Ask TON: Using Outlines and Storyboards

Colorful piles of post-it notes with the words When, Who, What, Where, Why, and How

Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question: Should you use an outline or a storyboard when planning to write a longer story? You’ve done all your interviews, gathered a boatload of study PDFs, and you’re finally ready to sit down and write your feature. But should you make an outline or a storyboard to organize all those thoughts? Here, some seasoned writers and editors share tips on how to break down your ideas, turn them into distinct ingredients and combine them into a great story—either by outlining, chunking them out, or just letting it happen. Clara Moskowitz, associate editor for Scientific American: I always outline, but whether that outline exists purely in my head or actually gets written out depends. Sometimes, it’s enough for me to envision the structure of the piece but not actually put it down in an outline. For short stories, I often outline simply by pasting the quotes and info/topics I want to cover from my notes into a fresh Word document in the order I’d like to address them in. Then as I write the story, I gradually fill in my outline to transform it into a fleshed-out article. For more complicated stories, I do usually scrawl an outline either in a notebook or a separate Word doc., but it is often barebones, just a listing of the points I want to make and the order I want to make them in. The main reason I do this is to make sure I don’t forget any important topics or aspects of the story I wanted to bring up, and also to give myself a roadmap for where I’m going and how it all ties together. Colin Lecher, news editor for The Verge: I do use an outline whenever I write something longer than 1,000 words or so. It’s a mess at first: I crack open a TextEdit document and put in everything I think the story “needs.” There’s where it starts, where it ends, necessary background, any biographical events—and everything else that comes to mind. There’s no order, just what stuck out to me in the course of reporting. I try to organize that into some kind of a sequence. There are headers, like “intro” or “background,” and I add bullet points below those, which might include an important quote or fact or detail. (This is, hopefully, the time I realize I’m missing some crucial information, then go back to get it.) The result’s still messy, but hopefully it’s enough to give the story some form. I dip deeper into my notes next, making more detailed points and subpoints until I feel like there’s an arc. Then I start writing and the whole thing changes. I find out a certain part belongs somewhere else, or discover there’s a good transition point I didn’t see at first that I now have to use. The outline, to me, is more about assembling your pieces, and once you start writing, you order those pieces. It’s usually in a way you didn’t plan. P.S.: I’ve used index cards a couple times for longer pieces, with more or less the same process. When you use those, you can physically move the pieces and imagine how it changes the story. I don’t know how effective it is, but it is more fun. Katharine Gammon, freelance science writer and author of KinderLab at This is a funny question for me, because I struggle with structure SO MUCH. When I’m writing something that’s longer than 800 words, I agonize about what goes where, and why. But the short answer is, yes. I do an outline. I would like to get better at it, but here is my current strategy: I first write the hed, dek and lede, and then chunk out the rest of the story, putting in section breaks every 400-800 words. For each section break, I write the topic sentences that will go under that section and list the people who are good to use for that part. Outlining ends up saving me time and agony, because the more I think about the story before writing, the less likely it is that I’ll leave something important out. Michael Lemonick, author and freelance writer: I don’t use an outline or storyboard, and never have. I’m sometimes reluctant to tell this to my students and other young writers, because I know that in principle it’s a good idea. But I find it really difficult to figure out how a story should flow without actually writing the story. Each paragraph makes it clear to me what the next paragraph should be about. Each section points me naturally toward the next section—but only after I’ve written it. I guess the clearest way to put it is to say that the writing itself is a crucial part of my thought process. Before I begin writing, I haven’t thought deeply enough to understand what the story is and where it’s going. Also, I’m somewhat lazy. Earlyish in my career, one of my editors called me in and said my stories were poorly structured. From now on, he told me, I needed to outline them beforehand. Fortunately, he didn’t ask to see the outlines, because I never did any. I just slowed down and paid closer attention to structure. About a month later he called me in and said “I knew outlining was a good idea for you. Your writing is much better now.” You’re not going to let young writers see this, are you?   Photo at top by  Shutterstock.

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