Fat outlines help you write without anxiety (Ask Dr. Wobs)

When you’ve completed most of the research for a writing project, but before writing, you should create a “zeroth draft” — a fat outline. Fat outlines are both easy and helpful, functioning as an onramp to your writing process. But as today’s Ask Dr. Wobs question shows, fat outlines are unfamiliar to people.

Dear Dr. Wobs:

What tool do you use to create a fat outline


What is a fat outline?

A fat outline is a rough but meaty document that you use to organize your content before writing. In contrast to a regular outline, which includes only headings, a fat outline includes as many of the following as you can assemble, all in rough and unfinished form:

  • Potential text of titles, subtitles, and headings. You can include alternate versions of these if you want.
  • Possible opening sentences of sections.
  • Statistics.
  • Links.
  • Turns of phrase that have occurred to you.
  • Names and key bits of information from interviews or case studies.
  • Anything else you feel like throwing in.

You can think of it as the “zeroth draft” — a draft you do before the first actual draft of what you write.

For example, here is a fat outline for my recent blog post on the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Edelman Trust Barometer is good example of a well written report

Edelman Trust Barometer shows how much bullshit has undermined our interactions (alt title)

Has trust gotten worse? Interesting question. Edelman answers it: yes it has.

Quote from Richard W. Edelman’s blog post. http://www.edelman.com/p/6-a-m/an-implosion-of-trust/

It has been a year of unimaginable upheaval. The incumbent party or elected head of state in five of the top 10 global economies (Brazil, Italy, South Korea, U.K., U.S.) has been deposed or defeated. Populist candidates are leading or growing in strength in upcoming elections in France and Germany. The U.K. voted to exit the European Union. There have been violent terrorist acts in Belgium, France, Germany, and the U.S., plus the never-ending tragedy in Syria.

Some stats reveal how much trust has declined

2/3 of countries are “distrusters”

Less than half of people trust media & government.

Clear quotes from report.

Close to half of the “informed public” — adults 25-64 with a college education, in the top 25 percent of income, and consume large amounts of media — have lost faith in the system.

government is viewed today as incompetent, corrupt and divided, the least trusted global institution at 41 percent.

Too many quotes? Not enough? Maybe one or two more.

What the collapse means


Why this report is a good example of True Analyst thinking

  • Authoritative research
  • Conclusions
  • Good executive summary
  • More bullets

You should write like this.

The fat outline removes the anxiety from writing

When you’ve assembled the research to write something, you’re ready to write. Sort of. The idea that the words you type will become the final document makes people anxious. The fat outline is a technique that gets you past that anxiety.

You should dump into the fat outline as as much as you can of the stuff that’s going to go into the final document. In the example above, I’ve included heads, links, quotes, bullets, and even a graphic. Then you can rearrange it to try out possible ways to organize the document. This gives you a chance to see how things will flow.

Importantly, though, you don’t need to worry about words. In a fat outline you can use sentence fragments. Feel free to use passive voice, jargon, and weasel words — you’ll clean them up later. Don’t worry about spelling. Dump URLs right in the document. The point is to get it all out there and see how it looks in order and where the holes might be, not to worry about wording and grammar.

To answer Jim’s question to Dr. Wobs, you should the same tool you will use to write the final document: Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or a blogging system. There’s no need for an outlining tool; they’ll only get in the way. Once you’re ready to start writing, you can edit the fat outline, replacing the rough text with prose intended for readers. That’s when you concentrate on getting grammar and wording right.

If you’re using a writing system that doesn’t easily store unpublished drafts (like Facebook), you can create the fat outline in your favorite word processor and paste it into the final system when you’re read to write. Google Docs is a good tool for this, because it makes it easy to share, organize, and get feedback on rough collections of content.

In writing projects, fat outlines make for better documents

The value of the fat outline is not just that it enables you to start writing without worrying about words.

Fat outlines are great for writers working with editors. You can show the fat outline to your editor, and they can provide feedback on the organization and content pieces. They can point out the stuff they think is great, and what they think may be redundant or less useful. They can also make suggestions on additional research to fill holes. But editors working on fat outlines should never critique sentences or wording — that defeats the whole purpose (and will ensure that the editor never sees another document in the planning stages).

If starting to write makes you nervous, try out the fat outline. It’s writing without anxiety, and will make you more confident when you’re ready to start typing stuff that readers will actually read.

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  1. The first thing I write – as soon as I get the commission and before I start the research – is the skinny outline. At first it’s crude, sketchy and limited by my knowledge of the subject but, as the research proceeds, it gets more detailed and begins to guide the research. Once the research is well underway, the outline becomes plumper. When the research appears to be complete, the fat outline is ready for checking and filling in (if necessary). Then I start writing in earnest. I was taught this method at university in the 1960s.