions. Each evening prioritize the  following day’s list. If you’ve come to the end of your day and your list is not as exhausted as you are, move the remaining items to the next day, making sure they are top priority.

5. Take advantage of downtime. Even though you may feel like you have zero downtime, you can capture more than you know. You just have to be creative! I have learned to use time spent in the carpool line at school, time in the library while my kids are book browsing, time at Chuck E. Cheese–any place where I don’t have to be actively involved in an activity–to get productive.

I’ll typically use this time to catch up on industry reading, jot down ideas for writing pieces I’m working on, organize outlines, etc. I usually need extreme quiet to actually write, so I have to save that  for my office, but there’s a lot of preliminary work I can do from anywhere.

Don’t you just feel more organized already?

For tips on building cushion and rest into your busy schedule, see this week’s Inspirations blog.