Think, Outline, Write

A Formula for Being Productive

Long writing projects can be intimidating even for the most prolific and experienced writers. I find that short articles, particularly popular-level ones in my era of expertise and passion, come fairly easy. Long projects such as a book chapter, lengthy essay, or a sermon kind of stare back at me, the deadline looming ever closer, with my heart rate speeding up faster as the calendar days go by.

One of the ways that I try to alleviate this tension and help myself be more productive is by what I call a “think, outline, write” strategy. It has come to me organically over the years. I typically mull over the topic for a while, reading and studying about the project as much as I can, and then I start to look for common themes that can help me form an outline.

When I was in school, we had to constantly do outlines – in grammar, in composition, in literature. I hated having to constantly churn out these things, usually with Roman numerals, sometimes with numbers or letters and sometimes all three. But if I could go back and thank all of my teachers, I would, because outlines have become the key to being prolific. In fact, outlines are where I’m often most creative in the entire creative process. I think in outlines.

Here’s what a good outline will do for you in that next article or book chapter or sermon. It helps flesh out some early thoughts and ideas. An outline also helps give your big mass of information some cohesion and pattern. Also, this process relieves some of the pressure of having to perform with a blank page in front of you. Let me explain.

In a couple weeks I am preaching on a difficult passage in Romans. I’ve read over the text several times. I haven’t yet reached for the commentaries or any articles and sermons on the passage. I will, but when I preach, I like to first think through my own initial thoughts and what I’m seeing in the text. I’ve taught myself to think about how I might outline this. What are the big themes I’m seeing? How can I distill them into at least three main points?

You’ll probably laugh at this, but I was thinking a lot about this during this week’s Sunday sermon. As my pastor was preaching, three alliterated ideas came. Some other potential subpoints came to me and some general ideas in those sections. This is a soft outline, of course, and could change as I get into writing the manuscript.

I do this with every big project I do. Outlines are key. When I draft a book proposal, the most fun part of it is outlining the chapters. And then when I begin to actually write the book, I take the book a chapter at a time and then with each chapter, I outline the possible sections.

This helps me in several ways. First, I never start with a blank page. Some of my best ideas are already there in the outline. Secondly, it gives me a cohesion to my writing. Readers and listeners of sermons want to know there is a progression, there is an argument, that the plane is eventually going to land. What’s more, this helps you move along as you write. You can concentrate on the block of work in front of you and keeps you from being intimidated by the whole.

Of course, your outlines are not carved in stone. Unlike in middle-school, you are in charge and you are free, as you begin your work, to change, alter, and add your initial ideas. I do this all the time. Sometimes I think I had something with a point or a subpoint or a chapter section and then realize it’s nothing more than a sentence or paragraph. Sometimes the entire outline blows up, and I need something new. That’s okay. It’s your work.

But if you want to be prolific and productive and creative, remember that outlines are your friend. As you approach that big project, don’t think about the whole piece and how you are going to do it. Think first about the sections and the various pieces that will make it up. Use some of your creativity here, and save yourself a lot of time staring at a blank screen and a pulsating cursor.

I hope this helps.

This Week on The Way Home Podcast

This week on The Way Home podcast Jason Romano joins me to talk about his latest book “The Uniform of Leadership: Lessons on True Success from My ESPN Life.” Jason now works for Sports Spectrum, a ministry that connects sports and faith, but we spend time talking about what it looks like to be a faithful person working Monday through Friday in a place that’s not explicitly Christian.

Listen now

Interesting Links

A quick note about my links I post here. I don’t always agree with every word of the articles I post here, nor do I endorse every tweet from every author whose work I commend. I think we Christians should read widely, and we should encounter people who are not in our tribe and who don’t just say things we already want to believe. With that said, here is what is interesting to me:

  • Bari Weiss is always interesting to read. And here she describes a kind of “Great Unravelling” going on. I’m less pessimistic, but this is worthy thinking about. Also, she quotes Robbie George, who is a favorite.

  • Sara Zylstra at TGC profiles my friend Ben Watson, former NFL tight end, author, father and courageous champion for life.

  • My NRB colleague Conrad Close writes a great piece about escaping our online bubbles. I’m passionate about this.

  • Trust in media is at an all-time low according to Axios (whose journalism I like and generally trust).

  • World Magazine has good coverage of the heartbreaking economic pain for working class people.

  • Lastly, I’ve been listening to “Red Sea Road” by Ellie Holcomb. Love her music.

What I’m Reading

Here is what I’m reading right now:  

  • I’m nearly finished with The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self  by Carl Trueman. It’s an important work that I highly recommend. Look for a future podcast with Trueman. 

  • I’m also about two thirds of the way through Promised Land by President Barrack Obama. I’ve enjoyed this book. I didn’t vote for President Obama, but I find his narration of his own time in office interesting. I recommend it. If I have any reading advice, it’s to read biographies and not always of people with whom you agree politically.  

Personal Projects

  • My new book, The Characters of Easter releases February 2nd. My publisher has put together some cool resources for pastors and churches. I’ve got a few more projects releasing later this year and two projects I need to actually write that will release in 2022. Always projects in the hopper, but this is the way I like it.  

  • Some cool news: The Characters of Christmas made the ECPA Christmas bestseller list for the second year in a row.  

  • The folks at D6 and Randall House had me on their podcast to talk about our online behavior, politics, civility, the gospel and a host of other things.  

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