outlines and boundaries

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My conversation with Alex yesterday got me thinking a lot about outlines and how they affect writing.

While Alex was talking about outlines in the sense of the boundaries of physical form, and not as a tool for organizing text, the two aren't so very far apart. Outliners impose a specific structure on writing. They produce clear boundaries between sections, and between what's "in" the writing and what's "out." In some cases, that's a useful and valuable thing. I can't imagine writing a grant proposal or research paper without an outline as a strting point. Outlines are ideal for syllabi, and conference presentations. In those contexts, I love them.

But I wouldn't use an outline for a poem. Or for an e-mail message to a friend. I don't use one for my blogging. In those contexts, I don't want the hierarchical structure that an outline imposes. And I don't want the choppiness and bulleted item feel that they encourage. In my classes, in fact, I've stopped using Powerpoint, because when I use it I find I lose the students. It becomes a series of discrete points, not an analog stream. I lose the sense of narrative that makes the classroom come alive for me. Does that mean nobody should ever use PowerPoint in the classroom? Of course not. And in some heavily fact-focused lectures I still use it to make sure that everything gets covered; I just don't like for it to be the basis for all of my presentations.

Dave and Doc both think blogs are essentially outlines. And that shows in the kinds of blogs they maintain. Many of the journalistic blogs seem to have a "bullet points" feel to them. But just because their blogs are outlines doesn't mean that all blogs are outlines. Shelley says "this-is-not-an-outline-dammit", and I have to say that I agree with her--not just about her site, but also about mine, and about quite a few others.

The variation in style and presentation from blog to blog is part of what I love about reading them. That's a big part of why I don't use an aggregator to read my blogroll. The look and feel of Baldur's blog is so very different from Jill's, or from Dorothea's, or from Alex's. To detach them from their visual components, and reduce them to outline headings and text, is to fundamentally change their meaning.

I love Dave & Doc's blogs. I read them every day, I depend on them for all kinds of news and information--about blogging, about conferences, about web services, about the tech zeitgeist. But their blogging style doesn't fit everyone (nor do the tools they use). And if we all blogged alike, we'd all be poorer for it.

2 TrackBacks

This: mamamusings -- see the entry about outlines. Was my first time reading mamamusings, and this piece made me think Read More

David Weinberger: The Tragedy of Coloring Books . Read More


Indeed. I personally don't use word processors anymore (text editors have all the nice stuff I need). Even when I was on the Mac I was pretty much an Alpha fan already.

The only times I've tended to use an outliner is when I worked on something longer (such as my masters dissertation).

Anytime somebody uses an outliner where the average length of an entry is less than 500 words isn't really capitalising on the outliner's strong point (IMHO). Namely, making longer textual structures managable.

Word processors are partly responsible for the massive slide in the quality of novels in recent years (if a book's weight can kill you, it needs editing). Almost no plot or character ever warrants a novel longer than 250 pages.

With writing of that kind, an outline can actually give you a better handle of the structure, what has to stay and what can go out.

So outlines could, if they were more popular amongst academics and novel writers, have the positive effect of making books shorter.

But for webloggers?

Each to their own I guess.

One note about RSS aggregators (I use straw). I don't usually read the news or posts in the aggregator.

Its primary function is to let me know when somebody updates his or her website, and help me quickly decide (based on the headline and description) whether to launch it in a browser window.

So in my case, the RSS aggregator supplements and enhances my web browsing.

And I suspect it does so for many other people.

Powerpoint is evil, period.

Your entry relating Alex's question led me to think a little harder about the idea of outlines in general. We don't know exactly what Alex meant, of course, and he seemed to be referring to visible objects. The question of how 'everything' could have an outline still gave me pause.

Though outlining as a writing technique lacks universal usefulness, forms of writing that have not been created through an outlining process still represent some kind of organization of ideas. The writing technique of outlining helps people writing in certain forms organize the ideas that they want to express. It's just a technique, but the goal is to create organized expression on the page. Outlining techniques are probably most useful in organizing long non-fiction works with lots of complicated ideas. However, even though one might not use that technique to organize the ideas in a poem, many forms of weblog, or a story, those forms of writing still possess organization. Few ideas fit conveniently into a single sentence or line of verse. If we think of an outline as the order of and relationships between ideas within a piece of writing, then most forms of writing that wander beyond a few sentences or lines probably have outlines at some level of abstraction.

I could take this even further and try to relate organization (and outlines) to abstract thinking, but that'd get tricky and would probably carry us even further away from what Doc said. He seemed to be trying to identify something unique and important about blogs; if that was his aim, I don't think he achieved it. If he meant all blogs are outlines like the tools we use to write long papers, then for all the reasons others have expressed, he was probably wrong. (Careful with those universal generalizations, Doc!) If he meant all blogs represent some kind of organization of ideas, he's more likely to be right, but it's a less weighty statement because it extends to most forms of writing. The statement, "Blogs have organized ideas," doesn't shed a whole lot of light on anything, leaving us inclined to ask, "So?" even if we're willing to accept the idea at face value.


Incidentally, I use a RSS aggregator for the same reason Baldur does -- I want to know when sites are updated. I'm on a poky dialup connection and don't usually have a whole lot of time to browse lots of blogs. I also mostly agree with Baldur on the word processor/text editor question. I'd probably still format documents in LaTeX were it not for the fact that doing that would give me no interoperability with the rest of the legal community.

I agree entirely - the hierarchical outline has its place, but most things don't fit too comfortably. I'm afraid the hierarchical nature of XML has blinkered a lot of computer people from this fact of life.

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